By: Dr Lila Singh-Peterson, Research Fellow, USC Queensland

I would like to take a few moments to explain why I think the role of social researchers in development projects is critically important. Firstly let me say that I am a social researcher, and I have been involved in ACIAR projects for the last few years, and in community development projects for far longer. In this blog (my first blog) I would like to reflect on my experiences co-developing a fruit project in Tonga. At this point in time, our multidisciplinary research team is working closely with in-country partners and communities to establish a citrus orchard around two school sites on the island of `Eua. The project has the potential to leverage substantial livelihood benefits for the two communities involved.

I was heavily involved in the formation of this project which was designed to align with the sustainable livelihoods framework. In this framework, projects are co-designed and implemented with the intended beneficiaries of the project, and with the ongoing support and collaboration of existing non-government and government bodies. The institutional element in the framework (organisations and agreements between organisations) is very important in making livelihood assets and resources (including skills and knowledge) available locally - so that the intended beneficiaries are enabled to develop their livelihood strategies.  In practise, this meant that it was very important to strategically identify who the intended beneficiaries were (vulnerable communities facing hardships), who the stakeholders are (current and prospective), and their capacity to access resources and skills. In Tonga, discussions with multiple stakeholders identified where institutional objectives overlapped or complimented, and so natural partnerships emerged. The existing local governance structure also supported the involvement of elected local leaders, and district level leaders who are able to navigate through local political systems. Building a community based project to align with local networks and points of influence is pivotal in bringing about sustainable project outcomes, and for realising capacity building opportunities for local partners who operate within this socio-political context.

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Picture 1 Planning workshop with community members. 

It was also important to ensure that the benefits of a long-term project, like a fruit project, were directed back to the community who are immersed in all facets of the project. To do this, safe guards in relation to securing political will which lead to long term land tenure commitments exceeding the life of the project are important. Capacity building and skills development for community members is prioritised throughout the life of the project, to ensure participants can eventually lead the project, or replicate the project in time. As there is not currently a culture of fruit cultivation in Tonga, bridging this divide will take consistent effort and support from a multitude of partner organisations. Gender equity and resilience thinking concepts were also embedded in the communities’ project management strategies, in keeping with Australian foreign policy priority areas. All of these activities require strong networks and time in country, listening and responding to issues and suggestions.

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Picture 2: Community members erecting a pig-proof fence around the planned site for the citrus orchard

Although this is a simplified account of work I have been involved in, I hope it provides a view of the benefit social research can bring to sustainable development initiatives once the biophysical and agribusiness criteria of an agriculture or horticulture project has been met. It would be much easier to simply work with semi-commercial farmers who have proven commitment, financial resources and business planning experience as many projects elect to do - but IMHO this alternative is not likely to achieve the same level of livelihood benefits for those facing hardships as the approach outlined above.

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Picture 3: Current stock of `Eua citrus




Friday, 17 February 2017 00:00

Swapping sides

By Dave Shearer

I worked with ACIAR for 10 years, doing some really interesting stuff in the early days of the agribusiness program and in the corporate turmoil as the aid budget ebbed and flowed in various policy spaces. In my early days, Minister Downer's foreign policy and aid integration set the scene that was very focused on economic development. This was excellent timing to align with ACIAR's commitment to the agribusiness program. We then moved through the Comprehensive Aid Policy Framework (CAPF) and at the end of my time with ACIAR we came out the other end with Foreign Minister Bishop's focus on "diplomacy for peace, economic diplomacy for prosperity", again aligning nicely to ACIAR's positioning as an partnership innovator to underpin growth through private sector engagement and smallholder integration.

I will always remember one of my first lessons at ACIAR, when a colleague said to me, "Dave, don't underestimate the difficulties in getting the money out the door." I thought that this surely could not be the case, but what I came to realise was that it is very difficult to develop high quality partnerships that deliver effective research for development outcomes in line with Government policy, but our role was to ensure quality delivery for the Australian Government, and that requirement was delivered through partnerships.

I am now sitting on the other side of the table, working with WorldFish in a role that sees me contributing to WorldFish's international partnerships, program delivery and resource mobilisation (bringing the funding in). The role often has me reflecting on my early days at ACIAR (not only as I am spending over half my time on planes and in airports, just like early days with ACIAR). Effective delivery is done through effective partnerships, with the legacy of capacity development for key partners. There are such strong reasons why partnerships in the fisheries and aquaculture sector can play an important role in the development agenda - the significant middle class growth in Asia, and dietary changes leading to a massive increase in the consumption of fish means the market is driving huge opportunities for smallholder producers that delivers livelihood benefits as they engage in profitable markets. I also think there is a realisation that we have addressed the food security issues of availability (there is enough produced) and access (market mechanisms are moving to effectively distribute the resources), but what we still need to focus on is the third piece of the food security puzzle, utilisation, which is where fish and fish consumption can have such a huge impact. So, there is a huge potential for effective partnerships to deliver benefit. 

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I understand the economic theory of a "funding market" to create competition through supply and demand to lead to the best utilisation of resources (in this case research partnerships for innovation to deliver development outcomes). I also think we need to consider the most effective partnerships that enable the long term commitment that is needed to have the most sustainable development outcomes, so the funds are spent "doing well by doing good" with the most effective partners to deliver the best results possible. As I sit on the other side of the table, I think that it needs to be less about competition to create outcomes, but about long term partnerships that share a common vision about the mechanism to deliver livelihood benefits.

As careers develop you might find yourself at a different seat at the table, but remember the challenges and opportunities in your previous roles and look towards building innovative partnerships, some which may have not been considered previously, that contribute to your vision of your research in development careers.


