By Jason Condon
In the absence of a fantastically clear career plan (which very few people actually have), what you do for a living and where you work can be the result of taking opportunities as they come, shaping your future one step at a time. However, we all have the chance to make opportunities rather than wait for luck to occur and making your opportunities puts you in the driver’s seat of your career.
So how do you turn an interest in international agricultural research into a career? Let’s outline a pathway to international agricultural research, we will start at an undergraduate level but you can join the journey from where it is you find yourself now.
Undergrad opportunities – developing foundation knowledge, opportunities to gain experience, opportunity to study Honours overseas
That you are reading this is evidence you are already thinking about working in agricultural research but perhaps you haven’t got a target country/region or research discipline yet. Interest in a country or region could develop from your experience as a tourist or from reading or watching documentaries. If you have a country of choice, google search to find researchers doing work there (the ACIAR webpage would be a great start), read their publications, are you able to meet with them to find out more about their work? If you have no particular interest in any one country then your scope for opportunities is broad. Either with a country focus or not, you will need to develop some research skills and experience before you go overseas.
One of the best ways to develop interest in a discipline area is to try some out. If you have a good undergraduate course you will be exposed to a range of agricultural disciplines, seek opportunities to help out in research projects of your lecturers. If your lecturers are going well in their careers, they will have projects on the go on which you can help out and gain some research experience. This could be the spark that lights the fire. If not, try another discipline. This domestic experience is a really important stage. Probably most importantly, it allows your lecturer to see your character and build their confidence in you, making you an attractive option for a future honours student. The research experience allows you to build confidence in yourself and develop an interest in research.
Building friendships – sabbatical 2006 in Can Tho, Vietnam. The relationships built during such opportunities are the foundation to bigger things.
Honours – formal research training, opens the door to higher degree or volunteer opportunities
Honours is an important training opportunity. The experience is tailored to you, the student by your supervisor. As an academic, it is pretty easy to create honours student projects that have overseas research components however I would only do that for students that have demonstrated the characteristics required to work overseas (resilience, planning, empathy, communication, reliability, responsibility, a good sense of humour!). So look for opportunities to engage with lecturers to demonstrate these attributes. Most universities will have mechanisms in place to support international placement and help fund your project and/or travel so this is probably the best way to gain international agricultural research experience in a supported and structured way. What’s more, an Honours project located overseas allows you to establish relationships with international researchers at all levels. These relationships will be the foundation of future collaboration.
Graduation – continuing the development of research experience
OK here is the problem – There are not many funded postgraduate degree opportunities for Australians to conduct higher degree research overseas. Actually, I don’t know of any formal mechanisms. So you need to be a bit creative now.
- seek volunteer opportunities for 6-12 months use your own network overseas that you have developed during Honours, if you do not have that, you need to look for ways to establish linkage with people who are doing work overseas (use the RAID network or ACIAR webpage to identify project leaders that may have positions for you). Volunteer experience demonstrates a higher level of interest and motivation in research for development (it allows you to build collaboration relationships overseas).
- Seek higher degree studies that may allow some work overseas (even if you have to fund the travel yourself). This will maintain the relationships built. You may be able to conduct some of your higher degree field work overseas as part of a volunteer program. Linkages with researchers overseas will be vital in finding and cultivating such opportunities. Having a higher degree and international research experience (and the relationships that go with that) makes you pretty special. You have attributes not common to Australian PhD graduates. The next step is to ensure people know who you are and what you have done. But what people? The people who may have opportunities for you, people that have projects in the discipline and regional areas in which you want to work (ACIAR, RAID, Universities). Create the relationships and build them
Involvement in ACIAR projects provided great gains in experience, access to mentors and allowed opportunities for Vietnamese and Australian researchers and students alike.
Postdoc- building your research portfolio
A postdoctoral position on an overseas project is a major step. All the opportunities to date have led you to this point. From here, project leadership lies ahead and your experience and reputation will open more doors and create many more opportunities for you. The difficult part may be in selecting which ones to take. Seek out mentors that can help you navigate from this point. The international agricultural scene is a great place to seek mentors as I would say that researchers in this space tend to be very supportive and interested in developing other people.
I have been fortunate to have been able to be involved in soils research in Vietnam since 2006 but my experience there has been accumulated from a series of opportunities that I created. The one common thing to all the opportunities that they come from the relationships built along the way. Take time to learn from people, ask a lot of questions. The learning can be technical, cultural, personal, all these things allow you develop empathy, understanding, experience and allow you to find your place and direction forward. The interaction with people is the rewarding part of international agricultural research look for opportunities to build the relationships required.
