Market of traditional grains in Kastamonu, Turkey (Photo: Alessandra Giuliani)

SFIAR Interview

With a fixed set of questions, this series asks Swiss participants in Agricultural Research for Development for insights into their current work and thinking.

Interview No 34 / February 2017

Pia Fehle

Pia Fehle
Assistant,
School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences HAFL

What are your profession and thematic focus?
I have a BSc in International Agriculture and am doing an MSc in Applied Agricultural Sciences with a major in Value Chains and Rural Development. As an assistant at HAFL I currently participate in applied research projects in India and Afghanistan focusing on rural livelihoods and adoption of innovation.

How would you explain to a child, what you are currently working on?
I do many different things at the moment – I do research and sometimes teach, I organize events and update websites. One concrete example: we study how village people in northern Afghanistan live and what their needs are. This shall help to better understand how the villagers can be supported in their difficult situation.

What / who influenced you in choosing your career?
My childhood in a small village in Toggenburg, my parents’ differentiated view of things, encounters with asylum seekers and travelling to other countries, various films and books. These and many more factors shaped my motivation to contribute to a more balanced, inclusive and sustainable world through agriculture and rural development.

Which is the most important lesson you have learnt from your work?
1. Care-full process facilitation is key and should be considered a goal in itself. 2. Genuine participation of stakeholders from the very beginning is crucial. 3. “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 min defining the problem, and 5 min finding the solution.” (Albert Einstein)

Which is the most memorable intercultural experience you have had?
The summer party at a close by centre for asylum seekers: I often went there as a child and the diversity of people and stories fascinated me. I decided to live in the centre for a week and worked there for some time after high school. This was a very important learning experience for me.

If you had 1Mio Euro: In what kind of project would you invest?
I would invest into something that has the potential to generate high multiplication effects. A platform that supports innovative start-ups, further education for teachers and lecturers or scholarships for motivated students from all over the world.

In your opinion, what are the main obstacles for rural development?
There are many obstacles at different levels, of course, such as insecurity, lack of provision of public goods and disabling business environments. Also insufficient problem analysis, superficial involvement of stakeholders, unclear goals and different languages. I think that empathy, participation, systemic thinking and critical reflection are key to overcome these obstacles.

Contact Pia Fehle

Interview No 33 / December 2016

Michel Evéquoz

Michel Evéquoz
Senior Advisor,
SDC Global Programme Food Security

What are your profession and thematic focus?
In the 80s, I studied Plant sciences at ETH Zurich and after a PhD I started working abroad, in Africa.  During several posting in Africa and Asia I moved from agricultural research to a more general project management focus. Since August 2016, back to the roots, I am in charge of SDC’s international agricultural research portfolio, mainly the CGIAR. 

How would you explain to a child, what you are currently working on?
Solidarity! Switzerland as a rich country has the duty to help people, children, who are living in countries where poverty is widespread, where conflicts affect their lives. My job is to ensure that part of this money given by Switzerland is spent to support small farmer families to produce more and better food mainly for their children.

What / who influenced you in choosing your career?
I always wanted to look behind the mountains. I grew up in a small village in the Valais (Switzerland) and was always interested in geography and history. I liked the sounds of words like Timbuktu, Zanzibar, Titicaca and many other places while reading the works of Jules Verne.

Which is the most important lesson you have learnt from your work?
People often ask: “you have been working in Mozambique for years, what have you reached there? Do people now have a better life?” Even if we have sometimes the impression that the world is changing very quickly, development is a long term endeavour.  Mentalities have to change, not only those of the locals, but also ours.

Which is the most memorable intercultural experience you have had?
It was in Niamey, my first field work with my Nigerian colleague and professor at the university. We agreed to leave at 7am to work before big heat in the afternoon. At 7 I was waiting in the parking, 8 nobody, 8.30 nobody, 8.45 he finally was there and after a while we were ready to go. While coming back in the evening, I asked him at what time it would be convenient for him to leave the next day. ‘’As today at 7, I will be there’’ OK! The next day, at 7 nobody, 8.., 9… finally 9.10 he came. From that day I asked him to pick me up at home!

If you had 1Mio Euro: In what kind of project would you invest?
I would invest this money in vocational training programs for young people, future farmers. In many countries farmer is not a recognised profession, there is no opportunity to learn it and to receive a certification. You are becoming farmer because you have to survive and you don’t have any other choice.  You ‘’learn it’’ working with your father in the field. 

In your opinion, what are the main obstacles for rural development?
Short views, politicians, politics, policies.

