Worth the wait: STAAARS Plus Fellows visit the United States

After the long COVID-19 lockdown, STAAARS+ fellows visit mentors and build connections at Cornell, D.C., and MSU

East Lansing, MI – nothing replaces the power of in-person connection, as was clear from the Structural Transformation of African and Asian Agriculture and Rural Spaces (STAAARS+) fellows visiting the campus of Michigan State University for the first time. The third cohort of early career African and Asian scholars is now working through the rigorous 18-month training program led by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy, Research, Capacity, and Influence (PRCI). All the teams were finally able to visit their mentors at Cornell University, Washington D.C., and here at MSU in the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics (AFRE).

When the STAAARS+ program was conceptualized, in-person interaction was understood as a critical part of the process. However, because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, this September was the first time that any of the STAAARS+ fellows were able to travel to meet their mentors. Due to the pandemic, mentor and training interactions have been entirely virtual, until now.

Meeting the mentors

The two teams that came to MSU were from the Nigerian Innovation Lab for Policy Leadership in Agriculture and Food Security (PiLAF) and the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC) in Uganda. From the EPRC team, Ambrose Ogwang spoke to the value of in-person collaboration with mentors. “With the physical events even for the number of days here, I think my colleagues can attest that we have moved a great milestone.”

Nathaniel Olutegbe, from the Ibadan University's PiLAF team, spoke about his team’s trip to MSU to meet with their mentors, “It’s been eye opening. In fact, with this short stint in the US, just one hour of physical contact with any of our mentors has added so much to us…to concretize what we have already started. We see with even just these three days we have learned so much with our mentors. It has been a wonderful experience.”

STAAARS plus PiLAF and EPRC teams September 2022
STAAARS+ PiLAF and EPRC teams with mentors, PRCI Director Dr. David Tschirley and FSG International Specialist Steve Longabaugh.

The mentoring process is powerful for the mentors as well. Rui Benfica, one of the EPRC team mentors, grew up in a developing country and eventually became a highly respected senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). He said, “Being able to actually have been there, and being able now to pass knowledge on to a new generation has been quite remarkable. We’re contributing to making it possible for them to walk the pathways [of international development] themselves.”

PiLAF mentor and AFRE assistant professor, Justin George Kappiaruparampil spoke about the benefits of mentoring, “For me, the opportunity to mentor senior researchers from a premium policy think tank in Africa was a unique experience. Their ability to incorporate on-the-ground knowledge and local/regional policy perspective every step of the way made the research process very interesting. In addition, collaborating with researchers who are genuinely interested in solving real world problems in their local environments provides more meaning to the entire mentoring process.”

The STAAARS+ teams both presented seminars to their mentors, AFRE faculty, and students while at MSU. The seminars were in-person and online through zoom.  These presentations — and the feedback they received from them — were Dablin’s most valuable experience as part of the STAAARS+ fellowship. “Presenting our work in progress to this experienced set of researchers…the process of presenting, then you have a discussion with them, and you can reason with them, that’s something I would like to do every day.” 

Gaining technical skills and getting published

AFRE professor and EPRC team mentor, Duncan Boughton, spoke about the importance of publishing, “Many colleagues in PRCI partner institutions aspire to publish their work in internationally recognized peer-reviewed journals.  But most young researchers have neither a roadmap nor mentors to guide them in the process. As a consequence, it can seem at best daunting and the barriers insurmountable.”

EPRC STAAARS+ team with mentors
EPRC STAAARS+ team with mentors.

Key research skills such as data management and using secondary data are crucial to this process. On combining data sets, Nathaniel said, “That was never an experience I had acquired in all my many years of research, and therefore this program was able to present that to me as a challenge, take it through the mentoring platform, and provide advice that supports the issues.”  He explained that going forward it will be easy for them to use these techniques to do research comparing Nigerian data with other countries such as Ghana or Malawi, which would not have been possible for his team previously. His goal? To have their research published in a high-impact journal.

“The STAAARS+ program provides a complete package of training, peer engagement, and mentorship to empower young researchers to achieve their scholarship goals.” Said Prof. Boughton, “As a mentor I learn a great deal from the researchers about the challenges of agriculture in their home country, and through brainstorming together with them on how evidence can shed light on ways to address those challenges.”

The training program covers everything from email management, project management, data management and analysis, communication and networking skills, as well as basic skills of reproducibility and transparency in research. Dablin Mpuuga of the EPRC team shares his experience in the training process, “In terms of technical skills, these trainings have been quite intensive, as well as how you present, how you communicate…I can say I am far better than where I was.”

“What I can say is that the program has taught me is to communicate better and to follow up,” said Sawuya Nakijoba of the EPRC team. “We have been receiving many emails and other communications before we came. STAAARS+ has taught me to follow-up with them. It has also taught me to keep time and to work within the time range.” 

The EPRC team shared their experience with another aspect of PRCI’s programming, the Policy Influence Capacity Advancement (PICA) Process, led by John Bonnell and Cait Goddard of Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development (BHEARD). PICA gave the Ugandans a structure for how to think about building their own capacity within the needs of building institutional capacity. Dablin explained that he sees STAAARS+ and PICA as a complementary programs, “It’s coming back to synergies, complementing the PICA process and that’s the final goal, to build capacity, and to build the capacity of research institutions, but of course, institutions are made of researchers.”

Experiencing North American universities

Before coming to MSU, the Pilaf and EPRC teams also visited Cornell University along with all three cohorts of STAAARS+ fellows. By happenstance, Cornell was also hosting a conference on 100 Years of Economic Development. Through STAAARS+ funding all the fellows were able to attend. While there they were able to meet highly distinguished scholars, shaking hands and networking in ways that can build future collaboration. The EPRC team expressed how rejuvenating they found the whole trip, affording them the opportunity to re-find their work-life balance and take a break from departmental meetings and obligations to focus on networking and research.

In person meetings were a powerful part of the experience for Benjamin from the PiLAF team, “They welcomed us with open arms…this was someone whose work we had been using all along since we started, but we never knew until we booked an appointment, went to his office and started talking, and he mentioned his name, and then we knew! This was someone whose work has been guiding us. So it was easy for us to connect, with this common ground.”

On institutional capacity strengthening

A central pillar of the STAAARS+ program is the importance of strengthening local institutional capacity for making empirically based policy recommendations.  Benjamin Oyelami from the PiLAF team shares how the institutional focus shaped their work, “We took that very seriously and it was what informed our stakeholders meeting that PiLAF held in August.

Scott Swinton with STAAARS plus PiLAF team september 2022
AFRE Department Chair Scott Swinton with STAAARS+ PiLAF team.

We are seeing it helping to push for more attention to policy. We saw it as a mandate, and it kept us focused. We needed to search for every opportunity to connect with policymakers, civil service, and technocrats, to ensure the research output influenced policy.” Benjamin explained that a STAAARS+ workshop by IFPRI fellow and PRCI Research-to-Policy Lead, Kristin Davis, on policy communication helped them create the initial stakeholders outreach meeting.

For the EPRC team, Nathanial said, “There is a direct link between STAAARS+ and PRCI capacity improving at an institutional level. We are individuals within different institutions it is expected to go out to pick up anything new or elevated. The culture in our institutions is to step it down to members of faculty, and skills we are learning here will be integrated into our roles as they relate to students, expanding the frontier and contributing to students. It will build into something greater, benefiting them from what we have learned as STAAARS+ fellows.”

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