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Growing Talents: Youth in Agriculture #5 – Silvia Renn

Our “Growing Talents: Youth in Agriculture” series of interviews, which puts a face to the youth in agricultural research for development (ARD), hears their voices and obtains an insight into their roles, perspectives, experiences and aspirations, continues with Silvia Renn. Silvia is a young woman who is committed to helping rural communities in Malawi manage their water in the face of a changing climate. This is the second of our interviews under the “Mapping for the future: Youth and spatial information for ARD” chapter. Click here to find out more about the series.

Using GIS to overcome Malawi’s water woes

Take a short drive from Silvia Renn’s office in Zomba, Malawi, and you will see the signs of a country under siege. As you travel across this small landlocked country in southeast Africa, lush greenery and fields of ripening maize suddenly give way to barren stretches of land. If you look to the horizon, the thing that strikes you the most is the lack of trees.

“Much of Malawi has been stripped of trees to provide wood and charcoal for cooking,” says Silvia, a research analyst and GIS (geographical information systems) specialist with the CGIAR’s WorldFish Center. “This plays a huge role in the climate change that is taking place in the country. Fewer trees mean less water can be held in the ground; water that is necessary for farming.”

This is where one of Silvia’s WorldFish projects, the Lake Chilwa Project, hopes to have an impact on rural communities around the Lake. In the last 50 years, Lake Chilwa has dried up completely (twice!) and each time fishermen and farmers have had to adapt. The project, which also has large farming and forestry components, looks at previous and possible future climate change adaptation strategies.

Small-scale irrigation

Another Worldfish project in Malawi looks at small scale irrigation in combination with fishponds.

“The project looks at water management issues in the face of climate change,” says Silvia. “I’m using GIS to model climate change. Presently, we’re setting up stations to measure temperature, discharge from rivers, evaporation, etc. We’ll also be looking closely at how the people in this region actually manage water. For example, in Chingale, people irrigate their land by redirecting rivers. So we’re looking at the best way to manage that water so that the people can get the best benefits.”

These farmers have used a few different ways to irrigate their land, some of them creative and innovative. See slide show below:

“This project finds out what the farmers are doing and not what we think they should be doing,” adds Silvia. “And then we see what’s actually working; what sort of irrigation schemes they are using and how and which ones are making their fields and ponds more productive.  Using spatial information can really help to prioritize what type of land is available, what type of soil, and what types of water availability could influence productive agriculture and aquaculture. We’re providing information, we’re combining it, and then we’re using this combined information to make suggestions to extension agents on where to put fish farms that will actually help the farmers to produce more fish.”

Find out more about this project in a video interview with Silvia at this year’s Africa Agriculture Geospatial Week (AAGW10).

Shaping a career

A native of Cologne, Germany, Silvia first became interested in GIS and its applications when she was studying landscape and urban planning at a university in Germany. Part of her coursework involved modeling tidal waves in Australia to see how far they could travel and the number of people who might possibly be affected by them.

During this period, the destructive force of the 2004 tsunami in Asia claimed more than 230,000 lives along the length of the Indian Ocean. Like millions of people around the globe, Silvia watched the hopeless scenes unfolding on her television screen. As the body count crept ever higher, she felt devastated.

“To think that I’d just been looking at wave data and modeling it,” she says. “It was hard to see those models being played out in real life. I knew that a lot of information was already out there about tsunamis, and all it needed was for someone to put it together…”

That’s when Silvia decided it might be a good idea to also focus on information management and development.

Learning from life’s lessons

After working with WorldFish for two years, Silvia sees herself as more of a practitioner than a researcher.

“I would like to combine research and practicability,” she says. “Maybe take other people’s research and see how it can fit with what’s actually happening on the ground in Africa, because there’s sometimes a big gap between the work of researchers and the reality facing farmers. Also, I feel that much of the research carried out in Africa doesn’t get back to the farmers, who are often underestimated by researchers. Farmers usually know what they’re doing and have a reason for everything they do, even if those reasons aren’t initially apparent. So being told that things should be done in a certain way because, say, that’s the way it works in the West doesn’t necessarily mean that it can work in Africa. It’s also difficult to expect farmers to plan long-term (as is often recommended by researchers) if they are engaged in subsistence-level agriculture. All they can think of are the children they have to feed at home.

“Researchers need to really look at what’s happening with farmers in Malawi and make their research more applicable and then get the results of their research out there – complete the circle. In that regard, local knowledge can really help make research more relevant and increase the chances of research outputs being taken up by the farmers. Farmers are always happy to talk about what they do and why they are doing it. We have to learn from them.”

Collaboration — the way ahead

This young woman also believes in the power of collaboration; sharing knowledge and working towards a common goal.

“As there are a few CGIAR Centers in Malawi, I feel it would be good if WorldFish had an opportunity to start collaborating with them to see what they’re working on and join forces,” she says.

It seems that Silvia might be making some waves of her own in the future.