Interview No 32 / October 2016

Nathalie Ernst

Nathalie Ernst
Programme Officer,
Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services GFRAS

What are your profession and thematic focus?
I am a geographer who has always been intrigued by the linkages between human and natural sciences. My current work at the GFRAS secretariat can probably best be described as being a convener and facilitator of activities related to strengthening rural advisory services on an individual, organisational, and systemic level.

How would you explain to a child, what you are currently working on?
When farmers have a problem they often go and ask people whose job would be to help them with their issues. These people – rural advisors or extensionists - however often don’t have access to the information themselves, lack the money or time needed to be able to really answer the question, or don’t know how to best transfer the answer to the farmers. In my work we support those people to do a better job and respond to farmers’ needs in a better way.

What / who influenced you in choosing your career?
Having travelled a lot as a child, I was raised to always think critically and to keep the whole picture in mind. Over the years, gathering academic and practical knowledge in rural development inland and abroad, I realised how utterly important (and interesting to me) it is to get that nexus between natural and human dimensions right. I believe RAS is one of these areas that are located right on this nexus.

Which is the most important lesson you have learnt from your work?
Theory is not practice: Everything depends on the context, and as long as human beings are involved you can’t plan to the very last detail. Besides people have different approaches to things - which indeed very often results in similar outputs. The challenge is to be flexible, open, to be able to let go and go with the flow.

Which is the most memorable intercultural experience you have had?
“Classical” experiences like living in the jungle with tribes in India or explaining to a young Ethiopian boy that I am not an alien despite my white skin might be ones. But just a bit over a week ago, on a random Cameroonian beach, I was dancing and singing along Bob Marley’s redemption song together with roughly 100 people from all continents, ranging from the very young Ag student from Cameroon to the Ag professor from Pakistan, from the woman farmer from Nigeria to the extensions systems officer from FAO headquarters in Rome, from the manager of a national NGO in Nicaragua to the freelance consultant from Germany. Individuals can easily overcome political, cultural, social, and economic barriers if they find something they have in common and if you let them do so.

If you had 1Mio Euro: In what kind of project would you invest?
In young innovators, or a start-up, who combine education/exchange/learning and sustainable natural resource use in Switzerland. I think a big part of the core causes of all our big global problems are to be found at our doorstep. I would try to start here. Besides, I strongly believe that if we talk about real sustainability, we have to consider economic sustainability too. This is why I’d rather invest in a start-up or a business, than in a project that will always depend on external funding.

In your opinion, what are the main obstacles for rural development?
Focussing on rural development only (and not on all the factors that influence or are influenced by rural development). Besides, we still very often combat symptoms, instead of trying to identify and addressing the real causes (of which we are afraid of because we don’t know them, or because they are too complex, political, expensive, long, etc.).

Contact Nathalie Ernst

Interview No 31 / August 2016

Carmen Thönnissen

Carmen Thönnissen
Senior Advisor,
SDC Global Programme Food Security

What are your profession and thematic focus?
I am an agronomist, specialized in plant sciences. For 7 years I was focal point for the Swiss support to international agricultural research for development, and from August 2016 onwards I’ll be programme officer for SDC’s regional program in Southern Africa.

How would you explain to a child, what you are currently working on?
Rich countries like ours share ‘knowledge and money’ with poor countries in Africa and Asia. The Swiss Government e.g. helps poor farmers to produce enough nutritious food to feed their families, be healthy, and have a better life. My job is to help choosing projects that are best suited.

What / who influenced you in choosing your career?
As a child, I spent most of my holidays in a mountain village in Valais. Surrounded by stables in which farming families cared for their cows and sheep, I enjoyed taking part in their daily tasks. Curious to understand the world and its challenges I studied agronomy in view of engaging in development work.

Which is the most important lesson you have learnt from your work?
Small or large undertakings are more successful and far more fun, if every team member understands and shares the big picture, and is aware of the importance of her/his contribution.

Which is the most memorable intercultural experience you have had?
It was in Taiwan in the 90s, when I compared the huge cabbages farmers sold at the market with those in their home gardens, which were about half the size. They produced for the customers’ eyes, and consumed what they knew was better for themselves.

If you had 1Mio Euro: In what kind of project would you invest?
In view of an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable agriculture, I would invest in bio-control of invasive species of weeds and insects. These represent a huge burden for the management of the environment and farming, and otherwise require the use pesticides.

In your opinion, what are the main obstacles for rural development?
Among the obstacles for a sustainable rural development, I’d like to mention fragmented planning and poor management leading to missing or wrong incentives, often resulting in little direct benefit for great numbers of beneficiaries, who are left behind.

Contact Carmen Thönnissen

Interview No 30 / April 2016

Firesenai Sereke

Firesenai Sereke
Projekt Manager RISE,
School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences HAFL

What are your profession and thematic focus?
In the sustainability R&D group at HAFL, we holistically assess farms, to support farmers in their individual development of sustainable strategies. With this objective we have developed the RISE (Response-Inducing Sustainability Evaluation) tool. We also teach sustainability within the Bachelor and Master courses.

