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Research to impact: stories from Zimbabwe

Over a couple of weeks in December, I visited our long-term field sites in A1 resettlement sites in Masvingo province in Zimbabwe. It is now nearly 20 years since land reform and the beginning of our research engagement across these sites, and it was fascinating to hear about the changes that have been unfolding (more on this later in the year), but it was also interesting to learn how our research is being used on the ground.

At the heart of our work has been the on-going monitoring of what has happened to people’s livelihoods over time. This has involved a number of surveys, approximately each 5 years, but, in addition, we have been undertaking thematic studies on topics that have arisen as a result of conversations in the field. Many of these have been reported on this blog. They have included investigations exploring how young people have responded to land reform; the role of small towns in local economic development; explorations of land tenure and local authority, and much, much more.

One such theme that emerged a few years back was farmer-led, small-scale, informal irrigation. This was clearly becoming more and more important and we started a focused study under the auspices of the APRA programme, supported by DFID. One output of this was an open access paper in Water Alternatives. I hadn’t realised it until this most recent field visit that this had really struck a chord amongst the farmers we had been working with. As one commented, “it’s the talk of the area”. Copies of the paper had been distributed to those involved in the research when it came out, and one of the leads of an irrigation group on one of the resettlement farms had recently used it at a national field day held in one of our sites in Masvingo district.

Mr Mumero’s speech made the case, as we do in the paper, that irrigation policy was missing the mark, and that small-scale irrigation by farmers was transforming agriculture, and the potentials for productive farming. The assembled dignitaries – including the director at the Ministry of Provincial Affairs, the provincial and district heads of Agritex (ag extension) and MD and Chief Agronomist of Charter Seeds – were impressed. Hopefully the argument will catch on with those who make policy and fund programmes, with a diversion of effort towards what works, not wasting effort and funds on what has failed for years.

In another field site, we learned that our small booklets on local economic development had also been used for lobbying for change, particularly around supporting local business linkages with farming. Together with a series of videos, the booklets document the work of the DFID-funded SMEAD project (Space, Markets, Employment and Agricultural Development), making the case for supporting farm/off-off farm linkages along value chains. We had just reprinted a pile of the booklets (both in English and Shona) and farmers were delighted to take them to continue their lobbying work with government officials.

This blog is widely read, but not necessarily in our field sites as Internet coverage is not universal and bundles are pricey, and what’s more electricity supplies are today very intermittent. So over the years, we have produced two low cost book compilations of blogs, organised by themes – Debating Zimbabwe’s Land Reform and Land Reform in Zimbabwe: Challenges for Policy – which can be read in hard copy. These have been widely distributed in the field sites (as well as government offices and elsewhere), and it was great to learn that in several sites, they have been read as part of ‘reading circles’ in the villages, as our original 2010 book, Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities, had been.

Zimbabwe’s land reform farmers are by-and-large an educated and articulate bunch, and are fascinated by the results of our research, and especially so when it’s focused on their concerns. They have always been the most exacting peer reviewers of our research. So, it was good to learn that the blog has emerged as part of a process of community self-education in the places we continue to work.

And it’s not only in the field sites where the research has been the inspiration for other activities. A few months ago, I heard from a blog reader that she had used a few of the blogs as the basis for a fictional exploration of the themes in a collection of short stories. A couple were subsequently developed as a play, and the result – Prisca’s Story – was performed at the Mitambo International Theatre Festival in Harare in October last year, which sadly I missed.

Research funders are obsessed by demonstrating ‘impact’, but very often impact only emerges slowly and through long processes of engagement and not through the choreographed approaches that are often proposed (or required). I had no idea much of this was happening, but it’s always good to know that research has diverse uses and can be repurposed and shared with different audiences. Hopefully, the blog in 2020 can help with this mission.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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Sharing results, generating impact: experience from Zimbabwe

One of the many exciting things I did when visiting our field sites in Zimbabwe at the end of last year, was to help hand out a new set of booklets based on our ‘Space, Markets, Employment and Agricultural Development’ project (supported by DFID-ESRC), that has now concluded.

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The project looked at how changing patterns of agriculture is influencing markets (upstream and downstream) and employment. We looked at a series of commodities – tobacco, beef, horticulture and maize – in two sites – Mvurwi in Mazowe area and Masvingo district.

This allowed for some important insights to emerge through both qualitative and quantitative work. We have produced a long report if you want all the detail, and some journal articles are in the works. But in our research we are also committed to making findings available to wider audiences. Our prize last year recognising ‘impact’ highlighted this approach. So we have produced some more popular outputs, including a series of much-viewed films (they are short – just 10 mins or less) that I have mentioned on the blog before. The films have been shared in showings in the study areas, and DVDs have been circulated to agricultural offices, training centres, schools and so on. And for those with good enough Internet connections they can be viewed online via youtube (there are hi and low res versions). At the end of last year we produced a booklet summarising the findings, and offering some case studies of how people have engaged with these changing markets, paid for in part by our prize money.

The booklets are in Shona and English, and are available to download here (scroll down to get the new booklets – they’re blue, and uploaded in low res quality so they are feasible to download). They complement our earlier booklets that offered an overview of the findings presented in our 2010 book (these are the green ones!). These proved a massive hit in our study areas, and ‘reading circles’ were formed to share them across villages in Masvingo.

As before we have produced a large print run of the colour booklets. In November-December we distributed over 1500 to our field sites in Mvurwi, Masvingo, as well as Masvingo. These were handed out to the villagers we have worked with over the years, as well as officials in Agritex offices, local government, private sector businesses and others. Not only were people delighted to see themselves and friends and family in the photos, but they were appreciative of the effort to feedback and share results. There have been many conversations of our findings since.

There is much talk about ‘impact’ these days in research circles. It’s become an obligation to demonstrate impact, uptake and so on, but these edicts are often followed rather reluctantly. In the last UK national research assessment exercise, university researchers had to produce ‘impact case studies’. Many were excellent, but there were a few where it was clear that researcher were scraping at the bottom of a rather empty barrel. Much of the research impact business is also rather mechanical. There are endless guidelines, tedious workshops, toolkits and yes inevitably consultants to help you with the process. And so often ‘impact’ efforts are added on after the event, with the funding body deciding (after being critiqued) that they need to ‘do impact work’ on research that has already been done, and with a group of people who are not really ready to do it.

But in my view with ‘engaged’ research (another buzzword), it’s an ethical obligation to feedback, link with research users and find ways that your research has resonance – and from the very beginning of all research efforts. Impact may not be immediate, and may require years and years of engaging before a moment arises when the research becomes relevant and useful. It may also be highly unexpected, with engagements from unusual sources. This is the problem with the approach to ‘compulsory’ impact, as people are forced to demonstrate impact and uptake in rather inane ways, when actually it wasn’t appropriate.

I am in the lucky position of working with an amazing group of people in Zimbabwe and over a long period of time. This is how we can have impact, but it is slow, patient and cumulative, and requires multiple strategies. These booklets are our latest effort: do read them!

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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