Q&A: Agriculture modeling, the new skill agricultural scientists need

A systems modeling training conducted by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid-Tropics Innovation Systems for the Drylands. Photo by: CGIAR

CANBERRA — Dr. Robert Zougmoré, regional program leader of the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security Program within CGIAR, brings decades of experience in agronomy to understanding the changing landscape and its impact on agricultural production and food security, with a focus on building climate-resilient food systems in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite this experience, Zougmoré is constantly learning and on the lookout for new ideas and approaches that could improve his work, and that of his team. He believes in exploring the potential of new ideas, as well as sharing those ideas among stakeholders outside the science community.

In a conversation with Devex during a recent visit to Australia, he discussed the new skill set that he believes agricultural scientists need to advance their career opportunities in the sector.

Can you tell us about the organizations you have been engaging with and what you have learned in Australia?

The main purpose was to meet Australian organizations relevant to my current work in Africa. These institutions were selected in line with my current portfolio. It was a great opportunity for me to meet with CSIRO scientists in Hobart, for example … and try to understand what is happening in Australia.

Between Australia and Africa, we almost have a similar climate in terms of soil.

The Australian experience can help me to improve what I have so far achieved, in terms of success from a research and development perspective. I am working on climate change and agricultural security, and my team is investigating how to mitigate the impact of climate change on the agriculture and food security sector. From that perspective, we are interested in the development of technologies and practices for climate-related adaptation, and mitigation of greenhouse gases.

This visit particularly highlighted for me the value of modeling. In Hobart, I met a team working on climate modeling who were developing climate information that farmers can use for decision-making. It can be equally valuable in West Africa.

But I was also learning from social scientists at CSIRO on how to innovate research. By using some of the innovative approaches that have been used in Australia, we can create a framework that can help to improve and innovate our work.

Do you see modeling as an important skill set for agricultural researchers to have?

Definitely. My eyes have been opened to the potential use of models. It has a huge potential for crop and livestock production analysis, economic modeling and more — all relevant to my work. This is an area I am investigating for further research and collaboration among my team.

Personally, I need to know more about the potential of these tools, and then organize my team to have the advantage of them. But we all need to be learning the potential of each of these tools and how they can help us to improve our research output. This is what I am going to be focused on. I’ll also be looking to tie in collaboration to also help improve our capacity.

For young people considering a career in agricultural science and agronomy, I would encourage them to focus on modeling. I really see it as important to support the research, implement the research and to use the results of the research for decision-making. It is so useful. This is a tool that we need more, so having the capacity and people who can work around different models and help to plan our research — and further use the research for outputs — is crucial.

With modeling, the outputs are as good as the data that goes in. Do you consider understanding and creating quality data to be another skill set that agricultural scientists need?

You are right — we lack strong and robust capacity with data that is linked to national collection programs. But on the research side, there is a great opportunity to improve the creation of databases for our own work and research.

The current high usage of mobile phones in Africa, for example, can provide opportunities to connect to and engage with a lot of households. The mobile phone can be better used as a data asset or tool. But we also need to look at sharing data to create open access. It’s important to develop the capacity in building robust databases and data systems.

What are other skill sets that you see becoming increasingly important in this sector?

We are working with a variety of partners, from agricultural research institutions to government, to farmer organizations and more, so we have to be able to engage diverse groups.

After my visit to Australia, I will be reaching out to all these stakeholders to share my experiences, hoping that they will have the same open mind as I did to embrace these ideas.

There are opportunities to improve what we have done so far, as well as to develop new, innovative products that can transform our agriculture. But we have to do it together.

How important is it for anyone working or considering working in agricultural research to be continually learning?

It is very important. We have a very harsh environment in West Africa, and we have to continually innovate, as one year can be completely different from another, just as one location can also be different from another.

We have to be open-minded. We have to learn from past experiences and use that to build our capacity to innovate. And we have to be flexible in our approaches to research. And we have to meet with stakeholders and make use of opportunities, and engage with policymakers who can use our research as an output to inform decision-making.

Being open to learning is critical to respond to the next challenges we face.

Devex, with financial support from our partner 2U, is exploring the skills and education development sector professionals will need for the future. Visit the Focus on: DevPros 2030 page for more.

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.