How would you explain to a child, what you are currently working on?
In our group we study how happy farmers and their families are. We also look at how good they treat their animals and soils. Because the better they leave the farm for their children, the happier the children will be.

What / who influenced you in choosing your career?
In many regions across the Horn of Africa, where I was born, there is a great potential for sustainable agriculture. However, degradation of vegetation and soil has been a major challenge, especially in the last decades. My father told me that when he was young the region of Keren was full of trees and fertile soils.

Which is the most important lesson you have learnt from your work?
It’s amazing to see how innovative farmers can be. Very often solutions are already available. Beside education and applied R&D, it seems to me, the framework conditions play a more critical role.

Which is the most memorable intercultural experience you have had?
Hmmm, I don’t remember…, I feel always amazed and humbled when visiting a farm. Recently farmers in Romania told me, how life was easier in the communist time. It would be nice to travel back in time to conduct RISE studies, and to compare these results with the current findings.

If you had 1Mio Euro: In what kind of project would you invest?
Co-production of agroecological knowledge, including the social levels of co-evolution; requiring collaboration between disciplines and with farmers. To increase food production, while conserving natural resources.

In your opinion, what are the main obstacles for rural development?
My hypothesis is if the rights, opportunities and responsibilities would be clear, farmers would act more sustainably. Hence this would require both, sustainable framework conditions, combined with a healthy dose of agroecological education (for those farmer communities who lost it).

Contact Firesenai Sereke

Interview No 29 / December 2015

André Stucki

André Stucki
Member of the Management Team,
European Forum on Agricultural Research for Development (EFARD)

What are your profession and thematic focus?
I work as a scientific assistant at the School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences (HAFL). My work covers quite a broad range of activities. In winter, I am teaching our students the basics of plant nutrition and nutrient cycles on the farm level. From spring to fall, our working group is planning and implementing applied research projects in resource-conserving agriculture.

How would you explain to a child, what you are currently working on?
Along with my work at HAFL, I spend a lot of time on my master thesis project. I am examining the potential of legume cover crop species in organic field crop production. We want to find out, which plants can help the farmer to protect the soil nutrients while effectively competing against weeds.

What / who influenced you in choosing your career?
My grandparents were farmers and my father often worked abroad when he was a young geomatics engineer. I hence learned at an early age about the importance of a good balance between field and office work. The first time I worked on a farm, I knew my path would lead into international agriculture.

Which is the most important lesson you have learnt from your work?
It is definitely the importance of always having a backup plan. During my field assignment in Moldova, I made the experience that the allocation of resources is most often far from ideal. Whenever you ran out of gas or the weather forecast proved to be wrong again, you needed to have an alternative on hand.

Which is the most memorable intercultural experience you have had?
It was during my work experience in Azerbaijan. We worked in a rural area where the contact to the locals was quite limited. After two months, I crossed the border to Georgia for the first time. There was a young lady over the counter. I gave her my passport and she welcomed me with a broad smile!

If you had 1Mio Euro: In what kind of project would you invest?
I would invest the money into a scholarship program to allow educational opportunities for all class of talented youths. However education doesn’t stop at the doorstep of a college or university. Internships in SMEs are a driver for knowledge and technology transfer and hence must be fostered as well.

In your opinion, what are the main obstacles for rural development?
Access to finance is a main bottleneck for rural development. The world’s demography experiences an unprecedented shift because youth has no means to develop a prosperous future in rural areas. Opportunities in agriculture can be unlocked e.g. through micro-credit institutions or business incubators.

Contact André Stucki

Interview No 28 / October 2015

Vincent Schmitt

Vincent Schmitt
Food Security Delegate, Caritas Switzerland

What are your profession and thematic focus?
My background is in sustainable agriculture and cheese production. For Caritas, I supervise and contribute to the design of development projects in Haiti with a focus on agro-ecology, reforestation, water-use efficiency, income generating activities, risk mapping and watershed management.

How would you explain to a child, what you are currently working on?
I am setting up activities to support rural families living in very simple conditions. This support enables them to ease their daily life, be it by increasing and diversifying their agricultural production or by giving them an easier access to drinking water.

What / who influenced you in choosing your career?
As a teenager, I was shocked by the gap between rich and poor. While studying international relations, I realized that it would hardly allow me to work on this gap. International agriculture made more sense. As industrialized agriculture is not viable in the long run, I specialized in sustainable agriculture.