By: Ms Phonevilay Sichanthongthip, Research Entomologist, National Agriculture and Forestry Institute, Vientiane, Lao PDR

I studied science at university because I wanted to know how all plants worked. I don’t come from a forestry or agricultural background, but agriculture and forestry are so important to the people of Laos, and I wanted to learn about the plant systems so that I could better understand and help. When I graduated from the National University of Laos, in Vientiane, I started work at the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI) as a Biodiversity Officer undertaking surveys of native plant species in conservation areas. Compared to agriculture there is much less research in forestry and I wanted to be a specialist in this area.

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Picture 1; Phonevilay conducting forest health surveillance in Vietnam

When I began working with NAFRI I had only the basics of entomology and there were no entomologists working within forestry. In 2007 I received a scholarship to study my Masters in Entomology at Los Banos University, Philippines. Agro-forestry is very important for local people in Laos, to provide alternative incomes. So I studied intercropping cabbage in plantations and how to manage pest species of these crops. When I returned to Laos I was the first entomologist within NAFRI.    

I am currently working on two international projects, with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The JICA project is focusing on native reforestation of cleared land in Luang Prabang province. Native forests are important for local villagers as they use the native tree species for non-timber products such as rattan, bamboo, resin, honey and mushrooms. They use the product for themselves or sell them at the market. This project is good because we want to protect the forests and revegetate areas that have been cleared.

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 Picture 2; Collaboration! Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Australia. 

This is my first ACIAR project. We are developing a biological control program for a galling wasp, Leptocybe invasa, which is a pest of eucalyptus. Eucalypts are used for the domestic market to build houses, furniture and for paper. We are also working on forest health surveillance across Laos in plantations and native forests, to build checklists of pest and beneficial insects. I am very passionate about this project as it is my area of expertise, biological control, and we can help the local people and local industry to produce strong healthy trees using non-chemical methods, which is good for the environment and people’s health.

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Picture 3; Training local colleagues in entymology

 I have worked on many international collaboration projects with people from Japan, Australia, Germany, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia. I enjoy working with other countries as different countries have different experience and expertise and we can share. It is about learning as much as you teach, as collaboration is an exchange of knowledge! Research is global, and I can learn from other entomologists and researchers, and they can learn from me. I can use this new information and skills to better our projects and further train my colleagues and local forestry workers and growers.

From my experience, research works best when we work together as things that work in another country may not work here. So if we help each other we can improve forest health and production together.  Importantly, I can improve my English and our collaborators can improve their Pasa Lao. This is very important as sometimes my colleagues and local people do not speak English. We researchers already share the same scientific subject and if we share the same language this allows us to pass information between us more easily. Together we can work with local villagers to strengthen sustainable land use and forest management in Laos. 

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Picture 4; Taxonomy training with Laos and Austrailan colleagues

Friday, 25 November 2016 00:00

‘R’ is Rad & it CAN make stats fun!

Let’s start by being very upfront about this topic.

There are many people out there that do not enjoy statistics or crunching numbers. Even worse is when you have to learn a new stats program to help you make sense of your data. I am not one of these people. I am all about the numbers and the stats! AND I am a believer that anyone can get a basic handle on this to help them tell the story of their data.  This is where ‘R’ can help.

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‘R’ is an open source data management, processing and statistical package. You can download it for free and then have it on your computer whenever you want to use it. You can also download numerous packages (add-ons) to ‘R’ which various people have also written and made open source which can essentially do nearly anything (logical) that you can think of. All it takes is some time and patience to learn and understand the coding language. This can be daunting at first and it will not come easy to everyone, but if you have the time and a bit of a logical brain – you will come out on top eventually. For those that don’t necessarily have the time or logic wired brain, there are other options including ‘RCommander’ which is a clickable, drop down version of ‘R’ (also available online for free).

One of the challenges that is facing us more and more these days are the size of the data sets that are rolling in. With new technologies to collect more data more often we feel that we have numbers tracking in that are going to answer all of science’s big questions. The challenge is however, if we don’t have the skills to process that data, visualise what it’s telling us and break it down to an understandable story – then it is relatively useless to us. Insert ‘R’ and some programming skills into this equation and you start to have a situation where these things become manageable, because ‘R’ has some serious data management, graphing and statistical power which, with the right skills, can really break it down.

Before we go any further. Yes I just said “programming”. It’s a daunting word I know, but really it shouldn’t be. Programming, or “writing code” in ‘R’, is just like learning another practical language:

 You’ve had an epiphany overnight, you’ve decided to become a chef. The following day you walk into the kitchen, are handed a recipe. You stare blankly. Words such as “affriander”, “al dente”, and “cassolette” jump from the page and you start to question your rash life choice. Weeks later you’re beginning to learn the terminology, you’ve cooked your first spaghetti bol without making a mistake. Well done, I’m proud of you.

Coding is the same. However, instead of reading the recipes, we write them and ask ‘R’ to do the cooking. Be open to the idea of learning this new language, because what you can do with it will help you in dealing with data, and certainly impress your friends.

I won’t rave on forever about all the different reasons why ‘R’ is just awesome, but I will just list a few of the rad things that ‘R’ can do

(1) Tracking your data movements.  When using ‘R’ you use code (saved as a text file, like in notepad – see example picture below) to list out the steps in your data management, transformations, calculations, stats etc. This means that whenever you are looking at your data or code, you can see what you have done and why you have done it. In excel you might delete a column, a data row (eg a particular animal/s) or change an obvious outlying data point and this is easy. However, the next time you come back to that data set you will have done all these changes days, weeks or months earlier and you can’t remember at all what you have done. The good thing in ‘R’ is that you can go back and ‘edit’ this code at any time and re-run the code very easily (simple copy, paste and run).

