07 November 2013

FEATURE SERIES II: Field Experience in Ethiopian Highlands, an interview with Dr. Catherine Pfeifer

This is the second installation to the Feature Series on Field Experience, a special set of blog posts that highlight other researcher's experiences with water related work across diverse landscapes. I asked Dr. Catherine Pfeifer, who hosted me for some time in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, while I was working on my own field research, to share some of her field experiences during her time working in the highlands. Catherine keeps a well trafficked blog on global development, GIS tools she has developed, and Ethiopia specific news and information related to development. Please check her out! The following is an interview about her work with water and and agriculture with a local team in Ethiopia.
Catherine carrying firewood in Diga.

Bio: Catherine works for the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), based in Kenya, as a Geographic Information Sciences (GIS) Specialist. Her last position as a Post-Doc was based in Ethiopia, investigating geographically-based water-related agricultural practices and how to enhance on the ground implementation. Catherine holds a PhD in Agricultural Economics from Wageningen University, the Netherlands, and a MS in Economics from her hometown, Lausanne, Switzerland.

Jen: You work as a professional geographer and some of your work experience was in the Ethiopian highlands with water resources management. Can you please tell me a bit about what you researched and what aspect of water resources you worked with?

       Catherine: Contrary to what people believe, Ethiopia, at least in the Highlands, is a pretty wet country (up to 2200mm per year). The water resources issue in the Highlands is not about water availability but water distribution. Heavy rains during the 3-month rainy season causes flooding and massive erosion and there is very little or no rain during the rest of the year. But despite of the fact that soil fertility and water availability should allow for food excesses, today many smallholders live below the poverty line of one dollar a day and sometimes rely on food aid. Imagine, Ethiopia could a major food exporter feeding the world.
Stone burms slow down water flow, increase infiltration
and decrease erosion.
       One of the reason why Ethiopia is not a major food exporter on the global market is the lack of rainwater management, namely the lack of implementation of practices that increase water availability during the dry season. Practices could include terracing the steep slopes, building river diversion, ponds, dams, or planting multipurpose trees. Today, it is pretty well known which practice works, but there is only very little implementation at local level. This is mainly because in the past, practices have been promoted in places where they don’t fit, and the socio-economic aspect of implementation was rarely considered.

      The end product of my research is an open source GIS toolnamed Nile-Goblet tool, where an expert (extension service and policy-maker) without GIS knowledge can map suitability of any practice and also gets an idea about location specific socio-economic constraints. 
       Jen: The fieldwork component of your research has taken you to unusual destinations. Can you please share a bit about the logistics of how you reached and stayed in your field site?

Team member plugging in GPS coordinates.
       Catherine: We were working in 3 regions with 1-3 sites, each in parallel, with about 50 people collecting data on the ground in the Ethiopian highlands. We chose sites that were maximum 2-hour drive away from a major town, had asphalted road, and a hotel with running water where we could stay without increased health risk. In one of these towns, it took me half a day to buy one of the two available staplers, so don’t imagine New York when I say a town. We collected data just before the rainy season, when it was very dry, so that four wheel drive car could reach villages that were 8 hour walk from the town. From the villages, we had to walk sometimes more than an hour to find the smallholder.

       Supervising such a big team on different sites was pretty challenging, and was only possible thanks to very dedicated overall coordinators, site coordinators, trustworthy partners, hardworking investigative team and helpful drivers.
       Jen: What were the biggest challenges with your fieldwork?
Woman interviewee in Diga.
Catherine: Next to logistics, the biggest challenge we faced was language. Our surveys were in English, and the investigative team had to translate them into the local language to ask the smallholder. I had underestimated how much misunderstanding our questions could cause. It took quite a long time to train the investigative team so that they would ask question correctly. We also tried to get a geo-referenced survey, meaning that every investigator had to take the coordinate of the farmstead: a challenge in a world where GPSs are rare.

Jen: What was the best thing that happened?
Catherine: We conducted classical surveying and we also had community discussion based on what we call the happy strategy game. In one community, the team failed in implementing it correctly, basically due to frustrations with the project. At the end of the day we had a team meeting, in we had a quite an intense exchange. After this some of the people wanted to convince me that they were nonetheless good guys and we ended up having beers and good discussions about Ethiopian life, dreams and politics. Not only did these guys do an amazing good job from that day on, but they also became my best Ethiopian friends.

Jen: What was the funniest thing that happened?
Farmers attending a presentation.
Catherine: We were not very sure if our sites where in solely Christian area or whether we would also interview Muslims. Therefore we had asked if the smallholder was married, and if he was a man how many wives he had. During an interview I supervised, the smallholder looked at me shocked, “What do you mean? Married by law?” I regret up to this day that I did not ask about the non-legal situation…Another funny moment was, when women who never before held a pen in her hand, tried to draw their house. One women’s says to the other, “you are drawing a house that is too small”! The other answers, “don’t worry it is just the toilet”. Watch the film clip of this moment here.

Jen: Did you experienced a moment of enlightenment or realization while in the field? How did that happen and did it lead to changes in your research design? 
Community focus group.

Catherine: One day, I tried to understand why a farmer who was struggling for water during the dry season was not collecting rainwater from the roof. In my mind, I was expecting answers like the lack of fund or knowledge. But the farmer explained to me that collecting rainwater would be challenging God, who in principle sends you what you need in the right time. So the farmer expected that God would punish him if he starts harvesting water…I understood in that moment, how crucial it is to get the Church on board for development projects in that particular area.  

In general learned that smallholders most of the time had very rational reasons to not implement some practices and we, scientists and policy-makers, really should take time to listen to them. In the future, we need more methods to share knowledge between smallholders, policy-makers and scientists like the happy strategy game as community discussion tool. You can read my assessment of this game here.
Jen: How is your experience informing what you do today? 

Catherine: The fieldwork was definitely one of the most intense experience during my stay in Ethiopia. (More detailed stories about Catherine's field experience is here). The sometimes difficult situations have shaped friendships that I hope are for life and I discovered Ethiopia “from the inside”. For example a meal was offered to me by a family that was food insecure. I was really touched by these very welcoming people, which you would never meet on the tourist track. That’s the reason why, since I have been back in Switzerland, I contribute to a start-up “Inside Travel” a travel agency that offers the opportunity to meet some of these rural communities and enter into an authentic exchange. This allows you, as a tourist, to contribute to a sustainable development of the community as a whole.

Catherine, thank you so very much for your time and great sharing on your experience in the Ethiopian Highlands. If you want to learn more about Catherine's development perspective, please visit her blogsite: http://catherinepfeifer.blogspot.com/. And if you want to travel to Ethiopia with the Inside Travel Company, please visit their sitehttp://www.insidetravel.ch/.


  1. Someday I hope to read about all of this in a PhD dissertation.

    1. you can find my dissertation http://catherinepfeifer.blogspot.ch/p/materials-and-outputs.html here...
      but don't be disappointed it is about farm diversification in the Netherlands, interesting topic but maybe a bit less exotic than Ethiopia...