Which is the most important lesson you have learnt from your work?
Our economic system grows. Meanwhile the number of people left behind is outrageous. Although we often talk about sustainability, our development follows an unsustainable path based on greed. We need to work towards a change of our lifestyle and mentality to enable the promotion of wealth for all.

Which is the most memorable intercultural experience you have had?
While setting up a potato variety trial in Mongolia, I lived on my own for some days in a Yurt. For my feeding purposes, a local agronomist brought me some 10 kg of raw meat, with potatoes and onions. I struggled to keep the meat eatable and had learned about local food safety hazards when she came back.

If you had 1Mio Euro: In what kind of project would you invest?
I would invest in education or a market-based approach. Low educational levels lead to widespread corruption and misery. Setting up proper educational systems such as vocational training is a must. If we look back, schools for domestic economy contributed to the development of Switzerland.

In your opinion, what are the main obstacles for rural development?
Rural education and empowerment as well as health related problems are some of the main constraints. The attraction for urban areas can also hinder and compromise efforts towards rural development.

Contact Vincent Schmitt

Interview No 27 / August 2015

Angela Deppeler

Angela Deppeler,
Scientific Collaborator, AGRIDEA

What are your profession and thematic focus?
I am a social scientist with an interdisciplinary background, combining social anthropology, ecology and economics. My area of interest is development cooperation. At AGRIDEA, my work currently focuses on participative methodologies, facilitation of monitoring and evaluation processes, food security questions and market development for small scale farmers.

How would you explain to a child, what you are currently working on?
Some people can do things that others don’t have the opportunity to do. For example, people who can’t go to good schools might have great ideas and know-how, but they lack money or the right relationships to make them reality. My work aims at improving chances of people to make use of good ideas they have.

What / who influenced you in choosing your career?
A variety of persons and incidents paved my way. One of the big chances in my live was the year I spent in Northwestern Argentina when I was 17. All the new things I observed there made me wish to understand more, and they were also eye-opening back home.

Which is the most important lesson you have learnt from your work?
Technical solutions that are not adopted are often a great deception, and so is socio-cultural understanding that does not lead to new opportunities. I think we should strive to work together in a more fruitful way across the limits of disciplines.

Which is the most memorable intercultural experience you have had?
As for the questions before, it is not easy to pick out one. But I loved to learn the often joking way of negotiation with traders in Western Africa that was finally also well received at the flea market in Basel (Switzerland) …

If you had 1Mio Euro: In what kind of project would you invest?
I would suggest a project combining local knowledge with value chain development and extension. It is crucial that small scale farmers can develop successful products that work at the local scale, besides a possible cash crop. The project should build knowledge with the help of local extensionists, who would be trained in combining local knowledge with science.

In your opinion, what are the main obstacles for rural development?
I very much agree with the factors that were brought up before in this interview round. I would add that power structures in global agricultural and food markets also play an important role, in the sense that they help channel investments and/or research in a particular way that is mostly not oriented at lifting people out of poverty.

Contact Angela Deppeler

Interview No 26 / June 2015

Thomas Bernet

Thomas Bernet,
Senior Consultant for Value Chain and Sector Development, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL)

What are your profession and thematic focus?
I am an agricultural economist. After my PhD on production systems analysis in the Andes, I got strongly involved in method development for agricultural value chain and sector development. This is where I have now my thematic focus within FiBL’s Department for International Cooperation, supporting both research and development projects in this area.

How would you explain to a child, what you are currently working on?
In poorer countries, I help farmers, processors, retailers, government officials and other interested people develop business opportunities that are not only beneficial to them but also for consumers, the environment and the rural economy as a whole.

What / who influenced you in choosing your career?
As a teenager, I was struck by the big difference in wealth between rich and poor countries. This was my initial motivation to study agriculture. As I realized during my studies that poverty in many cases relates to unequal market opportunities, I specialized in agricultural economics.

Which is the most important lesson you have learnt from your work?
Motivated people and fruitful relationships are the basis for successful change – this is the most relevant area where we need to make a difference in our work!

Which is the most memorable intercultural experience you have had?
Back in Peru, we did focus group research with wealthy consumers in Lima to define the marketing concept for yacon, a very healthy Andean root crop. The involved ladies were very excited about the product and its properties. But when asked about the price they would pay, the unanimous answer was that the price had to be low. Why? For them it was clear: “Poor Andean farmers produce poor and cheap food!”

If you had 1Mio Euro: In what kind of project would you invest?
I would work with 2-3 interested retailers in Europe to position and promote little-known but highly interesting food crops grown in poor rural areas of developing countries. For that purpose, I would work to develop a sound communication and marketing strategy with these retailers on the one side, and create innovation platforms linked to these crops, on the other side, to set in place optimal production and marketing structures based on organic and fair-trade principles.

