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Growing Talents: Youth in Agriculture #7 – Eva Schiffer

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 Eva Schiffer. This innovative woman talks about the journey that resulted in a successful interview-based mapping tool that can be used in any situation involving multiple stakeholders with different goals. This is the first of our interviews under the “Youth and Innovation” chapter. Click here to find out more about the series.

Realizing a dream

As a young girl, Eva Schiffer was once asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Without hesitation, she said, “I want to be a writer and I want to feed the children in Africa.” But, as often happens with childhood aspirations, she soon forgot what it was that she wanted to be. It was only many years later, as a successful, award-winning consultant, that she discovered that she had inadvertently realized those dreams.

When Eva first travelled from her native Germany to Africa, it was not to fulfil a childhood dream but to carry out research work as an intern with a nature conservation organization in Namibia in 1997. This endlessly curious woman was fascinated by what she saw and returned some years later to carry out field research for her PhD, a stint that saw her living in a Volkswagen Combi in the Namibia desert for four months.

The woman with the toys

It was while she was in Namibia that Eva came up with an idea that would germinate and grow into the early version of Net-Map, an interview-based mapping tool that helps stakeholders understand, visualize, discuss, and improve situations in which different people influence outcomes.

“This early version of Net-Map used influence towers, represented on a map by checkers and toy figurines, to show visually the level of influence people have within community-based networks,” says Eva.

Later, after finishing her doctorate studies, she took this early model with her to her first job interview. Indeed, she has the distinction of being the only person to have ever attended an interview at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) with a “box of toys”.

“I still remember my interview at IFPRI that day back in 2004. I was very fortunate that the panel with whom I spoke shared my enthusiasm for my mapping tool,” says this social scientist and facilitator. “They appreciated my method and saw that I was a good fit for their work with the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF). I also think those months spent living in the desert probably told them that I wouldn’t have a problem living in a small town in Ghana for three years.”

The missing link

So Eva went off to Bolgatanga in Ghana armed with her box of toys and tried to use her method to understand water governance in the country’s Upper East Region. But it didn’t quite fit.

“Something was missing,” she says. “And I couldn’t work out what it was. Then the Program held a workshop in Accra, where participants used network mapping. Then about two weeks after that, I woke up one Saturday morning and I knew that the two things had to go together: social networks and the influence towers.”

Helping hands along the way

Eighteen months after coming up with the network mapping tool, and despite it having application potential beyond the scope of her work in Ghana (it had already been used by two others in their work), Eva felt she was ready to move on to something else. However, a few words of advice from a colleague made her change her mind.

“He told me not to move on to the next interesting idea because this might be the best idea I would ever come up with. And even if it wasn’t, it was worth sticking to for a while.”

Shortly after, Klaus von Grebmer, IFPRI’s Head of Communications, suggested that Eva turn her method into a product.

The Net-Map Toolbox developed by Eva Schiffer

“Klaus told me that I would have very limited impact if I continued going around just with my cookie tin full of toys; he felt I should give my tool a name and a brand.  Through him, I was able to get some seed money to develop it further. Then a number of people at IFPRI began using Net-Map in their projects, giving it even more credibility.”

Promising young scientist

For her efforts, Eva was awarded the CGIAR’s Promising Young Scientist of the Year Award in 2008.

“It was overwhelming,” says Eva, as she recollects that moment. “It was the first award I’d ever received for anything. Furthermore, this external recognition helped give a strong sense of validity to and appreciation of Net-Map, even though the approach I had adopted was fundamentally different to the highly quantitative and agronomistic approaches often used by researchers in my field.”

ARD and Net-Map

Since developing Net-Map, Eva has trained many people to use the tool, so they can use it independently. IFPRI is also incorporating Net-Map into the planning processes of a number of projects, one of which looks at policy-making in Malawi: how policies are made and the role research plays in this and what IFPRI can learn from it so that the research can have a bigger impact. HarvestPlus is also using Net-Map in a project that looks at nutrient-rich crops and how conditions can be developed at the national level so that these crops are accepted and actually used. Yet another project, Alive & Thrive, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and focuses on infant and young child nutrition, is currently being evaluated by IFPRI, with Net-Map being used as the major evaluation method.

Net-Map showing influence towers and social networks

However, Net-Map is not just confined to ARD, as Eva is quick to point out.

“It can be used in any situation where you have multiple stakeholders with different goals,” she says. “Its broader applications, outside of agricultural research for development, have already included strategic positioning analysis within a research organisation, customer relationship development in a large corporate firm in the US, and network facilitation in the UK health sector.

“In the future, it would be great if Net-Map were a standard go-to tool that could be used whenever there is a problem involving numerous actors, be they individual people or organizations.”

Spreading the word

“I think it’s really important to talk about your ideas with everyone,” says Eva, when asked if she had any words of advice for other young professionals interested in developing innovative tools. “You never know who can help you. It’s also important to share your finished product and not be afraid that others will steal your ideas. If you don’t share it, nothing will happen.”

Currently living with her husband and young daughter in Washington D.C., this enterprising young woman has put her entire professional life into Net-Map and believes that if you do things half way, you get half way results.

“I stopped working for IFPRI in 2008,” she explains. “Being an independent consultant has enabled me to try this tool in many different fields. I believe that if you really want something badly enough, and work towards that goal, you can make it happen.”

From a young girl with a dream, to a young woman with a cookie tin of toys, to a much-sought-after professional in her field, Eva has shown us what can be achieved when you combine a vision with strong determination.

Photo credits: Eva Schiffer