Day 3 Tuesday 25th – working with the community

After almost three days of talking in a conference centre, it was time for me to join the team engaged with Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRA). We headed into the valley East of Zomba, where the ASSETS team had been training field workers in PRA and for me to see the village first hand that I had seen on the maps and tables presented yesterday. This was my first visit to the areas where we would be working over the next four years and I was excited as we pulled up into the community. Several groups were already discussing ecosystem services and ranking how important the services were to the community. This was a powerful approach which captured so much information of qualitative richness, so often neglected as everyone strives to quantify and statistical probe data. As a natural scientist now working and leading multidisciplinary teams, it is great to see the power of qualitative approaches, especially when integrated with the more quantitative household surveys and food diets, which in turn will help inform the rest of the team and especially models involved in assets.

I had the privilege of undertaking a transect walk through the village from the dam under construction outside the village boundary right down to the centre of the village, the hub of so much activity with our team these past few days. Joseph from WorldFish acted as a translator for us as we walked with two villages who shared the knowledge of the key features and ecosystem services in the village, which related to their attempts to stay food secure. It was eye-opening to see the reliance of improvements in plant breeding in providing hybrid maize, which also led to increased reliance on fertilizers, supposedly provided from the Government. At the same time, this fertilizer frequently leached from the soils and affected the fish ponds and water supply. A two-edged sword as fertilizer could really increase yield and help towards food security, whilst at the same time create a circle which can result in poor soils, low yields and polluted waters. In contrast, trees were being used to generate insecticides (like neem) and applied by reed-brushes to the crops which needed attention, and provide the pest regulation not on offer through insecticides to this community.

I found the experience humbling and motivational. The lady with Joseph in the picture was from one of the poorer parts of the village, yet she had easy access to water and was clearly a good farmer. She was also very pleased in having her photo taken with Joseph and reminded me powerfully of the need to ensure the knowledge form our research project has impact beyond academic journals.