In your opinion, what are the main obstacles for rural development?
As urban areas tend to have big advantages over rural areas, it is most critical to get in place participatory processes that enable rural actors to develop shared ideas and activities that capitalize on existing resources and advantages. Such joint action is crucial to develop additional capacities, resources, and new opportunities – especially based on social capital – to further improve a region’s competitiveness and wellbeing.

Contact Thomas Bernet

Interview No 25 / April 2015

Linn Borgen Nilsen

Linn Borgen Nilsen,
Senior Scientist, NADEL - Center for Development and Cooperation, ETH Zurich

What are your profession and thematic focus?
I am originally a biologist, specialized in genetics and biodiversity, but have spent most of my career working in international cooperation and development. At NADEL I am responsible for coordinating the courses we offer in food security, agriculture and natural resource management.

How would you explain to a child, what you are currently working on?
I work in a large school where we give classes to grown-ups who want to help people in countries where they do not have enough food, schools, jobs, electricity, clean water, and health stations like we do in Switzerland. My job is to make sure that some of these classes are about food, agriculture and ways to take better care of nature.

What / who influenced you in choosing your career?
When I grew up I had two key interests – travelling and being outside in nature. Biology was therefore an obvious choice when it came to studying. Through travelling however, I became fascinated by the variety of countries and cultures – and what made the biggest impression – the extreme difference in people’s living conditions and life opportunities. After an internship at an NGO working with food security and nutrition in Bangladesh, I was certain that I wanted to work in the area of international cooperation and development.

Which is the most important lesson you have learnt from your work?
You can work for a small or a big organization, but it is still people who need to make the difference!

Which is the most memorable intercultural experience you have had?
For my master thesis I lived six months in a rural, indigenous community in Oaxaca, Mexico, studying the use and classification system of the local Opuntia cacti. I did learn a lot about cacti over these few months, but I also had a much bigger lesson about rural poverty. Sometimes, the lessons you never ask for are the ones with the greatest impact.

If you had 1Mio Euro: In what kind of project would you invest?
I think it is impossible to address development, without stressing the need for education. At the same time, how can we really expect people to prioritize schooling when they fight to put food on the table every day – often without success? For 1 Million Euro, I would therefore support school-feeding initiatives in primary schools in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In your opinion, what are the main obstacles for rural development?
I believe that in a rapidly globalizing world, governance is often biased towards urban areas and it forces people living in rural areas, such as farmers, to adapt quickly or lose out. To make it possible for people to live and prosper in rural areas, we not only need to ensure that food production is a stable and profitable occupation, but also that other income generating activities exist in rural areas and that the rural population has equally good access to basic services, such as schools, education and health care as in the cities.

Contact Linn Borgen Nilsen

Interview No 24 / February 2015

Jon-Andri Lys

Jon-Andri Lys,
Executive Secretary, Commission for Research Partnerships with Developing Countries

What are your profession and thematic focus?
I am a biologist by training, specialized in entomology and agrarian ecology. First, I studied social behavior of termites, later on how to promote beneficial insects in agrarian fields and how to control pest insects by biological means. Now I am more a generalist and knowledge manager involved in many different fields within the work of KFPE.

How would you explain to a child, what you are currently working on?
I am managing the KFPE, trying to bring different people together and to keep the overview over all our activities. We are acting as an interface, bringing together different views, perspectives and priorities, to learn from each other and to generate an added value. I am also responsible for the homepage and the dissemination of news and information from KFPE’s fifty associated institutions.

What / who influenced you in choosing your career?
I have always been interested in the processes of life. During my various research stays in Africa, I wanted to switch more to applied research fields (biological control of insects). Due to private circumstances, I did not continue my career in Africa but found this position within KFPE where I still can support research in/for poorer countries.

Which is the most important lesson you have learnt from your work?
To bring people with different perspectives and priorities together can help them to start understand each other – it helps to create new things, to initiate mutual learning for change! It is important to never give up and to repeat things again and again because staff changes within organizations.

Which is the most memorable intercultural experience you have had?
When I had the opportunity to join a traditional healer in Côte d’Ivoire during his healing tours. There I learned a lot about the cultural context, mutual respect, the importance of participation and inclusion, and about hospitality. On the other hand, I was shocked by the mind-sets and prejudices of many white people working there.

If you had 1Mio Euro: In what kind of project would you invest?
I would invest in research partnership schemes that allow young researchers from the South to participate in international research endeavors. We must better include researchers from poorer countries, where research capacities are needed to tackle upcoming challenges and to become more independent.

