The Lesson Learnt Through Observation: Social Work is needed in Coffee and Rubber Production in Southern Lao PDR

By Outhoumphone Sanesathid,

Coffee and rubber productions are vital to local Lao communities, particularly in the southern part of Laos. Coffee is a well known cash crop produced by both smallholder farmers and big companies in Paksong district. Rubber production is also one of the largest Lao agriculture exported commodity, it has been planted in every part of Laos. Rubber is the main cash crop operated by smallholder farmers and companies in Bachiengchalurnsouk district.

Lak 12 village, Paksong district

Local people have a lot of land to operate their own coffee farms. Most livelihoods are based on coffee plantation. Coffee farmers can generate their main income just once a year during the harvest season. Red cherries cannot be kept for many days, thus many farmers immediately sell them to middlemen in the evening after they have finished picking them. However, some of them attempt to sell green coffee beans for a better price. Green beans need processing and thus time and investment. Therefore, this might be a reason why a majority of farmers prefer to sell red cherries instead. The earning of coffee farmers depends on the land size for coffee plantation. It is approximately 9-12 million kips (approximately 1,035-1,379 USD) per hectare/year.

The harvest season is a peak time for farmers as well as for wage laborers[1] and migrant laborers[2]. Both wage and migrant laborers can work in both household’s farms and coffee companies’ farms. They are paid per kilo of cherries harvested. The harder they work on picking the more money they earn. The average income is about 290 USD/month. However, particularly migrant laborers prefer to work as monthly contractors with local coffee farmers, the income is approximately 105-140 USD/month. In addition, laborers receive some basic welfare such as stay in the coffee farmers’ house, as well as 3 meals[3] per day, and transportation. Migrant laborers, who work in coffee companies’ farms, are usually paid per kilo of coffee beans. The companies arrange the place to stay and provide some basic living needs such as water, toilets and some medicine for first aid.

Local farmers are well organized during the year; they plant two types of coffee: Robusta and Arabica coffee, these two types of coffee have different harvesting seasons. This gives constant work to farmers. While Arabica coffee is harvested from September to December, the latest is in January, Robusta coffee is harvested from January to March the latest is in April. When the harvest season ends, many coffee farmers plant vegetables such as cabbage, ginger, cassava, chilly and other fruits for additional income. Many coffee farmers prefer to work by themselves for weeding, fertilizing and pruning the coffee trees. But in the harvest season, farmers have to hire laborers to pick coffee beans. During the low season coffee farmers make less money, and the situation is even worse for wage laborers and migrant laborers.


With an interviewee in Paksong District. @O.Sanesathid

Wage laborers are concerned with living conditions since less work for income is generated. One of my interviewee, a wage laborer, started to shift from rice farming to working in coffee plantations about 30 year ago after he got married. He told me that each year he can earn a lot of money during the coffee harvest season. However, he will have nothing to eat when harvest season ends. Unluckily this year his health is going down, thus he cannot work as hard as he used to be:

“I could not work hard as I used to be, but I have to responsible for my children and wife, I become indebted because I have not saved any money I just spent my money I earned without any planning”.

Migrant laborers have better conditions than wage laborers. Because most migrant laborers are rice farmers, they can go back to work in their rice farm when coffee’s harvest season ends and they will come back again in next coffee’s harvest season.

Coffee farmers will spend half of total amount they earn to hire labor, while they will use the rest of money for their children’s education, daily food expenses, recreation expenses such as expensive motorbikes, smart phone, television and to buy some assets: gold, land and to build a new house. Wage laborers and migrant laborers are poor people, they are able to spend for their children’s education, and daily food expenses, but unable to buy basic assets like land. Interestingly, farmers, wage laborers and migrant laborers often put big amount of money on socialization. I’d like to distinguish two types of socialization. First, official socializations are socialization with formal invitations. Lao people have the tradition that if someone invites one for parties or events such as wedding, new house cerebration, festivals etc., the guests must put money into the invitation card to maintain good relationships and to congratulate the host. Secondly, there is general socialization, which refers to any parties without any invitation, people gather with friends or any people they know and drink together when they have free time, which is usually in the evening after a hard working day.

