January 2023 Construction Update

Below is a construction update on the Mzuzu University library.

The Mzuni Library Initiative

Progress continues to be made on the construction of Mzuzu University’s new library. The images below show how the construction of the second half (on the left) of the library is progressing. The first floor is complete and the columns/supporting walls are now being installed on the second floor. Malawi is also in the middle of its wet season, which is characterized by high temperatures and humidity and regular afternoon downpours. The clouds in the images point to some of this weather, which will hopefully not disrupt construction over the next couple of months.

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Special Issue in Agronomy

I will be co-edting a special issue of Agronomy with colleagues Dr. Jessica Agnew and Prof. Tom Thompson, focused on Advanced Innovation for Improving Total Factor Productivity (TFP) in Agriculture. The deadline for submissions is August 31, 2023. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about this special issue.

Special Issue Information

To sustainably meet global needs for agricultural products by 2050, agricultural total factor productivity (TFP) needs to grow by 1.73 percent annually. However, from 2011 to 2020, global TFP grew at an average of 1.12 percent per annum. Sub-Saharan Africa in particular is struggling to overcome negative TFP growth, and TFP growth is no longer the driver of increased agricultural output in Latin America and the Caribbean.

This Special Issue of Agronomy seeks to build the evidence base of cutting-edge innovation that increases TFP, particularly in the African, Latin American, Asian, and Caribbean contexts, and especially those designed for smallholder farmers. Technological innovation may include, but is not limited to, digital services, seed varieties, agronomic practices, or technological advances that will reduce the level of inputs considered in the calculation of TFP—land, labor, capital, and material resources.

Reviews, integrative studies, original studies, and conference papers are all welcome. Articles that consider TFP growth and the policy implications of advancing innovation for TFP growth are also of interest.

Webinar: Blockchain Technology & Kenyan Agriculture

On January 12 at 9am (EST), Dr. Jessica Agnew and I will be talking about our USAID LASER PULSE research project entitled “Exploring the Use of Blockchain Technology to Promote the Production and Consumption of African Indigenous Vegetables in Western Kenya.” The event description is provided below. The Zoom link to the webinar can be accessed here.

2023 Study Abroad Progam in Florence/Pisa, Italy

If you are a rising senior or graduate student at Virginia Tech and are looking for a unique sustainability-related study abroad experience, please find me on the Drillfield on Wednesday (September 21) to learn more about the planned 2023 Florence-Pisa program in Italy or signup for the information session that will be held from 3-4pm on Friday, October 14.

If you are unable to attend the study abroad fair or information session, please complete this simple form to be kept informed of program updates.

Recording of SPIA Seminar with Dr. Tiziano Distefano

Please find below a recording of Dr. Tiziano Distefano’s SPIA Seminar that explores how the Ecological Macroeconomics (EM) and Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) developed for Italy and France could be adapted to study the US economy.

SPIA Seminar (9/16, 12-1pm)

What is the relationship between climate change and increasing inequality? How can a different paradigm and representation of the world help advance a more sustainable future?

In this seminar, Dr. Tiziano Distefano (an Assistant Professor at the University of Florence) will explore how Ecological Macroeconomics (EM) and Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) can be used to merge diverse knowledge, data, and methodologies to address complex environmental problems and their connections with the socio-economic system. Dr. Distefano will present his EM-IAM research focused on Italy and France, and will discuss how this analysis approach could be applied to the US.

When: September 16, 12-1pm (EST)

Location: Room 111, Architecture Annex

Zoom: Register here

USAID LASER PULSE Policy/Product Briefs

The final policy and product briefs from our USAID LASER PULSE project entilted “Exploring the Use of Blockchain Technology to Promote the Production and Consumption of African Indigenous Vegetables in Western Kenya” are now available.

Agnew, J., & Hall, R. P. (2022). Policy Brief: Research evidence of the impacts of blockchain technology on improving food security through African Indigenous Vegetables in Western Kenya. USAID LASER PULSE, 4 pages. http://hdl.handle.net/10919/111580
Agnew, J., Hall, R. P., & Kristofikova, N. (2022). Product Brief: Linking the AgUnity Blockchain-based Platform to the Kenyan Agricultural Sector Transformation and Growth Strategy. USAID LASER PULSE, 4 pages, 4 pages. http://hdl.handle.net/10919/111581

Research Reports from our USAID LASER PULSE Project in Kenya

The three main reports from our USAID LASER PULSE research project entilted “Exploring the Use of Blockchain Technology to Promote the Production and Consumption of African Indigenous Vegetables in Western Kenya,” are now available. I have also included below the 4-minute video we developed to help explain the research and its main findings.