In your opinion, what are the main obstacles for rural development?
Lack of purchasing power and education. People have no means to invest and very few possibilities to earn money which would help to change things. Missing access to markets, no infrastructure, no land rights and no access to land for women, little investment and support by governments etc. All these things and many others keep a big part of the population in a vicious circle of undernourishment and poverty.

Contact Jon-Andri Lys

Interview No 23 / December 2014

Lilian Gilgen

Lilian Gilgen,
Programme Manager
Indo-Swiss Collaboration in Biotechnology

What are your profession and thematic focus?
I am responsible for the overall management, reporting, monitoring and planning of the programme “Indo-Swiss Collaboration in Biotechnology”. The goal of this governmentally funded and bilaterally steered research and product development programme is to contribute towards food security in the Indian context through innovative approaches supporting sustainable, climate resilient agriculture.

How would you explain to a child, what you are currently working on?
My role is in some way analogous to the role of the conductor of an orchestra: I facilitate and coordinate the contributions of all the people involved to improve a crop and make every effort to generate a helpful environment, so we end up giving our best possible joint performance.

What / who influenced you in choosing your career?
After many years in the pharmaceutical industry I seized the opportunity to work for a project in the Bolivian Highlands to support rural women in developing both the skills and the environment to create their own sources of income. This three year life-changing experience inspired me to search for a way to leverage my skills and experience in meaningful development cooperation.

Which is the most important lesson you have learnt from your work?
The investment of sufficient time and other resources in a face to face workshop at an early stage of the project to facilitate the elaboration of a joint vision and mission, the definition of and the agreement on clear outcomes and responsibilities substantially increases the commitment to and the success of the project.

Which is the most memorable intercultural experience you have had?
Things often aren’t only as we see them. We tend to interpret based on our own experience and views and to react based on that interpretation. In order to be able to successfully work with rural women in the Bolivian Highlands I was forced to re-evaluate my own beliefs, values and expectations.

If you had 1Mio Euro: In what kind of project would you invest?
I would definitely invest in a project targeted towards achieving universal primary education (MDG 3) because I strongly believe that all efforts towards meeting this goal will speed the progress of the other millennium development goals and ultimately break the cycle of poverty.   

In your opinion, what are the main obstacles for rural development?
No single project can address all relevant factors to ensure a holistic and a participatory approach to rural development. The main obstacle in my opinion is insufficient coordination to leverage synergies in existing and planned projects and to effectively adapt to changes.

Contact Lilian Gilgen

Interview No 22 / October 2014

Fabio Leippert

Fabio Leippert,
Policy Advisor – Food Sovereignty, Swissaid

What are your profession and thematic focus?
I am working in the Department of Development Policy of SWISSAID where I am responsible for the dossier of food sovereignty. Our objective is to advocate for a more ecological and independent agriculture in the south as well as here in Switzerland. Awareness raising on the necessity of a paradigm change towards agro-ecology and on the mistakes we are about to make, such as GMO’s and the patenting of seeds, are focal areas of my job.

How would you explain to a child, what you are currently working on?
We foster a form of agriculture that produces the healthy and diverse food you like in a way that you - when you are big - can still live a similar life like today. For example you will still see many different birds, butterflies, bees and beetles flying around in the countryside with the weather and the seasons being comparable to today.

What / who influenced you in choosing your career?
I chose to study Biology to understand the functioning and the complexity of life and the natural world. Later, also through my MAS at the ETH in development and cooperation (NADEL), the focus shifted towards international agriculture, as I think it is one of the most crucial factors determining our global future. Also the IASSTD report and my work on nitrogen cycles strongly influenced my career decisions.

Which is the most important lesson you have learnt from your work?
We have a choice and do not have to be as fatalistic and pessimistic about our future as many are. Agro-ecology is a working solution and if we manage to empower people and provide them with knowledge and the proper tools and resources the results can be amazing. Never underestimate the potential of people.

Which is the most memorable intercultural experience you have had?
It would not be fair to pinpoint one single experience, but I would like to mention one very simple feeling from living in Jakarta that made a big impression on me: seeing only big smiles and friendly “Hellos” in the morning chaos changes the mood and the attitude of the whole day. The openness, tolerance and friendliness of Indonesian people in daily life is stunning. I try hard to keep this spirit here in Switzerland, but it is not always easy.

If you had 1Mio Euro: In what kind of project would you invest?
I would invest in projects that strengthen the resilience of smallholder farmers towards weather and climate extremes. For example supporting and refining “climate field school” approaches which capacitate farmers to observe and better understand weather patterns and forecasts in order to adapt to a changing climate. And maybe try to combine them with measures of systematic improvement of local seeds and their safe storage.

In your opinion, what are the main obstacles for rural development?
To me, the biggest obstacles are a lack of access to knowledge, resources and land tenure combined with bad governance and too little support for and from applied agricultural research. Another obstacle is missing or misleading information on what is working and what has not worked in other areas of the world.