Markngeo village, Bachiengchalernsouk District

In this village there is a big rubber company operated as a land concession investment. The company has given priorities to local villagers for employment opportunity, and then for migrant laborers. Most laborers are under wage employment contract. For the last two years the rubber’s price has constantly increased, providing good earning for rubber laborers. Harvesting rubber’s latex is technical, the instructions [4] are taught to all laborers before harvesting by company’ technical experts. Laborers can earn money per kilo of latex harvested. The price per kilogram is according to the grad of latex: grad A is an excellent latex yield for which laborers have followed technical instructions correctly. Grad A latex is 1,100 Kip/Kg, while grad B is 900 Kip/Kg and 800 Kip/Kg for grad C. The lowest income is approximately 290 USD/month/person and the highest is about 523 USD/month/person. For those who are migrant laborers, company will offer accommodation, and some basic needs such as water, toilet, medicines. For local wage laborers, the company can provide medicines when an employee get sick. The company also give some extra money as well as a certificate at the end of the year if employees show good working performance, skills in harvesting, and don’t refuse working.

Laborers in rubber production can earn more money than coffee laborers in terms of income per month and also in terms of working duration. Rubber can be harvested for 10 months a year from March to December, January and February is the off-season. However, working in a rubber company is harder than working in a coffee company. In order to get great latex yield, laborers have to start their work at 9 PM until 3 or 4 AM, (they will work without any holiday allowed). In daytime, some local people who are wage laborers will also work for their own business such as working in rice farm, cassava farm, feeding the animals and so on. Throughout my observations, the working time from 9 PM till 4 AM is very tiring. Many people sleep at noon and wake up at 4 PM to work on their own farm. This may the reason why some local villagers use drug to increase their work ability in the daytime and that leads to drug addiction issues later on.


In front of a house. @O.Sanesathid

This is a example of a family working in a rubber plantation. They operate as family business and make contracts with their relatives who would like to work voluntary. The contract indicates that laborers must work from the first stages of the plantation : seeding, planning, watering and weeding till the harvest work starts. They have to work for free for about 5 years. Rubber trees can be harvested after 5 years. There are 50/50 for income dividend for the first ten years, and other ten years will be 30/70; 30 percent for laborers and 70 percent for land owner. During the time of my interview, one family has started harvesting for about 7 months. Each month the family can earn about 5,800 USD from their 8 hectares of land with about 23,255 USD of initial investment excluded land value).

The way laborers and migrant laborers spend their earnings is not conventional. One farmer want to save money for their children’s education and buy new land to extend their business, on the other hand wage, and migrant laborers prefer to put their money for food, and recreation things such as expensive motorbike, expensive car and expensive smartphone. Here, also, people spend a lot of much money on socialization; they often drink beer, alcohol, play card and smoke. In average, they mention less that they will spend their earning on children’s education.

This family with 3 members earn about 500 USD/person/month. After working for 6-7 months they decided to buy an expensive pick up car (its cost is approximately 35,000 USD). Unfortunately, their driving skills were not good enough. After a week, the car hit a concrete barrier causing serious damages, the cost of repairing was too high and the car has been parked for almost 4 months (at the time of my visit), because the car owner has no money to repair. This is an evidence that there is no plan on money expenditure, especially long run financial planning.


The broken car. @O.Sanesathid

The cases I mentioned show the current situation on how household earn and spend money in that area. I would conclude that laborers in coffee and rubber production don’t have low income in comparison to other occupations. According to my calculation, coffee laborers can earn about 186 USD/month while rubber laborers can earn about 232 USD/month for the whole year (12 months) which greater than 1,100,000 Kip or 128 USD/month the minimum salary as indicated in Lao’s labor law. However, social welfare for laborers still needs to be improved such as health insurance and yearly health check-up while giving long run financial planning skills must also be considered. Local livelihoods right now follows the Lao’s common phases “Ha Yark Jaiy Ngai” (hard earning but easy on paying) which leads to bad behavior, since laborers work hard on earning income, but many of them spend the money for useless commodity. Indeed, this situation may not happen only in villages where I took the survey, but it happens in many places in Laos. Thus, educating people on money savings would be fruitful to change people’s behavior on expenditure, I would suggest that related organizations especially the Ministry of Labor must put more effort and work hard on retiring insurance issue, since laborers are at risk when they get old or become unable to work due to injuries. Labor financial stability, as well as concerns on drug addiction prevention is also needed for improving Lao laborers’ condition in the future. Last but not least, children’s education must be put at the centre of the concertation by District and Province Education Office, educational institute needs to work hard particularly in Makngeo village on educational promotion for pushing parents to spend more money and make future plan for their children’s education.


[1] Wage laborers usually referred to local families who have small land and event do not have land they will going to work in other coffee farm. They will earn money without any social welfare treatment

[2] Migrant or mobility labor refers to laborers who from outside the village come to work in household farm or coffee companies.

