Why I choose a career in agricultural research

I developed an interest in agriculture during my high school days simply because I was curious about the food production process and the people who produced food. As result, the decision to study agricultural economics as an undergraduate came easy to me. My parents, being typical Africa parents, wanted me to study medicine, but I couldn’t stand the smell of hospitals and honestly, I don’t like needles.

After sitting at home for 4 years writing the JAMB examination for medicine, my parents finally allowed me sit for subjects that will enable me study agricultural economics. I finally gained admission to study the course of my choice, agricultural economics, at the Federal University of Technology Owerri, Nigeria. I graduated as the best student in the faculty with first class honours. I had my first contact with smallholder farmers during my undergraduate research as I explored the effect of agricultural credit schemes on financing small-scale agriculture in Nigeria. This research was published in the International Journal of Applied Research and Technology and it opened my eyes to the inconsistencies and poor strategies adopted in implementing agricultural finance policies in Nigeria. I realised that among other reasons, lack of transparency and late disbursement of credit were major causes of poverty among smallholder farmers as they cause a significant decline farmers’ output and incomes.

Graduating with first class honours enabled me secure the African Land and Food Scholarship from the Royal Agricultural University (RAU), United Kingdom, to obtain a Masters’ degree in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security (SAFS). I decided to study the SAFS course because of the significant food insecurity that threatens most rural farmers despite the fact that they are the major producers of the food we consume in Nigeria. Studying this course at a Masters’ level, has improved my understanding about ways to improve smallholder farming systems in sub-Saharan Africa and Nigeria in particular.  As part of my Masters’ degree research, I conducted a field survey among four indigenous communities in the capital of Nigeria – Abuja. I wanted to understand how relocating the seat of the Nigerian government from Lagos to Abuja had affected the indigenous food culture and farming systems of the original settlers in that area. Little did I know that this research would pose more questions and it would later inspire the theme for my doctorate research.

During a focus group discussion with some respondents, I asked if they had experienced any noticeable changes in their cropping systems from their childhood days to time of our interaction. I discovered that an important grain crop, locally known as acha (Digitaria exilis) had gone extinct in that region. They had noticed a gradual decline in yields each season for the past 15-20 years until they realised no yields at all. As a result they stopped growing the highly nutritious acha and focused on guinea corn and maize as their main grain crops.

This got me thinking about the fate of these indigenous groups especially when they start experiencing declining yields in guinea corn or maize like they did with acha. I wondered what coping mechanism they could adopt especially as they farm using the same techniques passed down by their fore-fathers. I thought about the need to build resilience into their farming systems so they could mitigate or adapt to external shocks. I thought about their need for information on improved farming techniques, weather variation, pest, weeds and disease outbreaks. Interestingly, I found that almost all the respondents in the four communities I engaged with had mobile phones, but they did not know how to access information that could improve their farming systems neither did they know how to communicate their agricultural problems to those who can solve them. This was the knowledge gap I discovered that existed among the indigenous groups I engaged with through my Masters’ degree research.

After rounding up the taught year of my Masters’ degree at the RAU with a distinction, I started my first internship with Intelligent Precision Farming (IPF), United Kingdom. Although IPF focuses on large scale farmers in UK and Africa, I was keen to learn about their precision agriculture information system called the IPF toolbox. The toolbox is used in making farm management decisions and recommendations based on yield monitoring and data collected over time. It was interesting to learn how farmers in the UK have been able to maximise their yields and profits through variable rate application of inputs. By focusing on problem areas on their fields, farmers’ prevent indiscriminate application of chemicals to the whole field, thereby saving on input cost and promoting environmental sustainability. Through precision agriculture, farmers can also determine when to apply agro-chemicals based on weather forecasting to avoid run-off of chemicals or excessive leaching. It was during this internship that I started considering the possibility transferring precision framing technologies to small farmers especially using mobile devices that had already penetrated into rural farming communities.

After completing the 3-month internship at IPF, I started another internship at the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI), UK. My role entailed supporting the development communications team to communicate outputs from CABI project to various audiences. The 9-month internship led to a full-time role as an international development communications assistant.

Interacting with smallholders during the field study for my first and second degree projects, combined with my work experience at IPF and CABI has motivated me to conduct a doctorate research that builds on my academic and research experience to help improve the agricultural productivity in rural Nigeria. I believe that certain aspects of precision farming could leverage on existing mobile networks services and mobile devices possessed by many rural farmers. I also believe that precision farming has the potential to build resilience into smallholder agriculture especially through planned planting, targeted fertilizer application informed by weather forecast, pest control and advice on improved farming techniques. However, “understanding content provision for smallholder precision farming information systems” is the first step to achieving increased agricultural productive through the uptake of precision farming technology in Nigeria.

I have chosen the University of Manchester because of its longstanding reputation in international development research and because your institution engages experienced lecturers in the field of development informatics. Your institution encourages collaborations between research in digital humanities and the computer science department. This, I believe, would be very valuable to my doctorate research. The University of Manchester is known for its rich international and cultural diversity which adds social quality to research students. Your institution also recognises the need to provide scholarships to build the intellectual capacity of students from Africa, to gives us a better chance to contribute to the sustainable development of our countries and the continent as a whole. If given the opportunity to obtain a doctorate degree at the University of Manchester, I will not only have the honour of contributing to academia through my research findings, but I will also be in a better position to make an impact in the lives of smallholder farmers and contribute to policy that can improve agricultural productivity and food security in Nigeria.

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