Contact Fabio Leippert

Interview No 21 / August 2014

Rahel Wyss

Rahel Wyss,
Country Representative for Switzerland,
YPARD

What are your profession and thematic focus?
I am assistant in the group of International Agriculture at the School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences HAFL, a department of the Bern University of Applied Sciences. I support teaching and work in projects and mandates in rural development. Since 2013,  I am representing Switzerland in YPARD. YPARD is a global and regional network platform, engaged in activities to facilitate and promote the entry of young professionals into research and development in the field of environmental and agricultural sciences.

How would you explain to a child, what you are currently working on?
I try to inspire and motivate young people to become interested and active in the field of agriculture. Innovative young professionals contribute to making our planet healthier, and a healthy planet provides us with fresh food and helps that children don’t have to suffer from hunger.

What / who influenced you in choosing your career?
I grew up on a farm. This certainly influenced my interest and my decision to study agriculture (BSc in International Agriculture and MSc in Applied Agricultural Sciences). The complexity of the agricultural sector, especially in the international context, fascinated me as a child and it still fascinates me today.

Which is the most important lesson you have learnt from your work?
I realize the importance of strengthening the collaboration between older and younger generations. The young generation is often missing in thematic discussions, strategic meetings and political debates. Young professionals should be regularly consulted as they will be the future leaders.

Which is the most memorable intercultural experience you have had?
When meeting students in Asian and African countries, I was astonished to see how hard they work and how little they eat to afford the years of education. On top of that, they often provide financial support to family members in the country side.

If you had 1Mio Euro: In what kind of project would you invest?
I would invest in education and good governance in developing countries. People in different institutions and at all levels should learn how to take responsibility and act in a participative and transparent way towards the common goal of sustainable development (in fact, this applies not only for developing but also for developed countries!).

In your opinion, what are the main obstacles for rural development?
It is the downward spiral of mistrust and corruption in developing countries. People in rural areas often do not believe in the system and the government of their countries and corruptive practices lead to further corruptive practices. This impedes initiatives to change things on a broader scale and keeps communities in the poverty trap.

Contact Rahel Wyss: rahel.wyss[at]bfh.ch

Interview No 20 / June 2014

Ernst Bolliger

Ernst Bolliger,
International Cooperation,
AGRIDEA Lindau

What are your profession and thematic focus?
My educational background is rural engineering with postgraduate training in development cooperation and later also supervision and coaching. My professional career confronted me with challenges in education and training. Today, two of my major foci are Rural Advisory Services (RAS) and Training of Facilitators.

How would you explain to a child, what you are currently working on?
Your teacher could be one of my students. Together we find out new ways of teaching, so that you like going to school and that you feel “learning is fun!”

What / who influenced you in choosing your career?
Some of my teachers and professors made my learning easy and I felt attracted by their teaching style. Later, students of our courses asked me what we did different from other professors at their university – they somehow were astonished not to fall asleep in our courses after lunch break. This brought me and my colleagues to a sound reflection of our style of facilitating learning events.

Which is the most important lesson you have learnt from your work?
You cannot change other people. You can only change yourself. You can invite other people to change. The better you manage to make change appear mythically attractive the bigger is the chance that other people decide to go for it and start acting.

Which is the most memorable intercultural experience you have had?
There is the famous sentence about the “exact” and the “mighty” side of live. “Exact” stands for how we are planning, how we are trying to bring expected developments into a clear shape. “Mighty” stands for how life is. Often life in a development context goes its own way, not as planned, and finally leads to a good result as well. I learnt observing and accepting alternative logics to our own.

If you had 1Mio Euro: In what kind of project would you invest?
I probably would invest in a credit scheme for small businesses with quite strict credit rules and repayment schemes, combined with educational and training components.

In your opinion, what are the main obstacles for rural development?
The brain drain. Urban centers are highly attractive to young people. Being a farmer and staying in the village one has grown up is often seen as the least attractive option, though in many cases the real experience of young people emigrating to urban centers or abroad is very discouraging and does not bring the expected wellbeing. People who stay back in a rural area are often those with lesser educational background and lesser skills.

Contact Ernst Bolliger: ernst.bolliger[at]agridea.ch

Interview No 19 / April 2014

Marlene Heeb

Marlene Heeb,
Programme Officer,
SDC Global Programme Food Security

What are your profession and thematic focus?
Our vision in the Global Programme is a world free of hunger and malnutrition to which smallholders contribute with healthy food accessible to all while increasing their income and safeguarding the environment. My portfolio covers the research cooperation with Swiss organizations and nutrition in the food security dialogue.