I first travelled to Vietnam as a tourist whilst doing my PhD at Charles Sturt University part-time and lecturing part-time. As Lecturer in Soil Science at CSU I was able to do a 6 month sabbatical in Vietnam at Can Tho University (CTU) in 2006 (an opportunity found from contacting a CTU researcher that had published several papers of relevance to my research). Following this, I led CSU student tours to Vietnam in 2009, 2010, 2011 to maintain links with CTU colleagues and allowed honours opportunities for CSU students (these then led to higher degree opportunities for those students. From 2012 until now I have been involved in an ACIAR project led by UNSW working in rice/shrimp farming systems. We have had scientist exchanges from CTU to CSU during this time allowing more relationships to be developed. I am currently leading the development of a new ACIAR project in the Mekong looking at soil and crop options to handle the increasing salinity risks associated with climate change in the delta.
International Volunteer Day, celebrated each year on December 5, was started by the United Nations (UN) in 1985 to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of volunteers to international development. Each year, the UN sets a theme for the day, and in 2018, it’s "volunteers build resilient communities". As a shining example of the contributions volunteers can make to development, returned Australian volunteer Jenn Learmonth writes about her experience volunteering in Vanuatu. Jenn was on assignment as an Agriculture Extension Officer for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and here she reflects on the highs, lows and learning from her time overseas.
Tell me about your assignment in Vanuatu—what did you do as an Agriculture Extension Officer for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development?
My role with the department involved working in the head office in the capital, Port Vila, with the senior management team, providing strategic planning and implementation advice for national agriculture and food security priority projects. This included facilitating project and budget planning for 2018, contributing to the National Vanuatu Organic Policy, writing proposals for international grants, and working one-on-one with extension officers to remove barriers to improved performance.
Informally I also lead making of tea and coffee in the afternoon (with the new addition of a kettle) and taught staff how to cook with potatoes beyond simply boiling them. Mashed and roasted potatoes anyone?
Australian volunteer Jenn Learmonth works with Intern Vegetable Specialist Heggar Molisa (left) and Intern Assistant Agriculture South Efate Office Ginney Napuaty (right) at the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Port Vila, Vanuatu. Credit: Harjono Djoyobisono
What achievements were you most proud of?
My proudest moment was when the ladies in the office told me that since I had been there that they had felt more confident to speak up and share their opinions in meetings and around the office. Agriculture in Vanuatu, as in most places around the world, is predominantly viewed as a male vocation while women are responsible for the cooking. By being there and speaking up to share my opinions and promote those of other people or simply providing a sounding board for their ideas, while still showing respect to my colleagues, I was able to be an example for others within the Department.
Before I left the department, they employed their first female Extension Officer, and female interns were contributing the design and construction of demonstration plots, including the construction of backyard gardening plots at the office, and another at the Ministry in the middle of town.
My first trip out of the office was to Aneityum, the southern-most inhabited island of Vanuatu. While I was there I stayed in an agriculture house which was damaged by Cyclone Pam—windows were boarded up, the walls had been graffitied during the cyclone, the cupboards were missing doors and shelves, and the roof was damaged. While the department wanted to fix the house, there was often not enough money, and the house was far away from ports to ship the goods. This house was not seen as a priority by people, except for the extension officer living there, the Provincial Officer of Tafea and the community receiving agriculture support from this location. During discussions with my friends in Vanuatu, I was made aware that there was still some cyclone Pam recovery funding available. I was able to submit a proposal to fix this house and another in north Tanna which was now a skeleton of walls. The proposal was a success and works were mostly complete before I left the country. This will now provide safe, comfortable and adequate housing for two agriculture officers and their families to support the local communities, and a secure building for a community cyclone shelter.
As part of my volunteering role, I promoted alternative opportunities to secure funding for agriculture projects. The Australian High Commission ran a Direct Aid Program, which could not be applied for by the department but could be submitted by a community member for community-based agricultural projects. As I met different officers around the country and explained the process, many were interested. With the deadline for proposals fast approaching, there was only one officer that showed continuing interest. He hadn't asked for help beyond a copy of the application form, and people had told me not to expect much from him. To everyone's surprise, he completed the process independently. While my role in this was minimal and it was not my win, I am proud that I was able to give him this opportunity and proud that he was able to prove to his colleagues that despite being remotely stationed, and one of the older employees, he still has the ability to make a positive impact.
I was in Vanuatu while the volcano on Ambae island escalated its activity, and large volumes of ash covered many parts of the island. This killed food crops making food shortage a constant issue. While we were unable to do much for the people from Ambae, who have since been evacuated from their homes, this highlighted the issues facing Ambrym island, which has two active volcanoes.
Through World Bank funding and working as a liaison between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, we were able to secure four ash resistant multiplication plots, seedling centres, water harvesting systems, and quad bikes for distribution to schools and community centres in different parts of the island. This will hopefully provide a sustainable source of planting materials for communities, sustainable funding for the further development of each centre, and support for areas experiencing ash fall.