Agnew, J., Hall, R. P., Mwangi, J., Sumner, D., & Kristofikova, N. (2022). The Impact of Blockchain Technology on Food Insecurity through African Indigenous Vegetables in Western Kenya: Final Report. USAID LASER PULSE, 73 pages. http://hdl.handle.net/10919/110444

This study is one of the first to explore how blockchain technology (BCT) could be used to improve food security in communities that are reliant on agriculture but are the last to receive services or access to markets, known as the ‘last-mile’. The goal was to determine how BCT could contribute to improving the income of African indigenous vegetable (AIV) value chain actors (e.g., producers, traders, and retailers) and to the affordability, availability, and accessibility of nutritious foods like AIVs for consumers. It finds that BCT can simultaneously strengthen the functionality of an entire agri-food value chain by increasing the efficiency of transactions among value chain actors, improving cooperation along the value chain, and enhancing access to information. A decrease in post-harvest loss, reduction in negotiation and search costs, and traceability of Grade A vegetables were facilitated by the blockchain functionality of the AgUnity V3 SuperApp. Producer income was improved by better meeting market demand, time savings on AIV activities, increasing the supply of Grade A vegetables, and making information on the vegetables more available to consumers. Increased incomes led to improved food security among producers by facilitating their ability to procure more food, especially higher quality proteins and fruits. Participants and consumers reported an increase in the consumption of AIVs over the study period because of increased quality, availability, and awareness of their nutritional importance.

Agnew, J., Mwangi, J., Hall, R. P., Sumner, D., & Kristofikova, N. (2021). Transaction and Information Pain Points in African Indigenous Vegetable Value Chains in Western Kenya: A Gender-Responsive AIV Value Chain and Market Analysis Report. USAID LASER PULSE, 46 pages. http://hdl.handle.net/10919/111357

The use cases for blockchain technology (BCT) have taken off since its initial development for the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. In agricultural value chains, BCT has been developed for agri-food products from source to retail outlets, increasing transparency between value chain actors, and creating secure transaction platforms. However, BCT is not a magic bullet for addressing all value chain inefficiencies and challenges. This study, Exploring the Use of Blockchain Technology to Improve Food Security Through African Indigenous Vegetables in Western Kenya, aims to investigate the types of challenges within the value chain for African indigenous vegetables (AIVs) that BCT is appropriate to address. It also aims to investigate if deploying a BCT-based digital platform in AIV value chains will lead to improved food security for all value chain actors.

This gender-responsive participatory value chain analysis (PVCA) investigates the transactional, informational, and other types of pain points within AIV value chains to identify where BCT is needed. AIVs are known as ‘female’ crops, as women are primarily responsible for their production, marketing, and preparation. This PVCA also investigates gender disparities in the value chain with the view to understanding how a BCT-based digital platform might help to secure the place of women in the value chain as it is upgraded.

According to the findings of the PVCA, the main pain points that need to be addressed in order to improve income-earning opportunities and availability of and demand for AIVs are the lack of coordination throughout the value chain, assurance of vegetable safety for consumers, improved transmission of information through the value chain, standardization of grading and pricing, improving the market power of women, and technical assistance for producers in pest and disease management and production practices to improve yield. BCT cannot address all of these pain points. However, it is well suited for improving vertical coordination between actors by organizing and standardizing transactions and making information on the AIVs accessible at all stages of the value chain. It will also provide women a safe and secure platform for transacting that will protect the revenues earned from their respective activities.

This study also finds that while smartphone ownership is low, value chain actors are willing to pay for a smartphone as well as a monthly subscription fee to use a digital platform if it will address their key pain points.

This study will continue to investigate key knowledge gaps such as how technology use might more effectively engage youth in AIV value chains, how information on the blockchain can be certified, and how to scale up the use of a BCT-based digital platform. However, this PVCA demonstrates there is potential for BCT to offer important solutions to address transactional and informational inefficiencies along AIV value chains.