How would you explain to a child, what you are currently working on?
I contribute a little bit to assure that all children have enough nutritious food every day so that they can grow healthy, play around and go to school and learn. Nobody should have to go to bed hungry.

What / who influenced you in choosing your career?
My biology teacher had a certain influence in my choice to study biology, as I became fascinated by nature’s complexity and performance. Travelling and living abroad before and during my studies opened my eyes to the challenges of drastic inequalities in the world and motivated me to work in humanitarian aid and development cooperation.

Which is the most important lesson you have learnt from your work?
Change needs courage, patience, persistence and trust in your own vision. But also trust in other people’s capacities and interest in understanding their visions. Having the courage to ask one more time “WHY” things are in a certain way can often contribute significantly more to fruitful solutions than many studies or systematic analysis.

Which is the most memorable intercultural experience you have had?
When I realized that understanding my own cultural background is the basis for understanding and giving space to other cultures. This may sound simple, but proves to be a lifelong learning process. Sharing my daily life for several years in different cultural contexts was a good start for this ongoing process.

If you had 1Mio Euro: In what kind of project would you invest?
I would invest in education about healthy nutrition and assuring access and affordability of it. Finding the most appropriate means would depend on the context and I would also consider cash transfer programs. I am convinced that investing in healthy nutrition and education for children is extremely effective for further development of whole societies.

In your opinion, what are the main obstacles for rural development?
The lack of connections between rural areas and fast developing urban centers (reg. infrastructure, market, education, political influence etc.) seems to be a major obstacle to rural development, as many people are hesitant to voluntarily stay in slower developing areas.

Contact Marlene Heeb: marlene.heeb[at]eda.admin.ch

Interview No 18 / February 2014

Monika Messmer

Monika Messmer,
Head of Plant Breeding,
Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL)

What are your profession and thematic focus?
I have studied agrobiology and completed my PhD in plant breeding. I have been working with several crops on different topics. At FiBL I am involved in breeding research on plant microbe interaction, nutrient use efficiency and breeding for innovative cropping systems. Presently I am running a project on participatory cotton breeding in India in close collaboration with Indian partners. Combining scientific knowledge with farmers’ experience and retailers’ demands, we are trying to develop cotton cultivars with high fiber quality adapted to organic and low input farming in marginal regions.

How would you explain to a child, what you are currently working on?
I am working with the cotton plant, which is cultivated to harvest its fiber for your t-shirts and jeans. We are trying to breed a cotton plant with lots of fibers that needs less food and water and that can protect itself against bugs so that the farmer can grow it more easily without any poison. Clothes produced with such organic cotton are free of harmful substances and feel very good on your skin.

What / who influenced you in choosing your career?
I have always been very much attached to nature as my grandparents and uncles had small family farms in Germany. My cousin showed me how to raise caterpillars so that they can develop into a butterfly. During graduate school I had a very dedicated biology teacher who showed us a film on crossings of wheat. From then on I wanted to become a plant breeder.

Which is the most important lesson you have learnt from your work?
I have learnt that nature is very complex and that a plant is much more than the sum of individual organs, substances or genes. Plants are not only incredibly beautiful, but also very innovative in the way they interact with their environment. Whenever we are trying to answer one scientific question ten new questions appear and keep us busy. I strongly believe that there are always different ways to reach the same goal. Therefore, scientists have to be very creative and open minded, and they should try to feel like a plant to see the full picture.

Which is the most memorable intercultural experience you have had?
When I was in Kenya many years ago, I realized how it feels when everybody is gazing at you because the color of your skin is different. Also, I was astonished how many people fit into a minibus if you reduce your personal safety distance and I learned that happiness and hospitality is negatively correlated to the standard of living.

If you had 1Mio Euro: In what kind of project would you invest?
I would invest in participatory breeding programs of traditional legume crops and local vegetables in mixed cropping systems in order to diversify crops on farm level and to increase food diversity. This might help to reduce risks due to weather extremes and improve nutrition of smallholders. In addition I would invest in research on mixed cropping systems in different pedoclimatic conditions and in the development of research networks.

In your opinion, what are the main obstacles for rural development?
In my point of view the biggest obstacle is the brain drain from rural areas to megacities. Farmers have the important task to take care of the food not only for themselves but for the urban population as well. Therefore, farmers should receive the appropriate recognition from all citizens and they should be able to be proud of their profession. But in order to become successful farmers also need access to soil, water, seed, information, local markets and insurance. They should be empowered to find their own solutions consistent with their values and way of life.

Contact Monika Messmer

Former interviews

see archive

Newsletter

The SFIAR Newsletter provides you every other month with the latest news on agricultural research for development.
To subscribe, please enter your e-mail:

top of page | print | recommend