Nicole Mason: Collaborating across Africa for agricultural development

As a young Peace Corps volunteer in the African nation of Guinea, Nicole Mason discovered her passion for working with smallholder farmers in Africa.

June 18, 2015

Nicole Mason

As a young Peace Corps volunteer in the African nation of Guinea, Nicole Mason discovered her passion for working with smallholder farmers in Africa, which led her to graduate school at MSU and her current position as an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics.

“I loved interacting with the farmers in my village in Guinea, particularly the women’s gardening cooperatives, chatting with them and learning about the opportunities and challenges they faced,” said Mason, whose job in the Peace Corps involved environmental education and agroforestry.

When she returned to the United States, Mason said she missed her interactions with the farming community, so she got involved with the local foods movement in Pennsylvania, where she had graduated from Allegheny College with a degree in biology. She also realized that she wanted to continue to work and travel internationally. She decided to focus on food security issues in Africa and chose Michigan State as the place to earn her advanced degrees. She received her master’s and doctorate in agricultural economics. 

“MSU has been a great fit for me,” said Mason, who grew up near Rochester, N.Y. “Our long-term engagement in and commitment to building research capacity in Africa really sets MSU apart from other universities.”  

When Mason joined the Michigan State faculty in 2011, she was based in Lusaka, Zambia, and was also a research fellow with the Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute, or IAPRI. During her second year in Zambia, she became the capacity building coordinator. While in Zambia, she did collaborative research with Zambian partners, conducted technical training sessions for IAPRI staff members on agricultural policy analysis and quantitative methods, and  taught two master’s-level classes at the University of Zambia in a brand new agricultural economics program.   

“Collaborating with researchers at IAPRI has been a wonderful learning experience. We learn from one another,” Mason said. “They know the Zambian context far better than I ever could, no matter how many trips I take there. They ensure that our work is grounded in the local context, and I can help them improve their skill sets in other ways, so it’s a mutually beneficial partnership.”  

Armed with the knowledge she gained from working and living in Africa for two years, Mason returned to East Lansing in 2013 for a new assignment as an assistant professor in the tenure system. Part of her current research focuses on the resurgent role of governments in agricultural markets in Africa, with an emphasis on agricultural input subsidy and crop purchase programs.

“I began studying these programs a few years ago and started out looking at the effects of the programs on fertilizer and hybrid seed use as well as cropping patterns,” she said. “Now I’m focusing more on higher level impacts of the programs, such as their effects on poverty among small farmers in Zambia and Kenya.”

She sums up the lessons learned in an engaging video called “The Scoop on Fertilizer Subsidies” released May 20, 2015. The 20-minute talk appears in the AgTalks series on IFAD TV  (International Fund for Agricultural Development). 

She also has been working with her first graduate student advisee to understand how subsidies for inorganic fertilizer in Zambia affect farmers’ use of other soil fertility management practices.

“These practices can improve soil quality and the effectiveness of inorganic fertilizer, so we want to understand if the fertilizer subsidy program was encouraging or discouraging farmers’ use of these practices,” she explained. “Improving soil health is high on the policy agenda -- in fact, 2015 has been named the International Year of Soils by the United Nations – so this is an important issue.

“I was a biology major and have a longstanding interest in the interactions between agriculture, the environment and development. It’s an area I would like to explore more in the future,” Mason said.

She will travel back to Zambia early this summer to help train trainers for an upcoming IAPRI survey of about 8,000 smallholder farm households. The households were first interviewed back in 2012, and the goal is to reinterview them this year to track changes over time in their farm and off-farm activities. She will use these data in her research in the coming years.

Later this summer, Mason plans to travel to Kenya to share with policymakers the findings of her work on fertilizer subsidy issues there. This work is in collaboration with colleagues at the Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development, which is a unit of Kenya’s Egerton University.

Mason’s first teaching experience at MSU came this past year and involved two graduate-level courses. One was a statistics class for first-year master’s students. She team-taught the other class – “Agriculture and Economic Development” -- with another relative newcomer, assistant professor Saweda Liverpool-Tasie. The class included students from just about every continent, Mason said.

“That made for some really rich discussions,” she said. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching, and the talented graduate students we have in AFRE made both classes a lot of fun to teach. Saweda was wonderful to work with as well, and we’re excited to teach together again this coming fall.”

-- Christine Meyer

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