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Picture; some example R code 

(2) It can make incredible, sweet as plots. As I have spoken about in an earlier blog – research and data is all about making pretty graphs. ‘R’ has this covered. There are multiple ways, add-ons and colourful ways to make graphs in R. There is a whole learning space within ‘R’ to make this work for you and many forums to help guide you. So if you’re into graphs and data visualisation get into R.

(3) Loops. Loops are when you ask ‘R’ to carry out a certain task, then you tell it to do that task for x number of cases. For example, you might want to run a simple regression analysis on each of 20 variables for your one outcome variable (the thing you’re interested in). Doing this in a clickable program means you have to go and click the appropriate buttons each time for 20 different analyses. In R, you can code it just once and tell the program to do the same thing for the list of 20 variable. This takes some coding skills, but once you have that covered – it’s life changing. I tried to convince a friend of mine to use ‘R’ a couple of years ago. She was doing the same task (opening an excel file, adding a column, doing a simple step and then saving it in a new place) for 1800 different excel files. Painful! So I showed her how we could do this in ‘R’ (I think the coding took about an hour), including having the new files saved in appropriately named folders. Then we clicked run and we watched as the program carried out this painstaking task in just a few minutes. It would have taken her probably 2 or three days to do the same thing.

(4) R can seriously make your life easier. I was at a RAID networking event in Wagga last night and talking to Thom Williams – who has become a bit of an ‘R’ wizard in the last year or so. He often rings me to tell me about the latest package he has been using and what it can do. Thom was telling me a very practical story about using ‘R’ for a task. He has written an ‘R’ program that;

  • Scans through a website and picks up data specific to someone’s name or title
  • Turns that into a plot outlining the individual’s performance
  • Put’s key stats of the individual’s details and their performance in text below it.
  • Prints all this information into a PDF with the details of the individual/ID as a header/title
  • Has the information emailed to a list of specific individuals.

That’s amazing. This means that anytime he has to do that task, he just has to open ‘R’ and click run on his code. Seriously…great and saving heaps of time!! We can use this same process for graphing, reports or simple analysis (or complex analysis) of data that is coming in on a regular basis.

(5) One of the best things about ‘R’ that I have already mentioned it that it’s open source. This is pertinent to working in developing countries because it means everyone can use it. In many cases excel can handle some of the data sets that are being used for our projects and that is OK. However, if you want to get some stats involved or some more interesting graphs – then ‘R’ can help out considerably as many other stats packages are expensive. So when it comes to training yourself and your team’s overseas – it becomes much cheaper and practical. Furthermore, ‘RCommander ‘the clickable version of ‘R’ can be a great simple tool to help get your team up to speed with statistic

Now…. ‘R’ is something that can help you in these scenarios and more, but it’s not something you can pick up and run with on Day 1. It does take a bit of time and patience. I don’t advocate everyone learning ‘R’ just for the sake of it. However, if you are in a position where you have a lot of data coming in or you have many similar data sets rolling in week after week or month after month – then get into it. Especially if you are in the earlier part of your career.

Lastly, a few tips or tricks for new ‘R’ players;

  • Learn from a data set that you know and understand.
  • Use examples from the ‘R’ pages or forums like stack overflow, R-Cookbook and just any links on google, just type ‘How to ….. in R’ there will be plenty of hits.
  • Have an experienced ‘R’ user on hand to help with checking for simple errors in code. You can spend hours figuring minor coding problems, but someone with a bit of experience can usually pick it up quickly.
  • Go to a workshop or course to kick start your ‘R’ life.  If that’s not available, try get your hands on some basic material or a manual to get you going. There are plenty on the internet.
  • Want ‘R’ to teach you how to use ‘R’? You’re in luck! Some amazing people wrote a package that does just that. {swirl} is a great first place to get familiar the ‘R’ environment.

Anyway – that’s enough about ‘R’. Remember...

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 Acknowledgements; a big thanks to Thom Williams and Emma Hand who helped with putting some of the ideas in this blog together. 

By Robbie Mitchell

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The holiday blues. We all get them, particularly soon after having returning back to our nine to five jobs.

Feeling a particular pang of the blues last week, when catching the train home on a rainy Monday from work, I started sorting through photos I took on my phone during my recent sunnier trip to Sri Lanka.

The above photo for me sums up a lot of what you’ll see in Sri Lanka – awe-inspiring natural landscapes like Sigiriya and stray dogs.

As many can attest too, strays are a common sight and concern for developing countries but are of less of a priority for government…

Ok, what has all this got to do with taking and sharing photos I hear you ask.

The answer lies in what captured your attention first – the photo of a dog or the text. We are visual beings and react more to the sight of a picture than a slab of text, whether it be written or spoken.

This is particularly true for online content, with studies showing readers are more likely to read a web page if it has images  than they are if it only has text.

It’s even more obvious in the way that we scroll through our social media feeds and points to the reason behind the growing popularity of Instagram and Snapchat, which focus on visuals over words (keep breathing, this is not an article where I’m going to convince you to use these tools, yet).

It is also equally true for infamous PowerPoint presentations. If information is presented orally, we remember 10% three days later. However, if it a picture is added, that figure goes up to 65%.

With all this in mind, can you afford not to include images in your web content, social posts, reports or presentations?

Here are four tips to improve the way you use images when communicating:

Take your own photos or draw your own pictures

There are three reasons for this.

