Dedicated to smoothing the bumpy road to a food secure world, nearly twenty innovators funded through MSU's Global Center for Food Systems Innovation (GCFSI) came together on MSU's campus for a weekend workshop in March. Geared towards capacity building, the workshop brought together international researchers of diverse disciplines, familiar with different frameworks, and equipped with unique perspectives. The unifying motivation to hop a plane and travel to chilly East Lansing? A shared passion to solve one of the world's most critical issues: food security.
From the study of soil, to the science of harnessing waste, GCFSI innovation grantees include horticulturists, engineers, beekeepers, agriculture economists, climate change modelers, and more. Spanning the globe, they lead projects in rural settings and urban centers, in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, to the Philippines, Vietnam and India.
Responding to an initial challenge posed by workshop facilitator Dr. Bill Heinrich, director of assessment at MSU's Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology, the grantees introduced their work in a Tweet-length sentence of "140 characters or less, including spaces." Phrases mentioned included, "storage structures," "wet markets," "adding value to cassava," "coconut farmers," "responsiveness to soil inputs," "project implementation," "develop human food from insects," and "better fit irrigation tech into context of East Africa." When all had shared, connections among the group were pointed out and the grantees were asked to self-select into small teams.
Each charged with developing an idea for an intervention that would be pitched to a "Dolphin Tank" panel of experts, the members of the team worked together throughout the weekend to brainstorm and refine their innovative idea. The goal? Receive the highest investment—of novelty money—from the panel of mock funders, other teams, and the general audience. Only one rule: no one could invest in their own team!
To kick things off, Dr. John Medendorp, international project manager with MSU's Center for Global Connections in Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources, led an interactive session focused on interdisciplinary teams and the importance of doing multidisciplinary research. Asking the grantees to consider the impact of their research across a host of disciplines, and noting that resolutions to real-world challenges must be comprehensive, Medendorp said, "The problems we deal with are not in silos... Reframe your research not as a research question, but as a problem to be solved."
So, how does a researcher address food security challenges within the complex context of agronomic, economic, social and environmental conditions?
Enter systems thinking – a conceptual framework that accounts for the interacting elements that are part of the food system.
From crop production and processing, to transport and sales, the system that puts food on the table is complicated and interwoven. To learn from past efforts, and continue on the path of progress, systems thinking demands that researchers reflect. "What's stopping us from progressing?" said Libby Hoffman, student employee at the Hub for Innovation and session co-facilitator. Introducing a tool to help consider underlying obstacles impeding progress, Dr. Kurt Richter, GCFSI assistant director, presented the Iceberg model by Donella Meadows. "We need to understand the 90 percent we cannot see," said Richter.
Reacting to the workshop content on systems thinking, a grantee from the University of California-Davis said, "Design and systems thinking are not new to me, but I've never before been forced to consider direct links to my research."
After fueling up on coffee, tea, cookies and apples, the group reconvened for a session on impact assessment led by Heinrich, of the Hub for Innovation. Although quantitative data can illustrate the impact of a development project, solely focusing on numeric results risks overlooking other impacts. To help grantees take a deeper perspective of what impact looks like, Heinrich made suggestions for monitoring and evaluation that "go beyond counting."
"I learned aspects of project management, monitoring and evaluation," said Dr. John Nduko, a Kenyan researcher at Egerton University who turned to grasshoppers and locusts to increase the nation's access to protein. "This will go a long way to improve delivery of outcomes."
Addressing the issue of impact from a different angle, Dr. Stephanie White, assistant professor in MSU's Department of Community Sustainability and a core GCFSI faculty member, talked with grantees about considering gender relations and cultural norms when planning, implementing and evaluating projects.
Speaking up about a significant, if preliminary, research finding that relates to gender equality, researcher Maryann Frazier, of Penn State University, shared with the group that while beekeepers in Kenya typically place the log hive high in a tree, rather than lower to the ground, the practice appears to have little effect on honey yield. If the preliminary hypothesis proves to be true, the taboo against women climbing trees may no longer be a constraint that keeps females in the minority when it comes to harvesting honey. If bees do generate the same amount of honey when the log is placed within arm's reach as when it's located higher on the tree limbs, honey could become a substantial source of income for women beekeepers.
As the weekend began to wind down, the teams prepared to pitch their intervention ideas to a panel of mock funders. Guiding the grantees towards effective communication tactics, David Poulson, associate director of MSU's Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, presented on the science and art of research storytelling. Using a tool called the Message Box, created by COMPASS: Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea, Poulson helped grantees frame their funding pitch. He discussed key traits of a well-received funding pitch.
"Omit needless words, write cleanly and tightly, and write exactly to the criteria," Poulson emphasized.
"When requesting money, it's not about us, it's about them."
One by one, the teams presented to a panel of MSU professionals who represented the review committee for the imaginary funding agency. Teams had 10 minutes to pitch their idea, and received feedback from the panel and the audience.
Each team took to the stage, announcing their names, including East African Livestock Root Integration, which pitched a method of integrating cassava farming with livestock rearing; Tasty Info, which pitched virtual learning for real farmers by equipping them with big data via mobile technology; Model Farm, which pitched sustainable production and teaching new agronomic practices to farmers; and the winning team—CoolAID—which pitched "bringing cooling to the masses" and increasing capacity to store perishable dairy products and fruits and vegetables with less waste.
While the grantees didn't depart with more money in their pockets, the group did leave with a wealth of new information to advance their real-world grant projects. "The workshop help(ed) me think about my project slightly different in terms of larger impact or perspective rather than just a smaller technology," said Dr. Sangeeta Chopra, of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute. Humphrey Ndossi, who's working on a cassava processing project at the Tanzania Industrial Research and Development Institute, shared Chopra's sentiment. "The workshop enhanced me to consider my project as an implementation or society-based project rather than a research project," he said.