Bridging Development Research and Development Practice

The story of how an undergraduate passion became a 35 year career for AFRE professor and FSG co-director David Tschirley.

As an undergraduate student 35 years ago, David Tschirley had no idea what an “agricultural economist” was, and could not have imagined becoming one. He did know, however, that he was fascinated by issues of rural development in low income countries, and was convinced that economic opportunity needed to be at the root of any such development. When he started reading development journals and seeing that nearly every article that was catching his attention – and resonating with his summer experiences working in Central America — was written by an agricultural economist, he was on his way to choosing his career. 

He knew that he wanted that career to bridge development research and development practice. After choosing MSU for his graduate study, he realized that the department’s commitment to applied research done in collaboration with local partners and brought to bear on local issues was exactly the niche for him. Nearly four decades later, that career has taken him from living and working in Ecuador on issues of agricultural pricing and marketing policy at a local policy think tank, to a three-year stay in Mozambique, with additional long-term engagements in Zambia, Kenya, and Tanzania, and “side trips” along the way for research and policy engagement across other countries of East and Southern Africa. 

Now serving as co-director of the department’s Food Security Group (FSG), Tschirley juggles management responsibilities with an active research agenda. For the past several years, that agenda — pursued with colleagues at MSU and beyond — has focused on the dramatic transformations taking place in African food systems.

Big Changes in African Food Systems

Driven by income growth and rapid urbanization, African farmers and urban consumers are rapidly changing the kind of food that they eat, and the ways that they get it. While farming is still extremely important on the continent and small farmers still eat a lot of the food that they produce, they increasingly complement farming with off-farm economic activities, and produce more and more for the market, earning cash. Tschirley and colleagues have documented that about half of all the food consumed in rural areas of East and Southern Africa comes from the market, not from farmers’ own production.

In their research, Tschirley’s team has also documented the rapid rise in demand for processed foods in rural and urban areas, and have begun to explore its implications in multiple dimensions. Some of these processed foods are simple, such as the purchase of packaged maize meal rather than buying grain and hand-pounding it. While seemingly simple, this change drives big changes throughout the “value chain”, with traders earning more money from maize trade, small business owners earning money from operating their mills, workers gaining employment in those mills, and rural women saving time and avoiding the back-breaking work of pounding grain to make their maize meal.

Other processed foods are more along the lines of what western consumers think of when they hear the term — foods with multiple ingredients, which have gone through greater physical change than just simple grinding, and which may have high levels of added fat, salt, or sugar. Africa is seeing a surprising surge in the number of overweight and obese population, with related increases in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, heart disease, and hyper-tension. These trends have led researchers and development practitioners now to refer to Africa’s “double burden” of malnutrition — large but falling numbers of people with insufficient food consumption to live healthy lives, and at the same time smaller but rapidly rising numbers of overweight and obese at high risk of NCDs.  And this becomes a “triple burden” when one realizes that many of the people in both groups consume too few micronutrients, leading to a range of other health problems. Tschirley and his colleagues are now hard at work exploring how the “food environment” in which consumers make their food choices is evolving and how it can be designed to generate healthier choices for people across Africa.

From Research to Improved Development Impact

Much of this work has been made possible by funding from the US Agency for International Development, which runs development programs in countries around the world and draws heavily on FSG’s work. Tschirley has also taken advantage of the global platform that AFRE and FSG offer, by advising international organizations such as the World Food Program, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the World Bank, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a UN-affiliated organization based in Rome.

Recently, Tschirley was asked by IFAD to serve as Lead External Author for its Rural Development Report 2019 — the agency’s flagship analytical and agenda-setting report. With a $6 billion portfolio of ongoing programs and projects in rural areas of the developing world, Tschirley looks forward to bringing a lifetime of learning to bear in helping this organization design programs that have bigger and better impacts on people’s lives — exactly the kind of work he realized 35 years ago he wanted to do, and that MSU, AFRE, and FSG have made possible.

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