I think it’s also important to add my biggest disappointment. While in Vanuatu it became clear to me that communication and numbers of staff were the biggest barriers to agriculture support. I realised that the new extension worker in Gaua working mainly in kava production didn't know the really experienced extension officer in Pentecost, who also worked mostly with kava production.
I identified that there was a need here to connect colleagues doing similar jobs so that they could share their stories, their challenges and their successes. I planned and pitched an annual forum, and while many people were on board (and as I stated earlier my bright idea was not new, a similar forum had been in place about 20 years ago and lost support), there was not the funding available to run it. I still hope that the forum will become a reality, and I have left a mixture of local and international volunteers working to make it a reality. My fingers remain crossed!
Official logo of Vanuatu Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Credit: Harjono Djoyobisono
What were the challenges of the role?
There were many challenges—from power cuts to cyclones and volcanic eruptions!
It was always a challenge to get my local colleagues to believe in themselves and their ideas, and have the confidence to share them with others, and the resolve to fight for them. Everything I was helping with was not a brand new (although sometimes I was under the illusion it was), it was something that had been thought of before. My challenge was to find those people with ideas, understand their ideas, and adjust to be able to promote it amongst decision-makers.
What surprised you?
The lack of fear and caution still shocked me until I left. Children walking around with 15-inch machetes; everyone working in the gardens in rubber thongs or even bare feet while using shovels, rakes and forks, and people fixing roofs with hammers without any protective gear two metres off the ground while standing on a piece of timber only two inches thick!
Here, Australian volunteer Jenn Learmonth sits with Principal Agriculture Officer Charity Alick (left) and Department of Agriculture and Rural Development staff member Willie Iau (right). Credit: Harjono Djoyobisono
What value can volunteers add to international agriculture development?
Sometimes the best thing a volunteer can do is listen, and share the opinions of the people they talk with. In Vanuatu communication isn't always easy, and travel is expensive enough to be prohibitive. It is easy to miss someone with a fantastic idea hidden away on a small island when you are helping with yearly planning, drafting policies and strategies, or simply planning a staff barbecue. This is sometimes made even harder by hierarchy, age differences and gender. Sometimes people also think that because someone is less formally educated that they may not know the proper way to grow crops. Often these people are wrong. I challenge volunteers in agriculture development to not be the expert; I challenge them to be the side-kick that can improve ideas of local staff and communities.
Now that you're back in Australia, what work are you doing?
I am working for the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning in Victoria as Manager, Basin Salinity Management - which means I am looking at and overseeing the management of salinity impacts from irrigation on the Murray River in Victoria.
What is your message for the agriculture and development community on International Volunteer Day?
Volunteering is a two-way street. So often I have people telling me what a "great" and "selfless" thing I did by volunteering, but I gained so much from my time in Vanuatu. I learnt to back myself, speak up, promote the interests of others, I got a paid trip to a tropical island and I met so many interesting and wonderful people. Sure, I worked hard and experienced day-to-day frustrations, but my time volunteering has changed who I am and I think I am a better person for taking on the challenge.
By Michael Campbell
We have all heard about the public-private partnerships (PPP) when it comes to governments building infrastructure like toll roads, but does it have a place in the future of rural development?
How compatible are rural development and private companies?
Often at times, the perception is that large multi-national companies are operating solely to make big profits to line the pockets of the rich investors. But is this truly the case?
I believe that for long-term sustainable rural development to occur, integration with private companies is essential. The pool of Government funded aid and international research funds is ever declining. We need to think of innovative ways of capturing the private dollar to leverage the government funds for larger impacts.
Trukai rainfed rice pilot at Umi. Trukai collaborate with local landholders and assist in growing the rice, rather than buying the land
Private companies can provide access to supply chains and markets and capital that are not available to the smallholder otherwise. As an example consider the smallholder oil palm producers, without the large private companies having milling, refining and marketing divisions their fresh fruit bunches would be worthless.
Private companies now all live by the mantra of Corporate Social Responsibility, the private companies often have the loudest voices when it comes to topics such as climate change and governments acting responsibly. I refer you to the recent address by the head of OLAM at the Global Food Forum in Sydney.
In the past rural development was probably perceived as a government responsibility, our aid money at work in developing countries. There might have even been a perceived conflict between public and private benefits, but this has changed dramatically now. Private companies clearly value social stability, it means that they can operate in a safe environment.
So how do we as researchers for international development tap into this private company network?
We need to be working with these companies from early on in project development. If we can get a milk processor on board early in the life a dairy development project, then they can provide the “pull through” needed for smallholder farmers to change practices.