  1. You will not get caught out infringing on copyright laws.
  2. Purchasing images can be expensive and finding the perfect royalty free imagescan be time consuming.
  3. People react more to organic images rather than stock photos – please, don’t use stock photos.

With regards to drawing, you don’t have to be a great drawer – check out Matthew Partridge’s blog Errant Scienceto see how effective stick figures can be.

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Pictures 2 & 3: You don’t have to be an artist to draw your own images. Simple sketches with appropriate tags are really helpful when communicating complex concepts

 Use the technology at hand

With the growing popularity of smartphones and our reliance on, more people than ever now have a camera at hand. Use it every opportunity you get; you never know when that photo will become useful.

Also, don’t be afraid to take more than one photo – it’s only memory, not film.

On the subject of using technology, subscribe to a photo cloud storage serviceand regularly back up your photos – I’ve given up counting the number of times I’ve heard people say they had taken a photo but can’t remember which device they had used, or their phone had crashed, or they had lost their camera’s SD card.

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Picture 4: I will tend to use my smartphone more than a DSLR camera when I’m travelling or at conferences because it’s more about capturing the moment. 

 Don’t get caught up on quality

Like our phones, cameras are continually getting smarter to the point that you can rely (to a certain extent) on them to automatically take a high-resolution, focused photo even in the most challenging settings.

That said, there are plenty of guides out there to help with taking a better photo whatever device you’re using.

What I mean by not getting caught up on quality is that just by having a picture in your story/report/presentation you at least have a visual cue to explain a concept or tell a story.

Use your images to tell a story

 I mentioned above how audiences are more likely to remember a talk if a speaker adds an image to their presentation. This doesn’t mean your presentations will miraculously be more cohesive, understandable or notable if you add an image to it; you still need to have a good story to tell.

I use the word ‘story’ for a reason, as people are captivated by stories as much as they are by images. When referring to your images, share anecdotes related to taking the photo or drawing the image to provide your audience with greater context.

This tip also relates to captions for your images too. For skimming eyes, these short sentences can often be the only words they’ll read and take away from your story, so make sure you load them with important content.

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Picture 5: Which works best as a caption?

“Train trip in Sri Lanka”  


“Trains were introduced in Sri Lanka by the British colonial government in 1864. The main reason for building a railway system was to transport tea and coffee from the hill country to Colombo. Today they’ve become a tourist attraction in themselves and are among the most beautiful train trips in the world. This was a shot I took as we were winding through the hills from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya”

Wednesday, 24 August 2016 00:00

RAID Blog Competition

Enter our blog competition for a chance to share your experiences in R4D and win some great prizes!

We are running a blog competition this financial year to encourage all members and blog readers to engage with the RAID network. We love hearing your stories and feel that this is one of the most useful and engaging parts of our community. Please get in touch and get involved!


All RAID members* (join here) and RAID blog readers at any stage of their careers.

We encourage previous and new contributors to participate, and have an extra prize for the “best new blogger”. If you’re unsure of what to blog about, our social media team are happy to provide some ideas (contact them). Some tips/ideas and guidelines are provided below.

*RAID Committee members are not eligible for these prizes, but state-representatives are.

*To be eligible to enter,applicants must be linked to an Australian organisation and have an Australian postal address for receiving any prizes


2016/2017 financial year (that is, for any blogs posted from July 1st 2016 until 30th June 2017). Winners announced on Friday July 28th 2017.


1st Prize:                          Samsung Android tablet (value ~$600) or a voucher of equivalent value

2nd Prize:                         A kindle (value ~$150) + downloads ($100) or a voucher of equivalent value

Best new blogger:     A selection of R4D books from RAID’s good reads list


Judging process:

  • Step 1: All blogs from the 2016/2017 financial year will be ranked according to site hit statistics in the first 4 weeks, counting will continue for 4 weeks after the final blog is submitted. The top 15 blogs will go into the next round.
  • Step 2: The RAID Committee and an independent communication expert will each choose their top 3 blogs from the final 15 based on content, style, engagement, photos, individuality and relevance to international agriculture
  • Step 3: The two blogs that receive the most votes will be awarded 1st and 2nd prize. The “best new blogger” award will go to the blog with the most votes that was written by someone who hasn’t yet had a blog posted on the RAID website prior to 30th June 2016.

Additional notes:

  • If you’re interested in writing a blog and being a part of the competition, please send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with the subject heading “RAID Blog Comp”. One of the committee members will be in touch so we can put your name down on the blog schedule. The sooner you get in touch the better! That way you are can choose a time of year that suits you and your readers.
  • All blogs will be reviewed by a RAID committee member to check they meet the basic guidelines and editing requirements. RAID reserves the right not to publish any blogs. Any suggestions/edits will be returned to the author to make any changes prior to publication.
  • If the RAID Committee decides a blog is not appropriate for the website it will not be published and the author will be asked to submit a different blog or withdraw their participation in the competition.
  • All blogs must be submitted in English
  • If a ‘new blogger’ wins the 1st or 2nd prize, the "Best new blogger" prize will not go to the same person. Instead it will go to the next top ranked new blogger to help spread the prizes around to everyone that is involved.
  • Promotion of blogs on social media and other outlets is encourage however, if the committee deems the hit statistics have been manipulated the blog will be disqualified

Blog Guidelines/Ideas:

Brief: The idea of the blog is to provide readers/members with something light hearted and easy to read which shares some interesting stories of your experience working on international development projects.

