Building on Good Investments in Africa’s Development Research Community
Development research in Africa has never been more critical, considering the number of challenges and crises rural families face across the continent. It has also never had such potential with so many African researchers and institutions ready to take the lead.
The Feed the Future Advancing Local Leadership, Innovation and Networks (ALL-IN) initiative funds African researchers and institutions to lead development program impact evaluations and field-tests of their own innovations. Strengthening research capacity at multiple levels is built into each project, ensuring that broader benefits continue to grow long after a project ends.
“Our projects are led by researchers who understand the context and culture on this continent and who are closely related to policy makers and understand the intricacies of policy,” said David Ameyaw, Feed the Future ALL-IN co-director and founder and CEO of the International Centre for Evaluation and Development (ICED).
“With the growing capacity in African research institutions, it’s time for more of our local partners to take the lead,” said Michael Carter, Feed the Future ALL-IN co-director and director of the MRR Innovation Lab. “We anticipate that doing so will enhance the relevance and long-term impacts of the research.”
Communicating the Value of Rigorous Research
African development researchers are often the best connected to their local and national policy makers, which can smooth the pathway from research results to more effective public programs and policies.
“Part of the reason for an initiative like Feed the Future ALL-IN is that local researchers can do a better job of communicating the value of rigorous evidence than researchers from outside,” said Tara Chiu, MRR Innovation Lab associate director. “This reinforces the value of local-led research.”
A Feed the Future ALL-IN research team in Kenya recently hosted a five-day training workshop for researchers from their institute and government partners to demonstrate how rigorous research methods produce credible evidence on impacts. The team is measuring the impact of the Kenya Climate Smart Agriculture Project, a national climate information service (CIS) program that integrates weather and agronomic advice for small-scale farmers.
The team’s workshop mainly focused on research designs that provide the best estimates of a program’s impacts. For example, a randomized controlled trial (RCT) separates households into groups that are statistically similar, then compares the outcomes between groups that received program benefits and groups that did not. When RCTs are not feasible, quasi-experimental approaches find alternative ways to achieve valid impact estimates.
While these research approaches provide much more accurate impact estimates than simply measuring changes before and after a program or comparing enrolled versus un-enrolled households, they are also much more expensive. They also require greater expertise to design and implement.
“We have been sensitizing public officers involved in program implementation about the value of rigorous impact evaluation,” said Mercy Kamau, a senior research fellow at Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development and the evaluation’s lead principal investigator. “A rigorous impact evaluation is much more useful for learning about causal effects or for informing decisions about up-scaling interventions or projects.”
Accelerating the Careers of Future Researchers
Building the careers of future researchers is also central to Feed the Future ALL-IN. Tegemeo Institute research assistant John Mburu has been working exclusively on Kamau’s project, and said the experience has significantly increased his skills, expertise and confidence.
“I’m able to increase my knowledge and even share it with my fellow researchers in the institute,” said Mburu. “The quality of my output has improved over time because I’m able now to connect everything from the beginning to the end.”
In Uganda, Florence Kyoheirwe Muhanguzi is leading a study that uses mixed methods research to test a comprehensive approach to increasing women’s agricultural productivity, resilience and overall empowerment. Research assistants make this work possible by meeting with the study’s participants and taking detailed surveys that make up the data for analysis.
Kyoheirwe Muhanguzi and her research team have leveraged the Feed the Future ALL-IN funding to extensively train 28 current and potential Makerere University graduate students on qualitative and quantitative research methods. The training and mentorship have expanded their roles from only taking field surveys to conducting preliminary analysis.
“It is important to train young researchers beyond data collection to move to the state where they can be able to edit the data but also code it and be able to write out the reports,” said Kyoheirwe Muhanguzi, a professor of women and gender studies at Makerere University.
While the financial support for research assistants does not pay for tuition at Makerere University, the position provides experience and access to detailed data, both of which can help young researchers advance their careers. So far, at least one research assistant is using the project’s datasets to write a Ph.D. dissertation.
“I’ve seen a few of our research assistants work beyond what we give them,” said Kyoheirwe Muhanguzi. “It will be interesting to know how the training and data we provided has enabled them to do their research.”
Growing Capacity at African Research Institutions
Bradford Mills, a professor of agricultural and applied economics at Virginia Tech University, began conducting research in Africa over 30 years ago. Today he serves as a research mentor on the project in Kenya led by Mercy Kamau, who he has known since he worked at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute as a post-doctoral researcher.
At that time, he said, outside researchers set the agenda when collaborating with local institutions. Today, he said, that is changing. When collaborating with international researchers, local researchers are asking for technical advice to implement their own ideas, which is how every Feed the Future ALL-IN collaboration is structured.
“There are many people and institutions that have the capacities to do high-level work in terms of agricultural economics,” said Mills. “When you step back and see institutional change in over 30 years it’s quite impressive.”
This existing capacity is part of why Feed the Future ALL-IN can contribute to the future of development research led from African institutions. The initiative is funding 12 large-scale projects with up to $450,000 each with the idea that this level of investment could open the door to future large-scale research funding from international donors.
Khadijat Amolegbe, a Feed the Future ALL-IN principal investigator at Ilorin University, Nigeria, is leading a project that trains small-scale farmers to use their cell phones to leverage digital marketplaces where they can sell their harvest. She said that the project’s level of funding elevates her profile as a researcher while also encouraging her colleagues to seek out funding for their own research ideas.
“Having someone close by managing a grant of this amount makes them want to look for other opportunities,” said Amolegbe. “The grant has created the atmosphere whereby people are now interested in doing more.”