Kristofikova, N., I. Muskoke, and J. Agnew. (2021). Embedded Research Translation Report: Exploring the Use of Blockchain Technology to Promote the Production and Consumption of African Indigenous Vegetables in Western Kenya. AgUnity, Australia, 39 pages. http://hdl.handle.net/10919/111503

AgUnity worked with Virginia Tech and Egerton University on the LASER PULSE-funded project entitled Exploring the Use of Blockchain Technology to Promote the Production and Consumption of African Indigenous Vegetables (AIVs) in Western Kenya. AIV value chains are characterized by transactional and informational inefficiencies that contribute to inconsistent supply and mismatched demand in Kenya. This research program explores how digital applications built on blockchain technology (BCT) can be deployed in AIV value chains in western Kenya in a way that improves food and nutrition security for all value chain actors. Specifically, there was interest in understanding how the BCT-based smartphone application could assist groups of individuals who typically face constraints in accessing economic or nutritional benefits from value chain upgrading (i.e., smallholder producers, women, youth, low-income consumers).

This project was one of the first times the AgUnity app was not deployed in a centralized supply chain context (i.e., with a union or cooperative supplied by hundreds of farmers). We have found that in decentralized supply chains, there is a particular need to ensure that the system supports the users’ values and needs for conducting their respective value chain activities. When this is achieved, trust that is garnered through the use of the technology shall translate directly into more cooperative and coordinated value chains. Both the value chain app adaptation and configuration and the technology service design were built around this premise, using embedded research translation (ERT) processes to ensure that it was achieved in the target population and value chain.

This report outlines the steps taken by AgUnity to translate Virginia Tech and Egerton University’s research into the adaptation and deployment of our proprietary BCT-based smartphone application. It is directed toward readers interested in understanding the product and service design of the AgUnity application, the use of BCT in digital platforms designed for last-mile users, and those interested in successful examples of ERT. It walks the reader through the value chain mapping and community immersion processes, the steps needed to adapt the technology to fit the local value chain context, and the development and selection of app functionalities for the target users and value chain. The report may be of interest to researchers, farming associations, and cooperatives or agricultural non-governmental organizations interested in the AgUnity solution as well as stakeholders involved in strengthening agricultural market systems, AgTech, or FinTech.

Pisa Study Abroad Program (in photos)

Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of leading a study abroad program with colleagues at MIT and the University of Pisa that involved a summer school, an international conference, and a hiking expedition in the Apuan Alps. Since we all survived the experience and had an amazing time in the process, I thought I’d share some pictures/videos from each phase of the program.

The program began with an intensive summer school at the University of Pisa’s Residence Le Benedettine. The summer school was attended by some 40 students from 20 countries and focused on exploring sustainable transitions in employment, economic welfare, and the environment that build on the roots of ecological economics. The photos below capture a few moments from the summer school, including a trip to the leaning tower of Pisa and cathedral complex.

During the second phase of the program, students attended the 14th Conference of the European Society for Ecological Economics (ESEE). The video to the right captures the chamber ensemble “I Bei Legami” performing a piece during the opening ceremony of the conference. This music was the soundtrack of the study abroad program – enjoy!

Since the majority of students attending the summer school were enrolled in doctoral programs, many of them presented their research during the conference. This also meant the summer school teaching faculty could attend their sessions and return the favor of asking difficult questions 😉 The conference also included a social dinner at the Big Fish Restaurant in Marina di Pisa, about 20km from Pisa. I have included several pictures from this dinner below, after a few pictures from the conference.

A unique event that occurred during the conference was the Luminara of San Ranieri, which involved the lighting of some 70,000 candles on the facade of buildings along the river running through the city of Pisa. This event also included a 30-minute fireworks display that was among the best I have experienced.

The final phase of the program consisted of hiking in the stunning Apuan Alps. We hiked up to and stayed at the Rifugio Carrara for four nights, from which we launched several significant treks into the mountains surrounding Carrara. We also visited a marble mine with a local NGO to understand the various impacts from the ongoing mining activities on the environment and community.

None of the above activities would have been possible without the tremendous efforts of Prof. Tommaso Luzzati and Dr. Tiziano Distefano, who taught in the summer school, led the planning of the ESEE conference, and organized the hiking logistics.