Things to include;

  • Who you are?
  • What do you do?
  • Where you work?
  •  Length (try to keep it to one page of text approximately 1000 words or less)
  • Photos (i.e. 2 minimum and 3 maximum of size <2MB as shrinking can be a time consuming process). Please include a title, relevant names, and one or two sentences about what the photo is of. A couple of examples are below.

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Picture: Skye Gabb in Indonesia; pictured with a met station clear from trees and buildings and any weeds which may affect data collection.

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Picture: Jessica working with a rural community in Bangladesh, adapting traditional recipes to improve the nutritional quality of complementary foods for infants and young children, using small indigenous fish


  • Find the right balance between personal stories and a take home message - this could include a R4D experience which demonstrates technical information, a scientific finding or a key lesson learned.
  • High quality photos and interesting captions make for a much more engaging blog
  • For some examples, check out the top 5 most read blogs from 2015

Ideas on what to talk about;

  • Challenges and successes. A challenge or success story are a great way to share experiences and things that you have learned, so feel free to share these types of stories.
  • Any advice/recommendations for people entering or working in the international agricultural development field
  • Any big moments/light bulb ideas that you have had or experienced working overseas. Maybe these can be helpful for other people
  • We encourage our members to highlight interesting and conversational topics that initiate discussion. However, if authors are discussing controversial topics we ask that they be somewhat bipartisan and present information acknowledging the different points of view.
  • A little bit of science. It’s good if a little science is included as well (although this not at all necessary!). If so, it would be better to put the key outcome/finding of the research and a link to a paper/report. We don’t intend for this blog to be a library of scientific reports or be filled with too many facts and figures. 

If you have any questions, don't hesitate to email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with the subject heading "RAID Blog Comp". 

A big thank-you to all our blog contributors over the last couple of years and a thanks in advance to all those for the next year. We look forward to your contributions so please get in touch with us!

You know what’s fun?

Analysing data – that’s what!

You know what’s not fun?

Spending hours and hours of time ‘analysing’ data, when all you‘re actually doing is reshuffling and changing columns, names, rows, dates, data types and any other number of errors just so you can do the analysis. All you really want to do is make some sense of your data and make a pretty graph or two so that you can show all your friends. Getting to this ‘fun’ step however, generally takes a lot longer than it should.

Years ago I was working in a project where we were collecting milk production data from a large number of farms. It was all on a paper based system and it seemed easy enough; you know ‘farmer ID’, ‘cow ID’, morning milk production + evening milk production and the date.

Easy right? … Right?

Well, no! The ‘date column’ turned out to be the bane of my existence for several months. You see, in the field we had two field assistants collecting data, these two guys then handed their field books over to two office staff who then diligently entered the data into two separate computers. Despite my efforts to mitigate the risks associated with confusion around how the date should be collected and entered; there was still a problem in how they ended up in both computers. Sometimes it ended up as ‘dd/mm/yyyy’ and others ‘mm/dd/yyyy’. The confusion occurred in two places, sometimes on the paper itself and the other was that each of the computers had different date settings. Hence, when I combined the data sets, it was….to say the least….a mess.

There were a number of key lessons in there for me, and a few tips I could give my younger self to make fixing that data set much easier.  However, at the time, with no ‘R’ data processing skills, I had to rely on persistent dedication (along with an extra set of eyes from a little helper) to meticulously go through each cow’s lactation and find the errors and correct them manually. Painful, slow and most importantly detrimental to the momentum of the project!

Anyway – this little story isn’t to disclose my lack of data processing skills at the time or how I could have managed it better. It is more so to highlight that although data entry errors like this are commonplace – in this day and age, I could have potentially saved months of work by utilizing available tools that would have essentially circumvented nearly all the issues I had in this data collection process. Off-the-shelf apps for your phone/tablet are available and they aren’t too expensive, even a simple one would have helped me significantly in our project. Since this experience I have seen two PhD students use a very cheap and easy to learn survey based apps to build their project questionnaires, implement their field work and then download their data for analysis. When I saw the data sets from their research come in, they were beautiful!

Perfectly rectangle.

Each column consisted of only one data type.

And the ‘date’ all lined up and in the same format.

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Picture: One of our team members in Pakistan using a tablet to collect data using an off-the-shelf app for a digital survey built by one of PhD students. 

Spare a thought to the person who analyses your data. Whether that be yourself, your boss, a student or your friendly neighborhood stats guy/girl, the type of data set that comes from the output of a tablet based survey app is an absolute blessing. They are neater, cleaner and most importantly much MUCH easier to make pretty graphs with. Compared to some of the ‘colourfully’ organized data sets that I have seen, where things are all over the shop and it takes 80% of your time to get it ‘stacked’ appropriately for graphing and analysis – the app survey data sets are simply a statistician’s dream.

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Picture: A 'pretty graph'. This is not here to highlight what the graph is telling us (I have purposefully removed the legend so it doesn't ruin the surprise when it gets published), it's just here to show us how much we like looking at 'graphs' (provided by one of the most promising 'R' graphers I know).

For majority of the work that we do overseas in research for development and agricultural systems, the challenges associated with data collection are exacerbated by language, the timing we have for implementation in-country and the short visits which lead to short training turnarounds. In these cases, apps provide some real solutions to minimizing data collection errors, improving data quality and providing an innovative way of collecting data and training your team in the process. These apps however are not a silver bullet and they come with their own challenges. Anyone keen to jump into the world of digital data collection should check out some reading on it or get in touch with a research group that has experience in it, because it can be a minefield when it comes to hardware, the apps available, connectivity, ethics implications, data usage and data management (see project report link below).

