Jayne named MSU Foundation professor for work in Africa

Thom Jayne has been named an MSU Foundation Professor, a new honor designed to recognize the work of outstanding university faculty members.

June 18, 2015

Thom Jayne

Thom Jayne has been named an MSU Foundation Professor, a new honor designed to recognize the work of outstanding university faculty members. The professorship is supported by the MSU Foundation in partnership with the MSU Office of Research and Graduate Studies.  Jayne will receive up to $60,000 per year over the next five years that he can use for research-related expenses such as travel, salaries and graduate student tuition.

David Washburn, executive director of the MSU Foundation, said this type of program is vital if MSU hopes to retain its best and brightest faculty members. Washburn said the foundation wants to name 25 MSU foundation professors over the next few years.

“This is one tool we can make available to help the university retain and attract the best,” Washburn said. “In turn, we expect the recipients will help us increase our preeminence as a major research institution that solves the world’s hard problems.”

That is exactly what Jayne has been doing since he joined AFRE in 1989 and moved to sub-Saharan Africa for the first time with MSU. He decided that his work would focus on the ways in which government policies affected smallholder farmers as they struggled to feed themselves and climb out of poverty.

Jayne sees positive change happening in much of Africa, and increasingly it’s Africans who are taking the lead in policy analysis and guiding government officials.  Jayne cited the Indaba Agricultural Policy Institute (IAPRI), a Zambian think tank that grew out of a policy analysis training project with Jayne, Nicholas Sitko, Nicole Mason and others from the MSU Food Security Group. He also pointed to Egerton University’s Tegemeo Institute in Kenya, where he has worked with African colleagues for almost 20 years.

“African policymakers increasingly expect to be relying on African analysts to guide them,” Jayne said. “The time has now come where there’s enough African expertise that MSU can be making itself a valuable partner by supporting African organizations to do many of the things that international researchers used to do directly.”

Recently, Jayne has been turning his attention to a looming challenge called the “youth bulge.” Over the next 20 years, 350 million young Africans will be entering the workforce.

In April, Jayne traveled to several African capitals to help African colleagues prepare and present a program titled “Megatrends in Africa and the Factors Shaping Them.” The youth bulge is one of those megatrends.  With 70 percent of Africa’s population currently working in agriculture, “its viability will influence whether millions of young Africans are gainfully employed in farming or underemployed in informal sector jobs.  The labor force is growing too rapidly to absorb most of the youth into viable non-farm jobs,”  Jayne said.

During his April travel, Jayne also sought to promote the efforts of IAPRI and seven other African policy institutes, whose analysts will be working on this dilemma in the coming years. Later this year, they will present their findings on the population and jobs issue to the African Union.

“Our role is to work with governments and increasingly local policy institutes in Africa to do the analysis that will guide governments on how to address this huge challenge,” Jayne said.

“In my mind, Thom was the ideal candidate for this honor,” said Lindon Robison, AFRE interim chairperson. “He has an amazing blend of scholarship, along with service aspirations for solving problems of poverty, and he does both really well.” 

The list of Jayne’s successes in securing grants and publishing articles is long. His published work has been cited almost 7,000 times by economists and agricultural economists worldwide, Robison said. Jayne has been the principal investigator or co-principal investigator on over $45 million of external grants since 2008. A $7.8 million Gates Foundation grant he secured in 2013 is helping to fund the work of at least seven other MSU faculty members involved in research in Africa. As testament to the esteem in which he is held in Africa, in 2013 Jayne was inducted as a fellow of the African Association of Agricultural Economists.

Jayne is a home-grown product who received his master’s and doctorate from MSU.

“Thom is AFRE,” Robison said, “and having him recognized for this honor sends a significant message to potential faculty members that this is a premier place to develop a career.”  

Jayne’s list of accomplishments also includes being a dissertation advisor for eight Ph.D. researchers who have graduated since 2010, five of whom are assistant professors at U.S. universities. Two of them, Nicole Mason and Milu Muyanga, are AFRE assistant professors at MSU.  Both Muyanga and Mason, along with assistant professor Jordan Chamberlin, have provided valuable assistance in building the university’s relationship with African research institutes, Jayne noted. 

As the years go by, Jayne has come to realize that it’s the people he meets and the relationships he builds – both at MSU and in Africa – that provide meaning to his work as it  carries forward, he hopes, into future generations. 

“That’s what will have the most lasting impact, far more than what I write,” he said.

-- Christine Meyer

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