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Celebration, Chinsamba Village, Malawi. Credit Genevieve Agaba, University of Southampton ;

Empowering researchers to address food and water security

As the effects of climate change create food and water insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa, 26 early career researchers took part in a jointly King’s-led Summer School to help them work together to find solutions to these challenges.

There are real fears that the long-term impacts of climate change are undermining the ability of sub-Saharan Africa to endure extremes in weather, leaving huge numbers of people exposed to hunger and disease.

The region is seen as particularly vulnerable because rain-fed agricultural practices are important to its economies and the presence of armed conflict in several countries exacerbates the situation, frequently turning drought into famine.

As part of an initiative to build the region’s capacity to address challenges around food and water security, 26 mostly African early career researchers received field work training as part of a Summer School programme in Malawi. The participants, mostly PhD and post-doctoral researchers, undertook a series of activities to cultivate their research skills linked to climate change resilience.

Designed and led by Dr Kate Schreckenberg from King’s Department of Geography, along with Professor Laura Lewis (University of Southampton) and Professor Sosten Chiotha (LEAD-Malawi), the main objective was to enable the researchers to draw on their combined social and biophysical  expertise to come up with locally-appropriate solutions.

 “The main objective was to train the early career researchers to work holistically in interdisciplinary groups, to identify and help resolve problems of climate change and water and food security in a participatory way with communities,” said Dr Schreckenberg.

Getting first-hand experience in Malawi

The early career researchers visited the villages of Chankhunta and Chinsamba in Malawi, to interview the local community, enquiring about main food sources and how different people cope when food production fails.

They found that agriculture remains the dominant livelihood source for the households. Rain-fed agriculture is the main practice, with only a small proportion of the population having access to wetland plots that can be cultivated in both the dry and wet season. Discussions with younger and older community members revealed that their food production no longer sustains them for the whole year because of reduced farm size and decreasing soil fertility. Problems were very interlinked, for example, firewood scarcity meant women had to use maize stalks to fuel their cooking fires rather than as mulch for the fields.

In fact, people were moving away from agriculture to earn their livelihood, and increasingly turning to casual labour, such as working on other people’s farms or brick making, as a way of earning cash to buy food.

This suggests that diversifying livelihood options is very important for food security and poverty reduction. In feedback meetings, community leaders recognised the need to acquire different skills and that education was the best way to prepare the next generation.

Field work activities in Chinsamba Village, Malawi © Genevieve Agaba

Why training local early career researchers makes an impact

During the visits to the villages, the early career researchers were able to explore, hands-on, a variety of research techniques, including participatory mapping of the villages and their agricultural resources, as well as interviews and soil and water testing.

Dr Schreckenberg explained: “We focused on doing research in a participatory way with local people – asking them what was important to them, as opposed to researchers deciding what questions to ask. We also put a lot of effort into feeding back findings, which was new for many of the researchers but is essential to empower communities to find their own solutions.”

For some of the researchers, this was their first exposure to participatory research methods.

“I am a bio-physical scientist, who had never been exposed to social research and had a tendency to underestimate it,” explained Tendai Polite Chibarabada (South Africa), a post-doctoral fellow with Waternet.

“The Summer School allowed the team to formulate interdisciplinary research methods and exposed me to social research methods, taking me out of my comfort zone and driving me to appreciate the importance of each discipline and addressing research in an interdisciplinary way.”

This work was funded through the ‘Building Research Capacity for sustainable water and food security In drylands of sub-saharan Africa’ (BRECcIA) project, which is supported by UK Research and Innovation as part of the Global Challenges Research Fund, grant number NE/P021093/1. The project aims to develop research capacity across institutions, particularly on improving food and water security for the poorest of society.

In this story

Kate  Schreckenberg

Kate Schreckenberg

Head, Department of Geography

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