We need to provide the private companies with a good story to tell, they want their customers to know that they are acting responsibly and we can help them with that.
We can develop true value chains and assist the private company in their dealings with smallholders and demonstrate the value of the research we are conducting.
In my time working in Papua New Guinea with a private company, I was able to see the direct benefits of corporate agriculture for the local villages and smallholder farmers. Smallholder farmers were able to access global markets, expert advice, the latest genetics and a guaranteed payment for their produce. We are currently working with partners in PNG to build a relationship between public and private organisations. This will hopefully yield results for all involved, students, researchers, company employees. We would not be able to ensure the same outcomes if we just focused on either public or private institutions alone.
A recent CSU student tour of Ramu who produce sugar, ethanol and palm oil. Ramu is also the largest beef cattle producer in PNG. Ramu is a subsidiary of New Britain Palm Oil Limited (NBPOL), who work with 17,325 smallholders and outgrowers associated through the supply of product to their mills. Smallholders are "both a core part of [NBPOL's]corporate responsibility and crucial in the journey towards sustainability."
After all, when we complete a project having a small-holder – private company partnership that ensures the farmers continue to improve their practices, have market access, are paid a fair price, have access to technology and education is the ultimate goal.
Romana Roschinsky - International Research and Training Program Leader - Livestock Systems, University of New England, Armidale
Back in Myanmar! After my first trip in October 2017 I have returned to continue research activities on women’s empowerment for the ACIAR funded MyLife project. But that is not the only thing that is different this time: the rainy season has ended and the country is much dryer than last time. Most fields have just been harvested and farmers prepare them for the summer rice. The air is filled with dust and one can imagine, that soon the heat will be intense!
After my first visit to communities who have worked with the NGO CESVI, together with my research partner Thi Thi Nyunt I venture towards new frontiers! We have been linking with two local NGOS to find out if other programs have a similar empowering impact of women in rural communities. It should be interesting to see how the approaches of local organisations from Myanmar compare with the approach of an international actor.
Focus group discussion in Ze Cho Kone village, Central Dry Zone Myanmar
In our first meeting with the NAG program manager Dr Myo Ma Than. Dr Than is obviously passionate about women’s empowerment which makes me curious to learn more about the activities of this organisation in the future!
She explained that for her it is central not to leave the men in the community behind. In her opinion it is crucial for change and improvement of gender relations, that the whole community is involved. This is very much in line with what we have already observed in the communities we have previously visited in Myanmar. It was not only women who supported change and improvement, but also men.
Because if the situation of women improved, the whole community benefits. And while some may argue, that we should focus our efforts on women alone I also think that a holistic approach involving both men and women is the answer to truly, and sustainably, empower women.
Meeting NAG program manager Dr Myo Ma Than in Yangon
Our second new partner is Shwe Inn Thu. The inspiring Hnin Ohn is founder and, to this day, program manager of this local NGO who works with communities in Nyaung Shwe Township. For everyone who knows Myanmar that should ring a bell:
Nyaung Shwe is the entrance gate to scenic Inle Lake region, a picture postcard favourite among the rich cultural and natural sights of Myanmar. While visitors are enthralled by the scenic local fishermen rowing their boats in their distinct way with their feet while standing up, locals have to overcome a multitude of challenges to lead their communities into a prosperous future.
As a local Mrs. Ohn is intimately acquainted with the challenges women, and communities, face: lack of knowledge, linkages, markets and capital. Shwe Inn Thu helps women to help themselves and starts from the bottom up: problems and assets are identified together with the community. Self-help groups cover a range of areas, seeds, livestock, credit, and are equipped with the skills to take change into their own hands. Their pay back system created ownership and pride of achievement. Communities are not recipients, but active players planning and managing their own future.
First contact with Shwe Inn Thu first meeting: UNE Research Associate Thi Thi Nyunt, Shew Inn Thu founder and program manager Hnin Hnin Ohn, Dr Romana Roschinsky and Shwe Inn Thu community mobilizer Aye Myat Pwint
Both of these meetings have left me inspired. The passion with which these strong women apply their strengths to improve the situation of rural women and communities makes me optimistic. They drive change, they themselves become role models for other women, and men. With such womanpower on the forefront, I remain hopeful that Myanmar’s rural power women will more and more in charge of their own development in the future.
MyLife project is funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. Project leader is Dr. Julian Prior (University of New England). Project partners are Yezin Agricultural University, Department of Agriculture Myanmar, Department of Agricultural Research Myanmar and Asian Institute of Technology.
MyLife project: http://aciar.gov.au/project/asem/2011/043
CESVI Myanmar: http://www.facebook.com/Cesvi-Myanmar-469105653210489/
Network Activity Group Myanmar: http://nagmyanmar.org/