One of the first questions that people often ask is about the costs involved in getting started. This is extremely important as many of us are working in research and development projects where resources are limited. I’m not going to advocate that you dip your hand in your funding pocket and fork out everything you own to buy the most expensive app software. I will say that there are some very useful cheap options available and even though the more complex apps might cost a little more, the added features they provide are extremely valuable and give you a range of data collection options (eg; video/picture/GPS) that make your data capture easier, more detailed and of greater quality!

The last thing I will say about costs comes back to your friendly neighborhood stats girl/guy. Think about them for a minute. If they’re going to spend 3 months (or 6 months as I did), fixing a messy and disorganised set of excel spreadsheets consisting of somewhere between 10% and 30% data entry errors; wouldn’t it have been better to fork out some money in the first place so they could spend their time doing an actual statistical analysis and making pretty graphs instead?

David McGill has been working on an ACIAR funded research project, managed by Agricultural Impact International. If you have any further enquiries please feel free to contact David McGill (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.), Stuart Higgins (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) or Jack Hetherington (ACIAR, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.). To get a better understanding of some of the findings of this research work and the apps that were evaluated within an ACIAR project context, please take a look at the research report (http://aciar.gov.au/publication/fr2016-03). 

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Picture: One of our field team in Bali preparing to take a photo with her tablet to link with her survey data. This photo was taken during the ACIAR funded app comparison project described above

By Lachlan Dennis

After a quick scramble to make the connection from Port Moresby I’m there. On a plane to tropical Kavieng for a week. With much of the plane full of ACIAR researchers we fly past the smoking craters dotting New Britain and Tavurvur volcano, responsible for the devastation of 1994. Lush rainforest beneath us and aquamarine blue shining up from the fringing reefs. The plane makes a quick stop at Kokopo and lets off three quarters of the passengers, not enough get back on to replace them. The airport is dotted with coconut palms, reef egrets take to wing startled by the arrival of the plane. It’s hard not to imagine a T-rex bursting out of the bush, and John William’s iconic theme to Jurassic Park starts playing in my head. But, before I have time to decide what I would name a dinosaur I discover, the plane is jolting down the runway. The wheels retract with a clunk and we are gone. Next stop Kavieng. By the time we touch down 45 minutes later I’m exhausted. A result of starting from autumnal Canberra at 4:30 am. The tropical sun has gone to bed for the night but left the sticky heat. Stepping out onto the tarmac I have my first chance to look around. I’m here.

The airport at Kavieng is simple. One long-house style building, and a covered porch were we wait for our bags. They arrive on a trolley taken straight from the plane. After picking our bags a solitary baggage handler checks our tickets to make sure we don’t have someone else’s bags and lets us out a garden gate. No muss no fuss. Waiting for us is a Papua New Guinean with bleached blonde hair and his six year old daughter. He loads us into an ageing Land Rover and we travel the bumpy five minutes to the wharf, almost there. One more, quick banana boat ride in the dark across the lagoon and we can see our destination. Nusa Island. Wooden long-houses on stilts over the water. White sand paths and encroaching on it all, more jungle.

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We step off the boat into ankle deep water, and ashore. I carry my bag up the steps to my room and have my first look at my sleeping arrangements. Apart from the bird poo on my bed, it’s lovely. Much too big for just me by myself. I fold down the mosquito nets, grab a glass of water from the jug provided and plod across the sand to dinner. Again, far better than I expected: A buffet of local seafood and assorted goodies. I load up a plate and head to the sitting area over the water. I sit back in my chair and look up at the stars. Life is tough sometimes!

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The next day starts early. 4:02am to be precise. The same boat that brought me in, in tranquil comfort the night before is surprisingly loud taking other guests to the airport in the morning. After drinking in the vista (and a coffee) for breakfast it’s time to do some work. I get on another of the ubiquitous banana boats with a visiting project leader and his PhD student and we ride back out into the harbor. Crystal clear water glides by underneath us, coral bommies and seagrass beds. All around us are islands, it’s impossible to tell which is the island we seek. But our driver points out a floating sea cage and a jetty. Nago Island. Set at the gateway to the Bismarck Sea a school of baitfish churn under the jetty and the trickle of the outflow signifies that this isn’t a regular island. Clambering off the boat onto the jetty and onto the island itself I can see the facility. A cleared section of forest with a collection of small houses and a high fence with a sign forbidding the chewing of betel nut.

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The meetings went well and I got to see interesting things and meet the researchers performing the work (culturing sea cucumbers to try and help local communities develop livelihoods). This is a trip that working in international agricultural research offers. As a grad at ACIAR I am happy that I was able to go on this trip and I look forward to the next one!

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By Peter Wynn

Working with youth

A single meeting with a young school student in a village in Western Punjab remains indelibly imprinted in my mind. The young man’s knowledge of English was remarkable as was his understanding of lactation and animal health. After we had departed from his village, he ran the 2 kilometres to our guest house seeking a meeting with me. He requested that I assist him in gaining opportunities for a proper college education, which under his current circumstances coming from a poverty stricken family would have been impossible. His persistency over the ensuing 2 years led eventually to a scholarship for him to attend a college. This instilled in me a sense of responsibility in providing educational opportunities for as many young people as possible. Of course our project dictated that this would focus on teaching the principles of dairy production and making more money for the family out of the milk they produced and marketed. It also fortified my belief in only hiring new veterinary graduates, untainted by the dated bureaucratic processes of government, to work within our project.

