After 20 years at Michigan State University (MSU), Cynthia Donovan, an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural Food, and Resource Economics (AFRE), long-time member of the AFRE’s Food Security Group (FSG), and most recently deputy co-director for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Legume Systems Research, has retired. Before joining the AFRE faculty in 1999 and working closely with the Food Security Group, Donovan earned her master’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Minnesota, worked as an analyst for the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), completed a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from MSU, and worked as a post-doctoral researcher for the West Africa Rice Development Association. During her time at MSU Donovan worked throughout sub-Saharan Africa and more recently in Latin America with the Legume Innovation lab. Donovan credits her service in the United Sates Peace Corps with instilling a passion for research on international agricultural development.
As a Ph.D. student at MSU, Donovan began working in Mozambique as a research assistant for her advisor, current Food Security Group Co-Director David Tschirley, and segued into her doctoral research also in Mozambique. Reflecting on how Mozambique became the focus of her research, Donovan recalls a conversation from 1992, “David and I were talking and he said to me that if I spoke Portuguese he could get me involved in Mozambique, and I said, ‘Well, I actually do speak Portuguese’.” Donovan had learned Portuguese through an undergraduate exchange program during her time at Swarthmore College.
After decades of war, Mozambique had just begun the peace accord process when Donovan arrived in the country in 1992. She began by studying the country’s maize markets, which were being flooded with yellow maize food aid shipments from the United States. With the war ending, Donovan says, “This was a very dynamic time for me to be doing research. While the maize shipments from the U.S. were critical during the civil war for preventing famine, as stability returned to the country and more Mozambique farmers returned, expanded their area, and began to produce more, the food aid shipments had begun to suppress prices at the local markets that were popping up all over the country.” Working with retired MSU Professor Mike Weber and David Tschirley, Donovan helped Mozambique’s Ministry of Agriculture develop a market information system to track food prices and monitor the country’s food security situation. This market information system is still in use today. Donovan has seen this data used by countless researchers and graduate students over the years. Donovan notes that, “Former students have reached positions of responsibility and become the leaders, now acting as our counterparts and bosses in policy analysis. For example, Higino Marrule, an MSU graduate, was until recently, Mozambique’s Minister of Agriculture and Food Security. Seeing someone go from being a student to leading a private or public institution is one of the greatest feelings in this profession.”
About her time in Mozambique, David Tschirley says “Cynthia was curious, determined, and without fear in what was often a very challenging environment in which to do research. She combined a practical feel for real issues with a commitment to research excellence, and was both a real asset to the program and a good friend.”
When Donovan returned to MSU as a faculty member, she took on many different projects both big and small throughout sub-Saharan Africa, including work for World Vision under the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Angola, work on the impact of HIV and AIDS on rural communities in Rwanda and Zambia, and research on the impact of Coconut Lethal Yellowing Disease in Mozambique under the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
Donovan credits MSU’s support of fixed term faculty positions in international development for bringing her back to the University. As a fixed term faculty member Donovan was able to spend three years living and working in Mozambique, which she says would not have been possible if she were expected to both teach classes and advise graduate students. In addition to her research for the Food Security Group, Donovan spent six years as Deputy Director of the Legume Innovation Lab and another year as Deputy Director for the new Feed the Future Legume Systems Research Innovation Lab, as well as Director of the Legume Scholars Program Associate Award. In that role, she promoted the role of research on grain legumes in nutrition, environment, and incomes for farmers, and she continues that mission, consuming Michigan black beans and more.
Reflecting on all of her travels and research experiences, Donovan notes that there were challenging situations, especially when traveling through parts of Angola that had not yet been cleared of land mines and working with severely underfunded local colleagues. Sometimes the research findings could be heartbreaking as farmers faced crises of floods, droughts, and pests, but everywhere she went, she met amazing people doing amazing things and found colleagues who would eventually become some of her closest friends.
When thinking about the next generation of agricultural economists who will be working in the international development sphere, Donovan encourages graduate students to find mentors, and encourages her colleagues to become mentors. She also says it’s important for students and graduates to find research projects, even if they are relatively small, adding, “don’t just wait for the 2-million-dollar grant, find something you can get started with now.”
In her retirement, Donovan is looking forward to splitting her time between Michigan and Northern Minnesota and kayaking as much as she possibly can.