Beauty and beans in Kwe-Kwe

Prof Charlotte Watts — DFID’s Chief Scientific Adviser

Professor Charlotte Watts

As a scientist, I like to draw my conclusions from robust, well-conducted data gathering and evidence. I appreciate the appeal and value of personal narratives, but when hearing a compelling, tragic or heart-warming story, I automatically ask myself: how generalisable may this be? Is this the exception or the rule? Are there other stories that I am not hearing, that would suggest a different conclusion?

As part of a recent field visit to CAMFED programmes in rural Kwe-Kwe, in Zimbabwe, I was introduced to Beauty, a quietly confident young woman who had grown up in poverty, but who had big aspirations. With DFID Zimbabwe support, through CAMFED, she had received funding to finish school, and to receive additional training at an agricultural college in Mutare. Beauty proudly showed me the 5 year plan that she had developed whilst in college: how, step by step, she would move from being a subsistence farmer on a small plot of land, to running a small agricultural business, with a large greenhouse, drip irrigation systems, providing food, income and employment for others. Alongside her plots of healthy plants were detailed records of her successes and failures — including the outcomes of trials of growing different crops, and estimates of the input costs and profits from different varieties.

Beauty and her fortified beans

That I was being introduced to someone who had clearly benefited from CAMFED’s programme, was what I had expected. Her achievements were nevertheless impressive — Beauty had upgraded her water pump, had a sufficiently large business to hire additional labour, and was serving as a resource and training ground for local schools. She had even a pen of hatchlings ready to be donated to girls graduating from the local school, so that they could learn basic poultry husbandry skills, and have a source of income whilst they waited for their exam results.

In conversations with Beauty, I also got to see the complementary benefits of separate programmes, funded both by the DFID Zimbabwe office and by our central DFID research funds. Beauty was growing iron and zinc enriched beans — a new variety that she was piloting, with the hope that these new beans would give her both a market edge and improve the health of her neighbours. These beans were the result of our central research investments in the development of biofortified crops, which had been introduced in Zimbabwe with the support of DFID Zimbabwe in partnership with the FAO and the CGIAR’s HarvestPlus programme. These biofortified beans not only have good yields and are resilient to droughts, but also help prevent and reverse iron deficiency in young women before pregnancy.

Aware of the threat to food security of Fall Armyworm that has spread across Africa since 2016, I asked Beauty whether she had had a problem at all. No, she replied — I had only a few of them, received information about how to identify them, and managed to deal with them quickly. This bought flashbacks to an earlier meeting in DFID that year, where we had discussed the need for rapid scientific advice on this topic.

Photo: Fall Army Worm from CABI

The DFID Agriculture Research team had commissioned an evidence note through CABI — one of our research partners with scientific expertise on invasive species — leading to the development of accessible guidelines, and country offices and other donors supporting their dissemination in country.

It was really positive to see how a range of research and development efforts had come together to support someone like Beauty. Also, to see how initiatives from DFID’s research and bilateral programmes can be complementary, and amplify impacts on the ground. There will be many similar opportunities to join up our ODA research funding initiatives across government to maximise impact, through careful design. To see evidence of the direct application of science and the use of advice in the field is what we aspire to.

Is this generalisable? I hope so. Should we do more of this? Definitely.

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