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Figure 6. Student forums have proved to be an effective way of developing  extension networks

Thinking outside the square for solutions to protracted problems

One of the major limitations to growing forage crops to feed livestock is the lack of quality forage seed available in the marketplace. Berseem clover is the key rabi or winter crop servicing the forage needs of small-holder livestock producers of Punjab province. And yet, high quality seed is hard to find in the marketplace in spite of the high demand. Thus farmers rely on their own self harvested seed over decades. Is it little wonder that most seed used is genetically inferior?

As a part of our program we linked with the international agency ICARDA to develop the concept of village-based forage seed enterprises. The concept involved small-holder farmers developing their own commercial seed production system based on high quality “research” standard seed obtained from government plant breeding centres.

Our PhD student Shoaib Tufail established forage and seed production sites on a number of small-holder farms, demonstrating that the use of superior quality seed yielded much higher fodder production and if managed carefully, an abundant yield of seed that could be sold throughout neighbouring communities.

The need for bees: Berseem relies on the presence of insects and most often honey bees as vector for effective cross-pollination. Given that Pakistan is reliant on cotton as a key export commodity, could it be possible that the extensive use of insecticides in the environment to protect cotton crops might impact on the local honey-bee population? In designing one of his studies Shoaib provided bee hives enclosed within a fine net to minimise loss of sunlight for the crop.

To his delight their inclusion trebled the yield of seed from his crop. Yet if you look a further afield we see that this is a worldwide problem. Recent press reports have highlighted  that “ The number of "pollinators" — a group composed of roughly 20,000 flying creatures — is shrinking rapidly worldwide, putting "hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of crops each year" at risk” (http://www.grubstreet.com/2016/02/bees-and-other-pollinators-going-extinct.html).

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Figure 7. The inclusion of bees in Shoaib’s berseem clover plots trebled seed production: what would happen if there were more bees to cross-pollinate the vast array of vegetable and fruit crops that Pakistan is so dependent on?

Can we now see why we need to link the departments of Livestock and Agriculture together to resolve problems with dairy and crop production existing in harmony in any village farming community?

Let’s go a step further.

The need for quality water:  Fresh water makes up a very small fraction of all water on the planet. While nearly 70 percent of the world is covered by water, only 2.5 percent of it is fresh. The rest is saline and ocean-based. Even then, just 1 percent of our freshwater is easily accessible, with much of it trapped in glaciers and snowfields. In essence, only 0.007 percent of the planet's water is available to fuel and feed its 6.8 billion people. (http://environment.nationalgeographic.com.au/environment/freshwater/freshwater-crisis/)

Irrigation water in Pakistan comes from 2 sources: canal water from the 5 rivers sourced from Kashmir or tube well water pumped from underground aquifers. Tube well water contains at least 5-fold more salt and is increasingly needed to supplement the dwindling supply of canal water. Both global warming resulting in less melting snow and the politics of ownership of water coming from the highlands of Kashmir play a role in decreasing this supply.

How often does the water supply become a political pawn in the hands of politicians? China’s damming of the Brahmaputra River just their side of the Tibetan border is depriving small-holder Bangladeshi and Indian farmers of their most precious resource. (http://www.rediff.com/news/column/china-dams-the-brahmaputra-why-india-should-worry/20151021.htm)

The politics of water supply is alive and well as Israel and Palestine compete for this important resource for the sustenance of communities and their food production in their countries.http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-11101797

An article in our NSW regional newspaper today highlighted the fact that in the nearby “paradise” of Bali, Indonesia, “over 50% of Balinese people have lost access to fresh water and now 75% of rivers run dry in the dry season.” At the same time more than 1,000 hectares of prime agricultural land is developed for tourism annually. How long can this go on? (www.townandcountrymagazine.com.au May 2 2016).

Thinking across the research activity spectrum: I see so many of these issues we have encountered in our Pakistan project repeating themselves across other projects in economics and social sciences, crops, natural resource management, livestock and fisheries. And yet, budgets from funding bodies do not provide the resources to facilitate cross-fertilization between projects and countries.

A role for RAID: There are some themes that are common to nearly all of your projects highlighted above and yet we never get to discuss these themes across the spectrum of projects in international agriculture. There are undoubtedly some interesting experiences that should be shared across projects.

The conservation and use of water is a critical subject for all communities and their food supply irrespective of whether we operate in Southern Africa, South Asia, SE Asia or the Pacific islands. RAID is an ideal forum to pull together an E-conference to share ideas on this and other subjects. Clearly the decimation of honey bees has implications for some key crops important to developing economies. Likewise the sociology of extension practices is a worthy topic for ideas sharing.

Good luck with your RAID activities over coming years. I trust your experience with international agriculture changes your life as it has mine.



Part 1: The complexities of buffalo production influenced who the project engaged with

The beginning: It was with some trepidation that I accepted the invitation issued by Peter Doyle, Chief Dairy Officer with the Victorian Department of Agriculture, to join a scoping mission to Pakistan to explore options for a project to assist Pakistan’s 8 million small-holder dairy farmers. The project emanated from discussions between our then Prime minister, John Howard, and Pakistan President of the time, Musharraf. The party included experts in dairy production, agronomy, nutrition, trade, economics and education. With the attention to detail in providing water-tight protection, it was clear that security was always going to be a challenge.

The machinations of some of the experts and politicians we met were hard to believe: millions of litres of milk to be harvested in Eastern Sindhi desert exuded from the vivid imagination of one Sindhi politician! Really?

Where to start? The very breadth of our project daunted us. One of our objectives was to:

Enhance the research capacity of Pakistani scientists in priority fields relevant to the ongoing development of the dairy sector.

You might think that the obvious candidate priority areas to improve productivity and on farm profits would be to improve knowledge of cattle/buffalo nutrition and maintaining healthy animals. How wrong this judgement proved to be. The further we immersed ourselves into the project the more we realised there were many more important limitations to the success of our project. I take the opportunity to highlight the most important of these below, in the hope that our experience helps others to look “outside the square”.

The unique nature of Pakistan’s buffalo: It is important to recognise the importance of the river buffalo to the Pakistani peoples. The greater fat content of buffalo milk (6.5%) is highly sought after by the consumer across the country, and so attracts a higher financial return to the producer.  However, there are other socioeconomic reasons for farmers to keep buffalo.

Small-holder farmers keep buffalo as their “bank”, which they use as a source of finance for important family events like marriages, funerals and to meet family medical expenses. Their ownership is also a social status symbol within their village: thus ownership of 6 poorly fed buffalo may be a higher priority than owning 4 well fed animals. So how do we accommodate these social norms in our extension program when clearly 4 well fed animals provides a better financial outcome for the family?

Problems with buffalo reproduction: Buffalo come with limitations, chief of which is the difficulties encountered in obtaining successful pregnancies. Buffaloes exhibit late sexual maturity, long postpartum anoestrus, poor expression of oestrus, poor conception rates and long calving intervals. In many environments they breed year-round, although summer infertility is a major problem as it is with many species. We thought that under-nutrition was the major issue, until we discovered that many of the concentrate feeds purchased by small-holder farmers contain heroic concentrations of mycotoxins from fungus. These toxins disrupt ovarian function and pass directly from feed into milk and into the human food chain. This provides yet another example of where the livestock, agriculture and human health agencies need to work together to resolve a burning issue for dairy producers and consumers alike.

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Figure 1. Fungus contaminated corn is a common sight where feed storage facilities are inadequate: this can lead to reproductive disorders in cattle and buffaloes

Understanding the marketing of the product: It is not just as simple as providing extension material on how to feed animals better. Imagine our surprise when we carefully analysed some of our survey data on the profitability of small-holder dairy operations to find that even the best farmers owning 6 or less animals were losing money on every litre they produced. In this case, how can you put a price or value on the importance of “social status”?

In investigating the factors influencing prices paid to farmers, we analysed the structure of traditional marketing chains along which 95% of small holder milk production flows. A typical structure is included in Figure 2. Our postgraduate students took their life in their own hands when attempting to obtain detail on trading activities along the chain.

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Figure 2. The structure of a traditional milk marketing chain servicing the needs of small-holder dairy farmers. Red arrow = flow of milk, black arrows = loans.

The flow of milk follows the red arrow from the farmer to the consumer through at least 2 levels of milk collectors. The key large collector provides loans to the retailer to pay the rent for his shop location, and to the small collectors to then provide loans to farmers to purchase feed for their livestock. The formal processors obtain small quantities of milk to top up their own suppliers if they are short.

So what is wrong with these chains? Quite simply, the small and large collectors, as well as the retailers, dilute the milk to provide a profit margin for themselves and then adulterate the product to enhance its appearance for the poor unsuspecting consumer.

You then need to think about why this system ever came into being.  Clearly the road infrastructure for milk transport is so poor that the only practical means of milk collection is through use of a motorbike or donkey cart. This presented an entrepreneurial opportunity for owners of bikes and small trucks which many have adopted to support their families. However, in essence the profits to be made through milk production and marketing in this system are largely retained by the milk collectors and retailers, with the poor farmer being recompensed insufficiently to pay for the cost of production.

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Figure 3. Small volume milk collector measuring the milk  that the farmer will be paid for

Is it little wonder that many farmers are not interested in advice to increase animal productivity?  How do you engage milk collectors in extension activities to improve milk quality when they know that any practices that they adopt will threaten the profitability of their enterprise?

Quite clearly the development of effective extension services in this production and marketing system is fraught with challenges that extend to the very core of the social structure of village communities. The effective extension worker clearly needs skills in both technology as well as sociology.

The need to engage with the whole family and local government services: The time honoured practice of providing extension services to the male heads of families has yielded positive responses across the world. This practice has not accounted for the major contributions that the women and children of the family in running the family farm enterprise. It did not take us long to recognise that much of the entrepreneurial activity with small-holder farms is instigated and driven by women with assistance from their children. Our adoption success rates more than doubled once the same extension messages were delivered at the same time to meetings of women and men, with time for them to discuss their new-found information over the family meal.

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Figure 4. Extension worker Zahra Batool demonstrating how to value add through ice cream manufacture

However, this is not the whole story. Village communities are provided with services by a range of government instrumentalities. These include those regulating agriculture, education, water resources, energy, public health and livestock veterinary services. Government departments globally most often exist in isolation, seldom communicating with each other, and Pakistan is no exception to this rule. In our program we have engaged with the livestock department in most of our activities, and yet all of these departments contribute to the prosperity of a community. So inviting the school teacher, for example, provided a pathway for extension material developed for children to be introduced to the classroom.

However, it is the village health worker who holds a key to success with any livestock extension activity. In some villages in rural Sindh, mothers had no understanding of the importance of colostrum to the wellbeing of their own newborn babies. In fact, they voided their first milk as the perception was that this milk made their offspring sick. Is it little wonder that these mothers then failed to provide the first milk or colostrum for their calves, but instead made it into sweets to provide as a gift for their neighbours and friends? Thus in this community, neither children nor calves thrived. A little co-operation between the village health and veterinary extension teams could have achieved so much.

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Figure 5. Calf reared without access to colostrum and fed green forage, which their rumen is not sufficiently developed to digest

Tune in next week for Part 2 which looks at some of the broader issues of this type of work. 

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