[3] Meals for laborers are usually very simple, they usually find vegetables surround the coffee farm or vegetable that farmers planted for eating.

[4]For more information of way how to harvesting latex please visit:

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Opportunities and challenge for ongoing commercialization of high value agriculture in Nepal

By Bishnu Raj Upreti and Sushant Acharya

Until few decades back, agriculture sector was considered as the backbone of country’s economy. In 1960s and 1970s, Nepal was one of the main rice exporting countries in South Asia. Till early nineties, more than 90 percent of population was engaged in agriculture and contribution to GDP was 42 percent. After the restoration of democracy in 1990, Nepal adopted liberal economic policies that fostered employment opportunities in non-farm service sector. Simultaneously, new job opportunities were explored in foreign countries and migration increased. In the meantime, the country entered into civil war (1996-2006). As a cumulative effect, there was high out-migration from rural to urban area and high flow of youths for foreign job. As a consequence, agricultural land was left fallow or agricultural production was more dependent on women. However, in the recent years, the government has brought several policies to attract people in agriculture and also recently promulgated law that prohibits to keep agricultural land fallow.

A serious question for Nepalese agriculture is: why this sector is lagging behind despite planned efforts? Nepal government has put agriculture in high priority since the first five-year plan in mid-1950s to date. Further, from 1995 to 2015, government implemented Agriculture Perspective Plan (APP) with felt need to commercialize and modernize the sector. But at the end of implementation of period of APP, engagement of people and contribution to GDP both said to be declined. Instead, according to Ministry of Finance, import of agriculture products increased unbelievably and reached to 196 billion NPR (roughly 2 billion USD) in 2017. Still large area of cultivable land (around 82 per cent, according to WB, 2014) is farmed with traditional crops with low productivity and therefore not able to supply the national requirement of agricultural products.


Despite the poor performance of agriculture sector in the past, the subsequent governments in the recent years have been providing more attention in promoting high value agriculture Nepal. The government has identified Ginger, Coffee, Cardamom, Tea, Fresh Vegetables, Fruits, Cut Flowers, Honey and Pulses as high value priority crops for export promotion and formulating different polices and strategies. In the past few decades high value cash crops were doing relatively better.  For example the Nepal Country Evaluation Report Nepal of Asian Development Bank (ADB) (2009) revealed that even when share of cereal crops has declined from 41 % to 36%, the high-value agriculture crops grew from 17% to 21% in between 1997 – 2007.

The Constitution promulgated in 2015 has ensured right to food as fundamental human right that provided great opportunity and mandatory responsibility to advance agriculture for food security. In the new federal political structure, the local, provincial and federal levels are responsible for implementing the constitutional provisions. Consequently, all level of governments have put agricultural development as primary agenda and brought policy and programme as well as allocated required resources. However, the result of allocation of resources is still to be seen at ground level.

The aim of all 3 levels of government is to modernize, industrialize, commercialize, sustainable and self-reliant agriculture sector throughout Nepal. Within this policy, high value commercial agriculture got priority.  The Agriculture Development Strategy (ADS, 2015-2035) prepared basis for the advancement of commercial agriculture. Within this framework, one of the largest initiatives is called the “Prime Minister Agriculture Modernization Programme” (PAMP), which intends to promote export and achieve trade balance, generate employment opportunities, ensure food and nutrients security, and advance agro-based industries. Hence, among other crops it has identified high value cash crops to be promoted in the different scales.

When we visited cash crop production sites in Eastern and Western Nepal, we observed that the local and provincial governments have a kind of rush to demonstrate something visible in promoting commercial agriculture. The Provincial Government of Karnali developed its slogan as: “Environment Friendly Green Economy: Foundation for Provincial Development” and declared to make province organic. Other provinces have also identified commercialization of agriculture as one of their development priorities. The priority activities of local and provincial governments are related to increase scale of production, value addition, construction of agricultural infrastructure i.e. rural agricultural roads, cold stores, collection centres, branding and packaging and assurance of quality for the export.


Onion production @FATE Nepal

We found agriculture is more commercialized in east Nepal as compared to west part of the country. In the Eastern part of Nepal, high-value crops such as cardamom, ginger, broom, tea, milk, fresh vegetables, chilies, kiwi, and tea are produced by farmers. Hence, local governments have selected few crops like cardamom and ginger as priority crops and invested on them as important means of economic development of their villages. But in Western Nepal, shifting from traditional crops like: maize, wheat, millet, potato, dried beans to high value commercial agriculture is slow due to lack of access to technology, knowledge and market.  Most common high-value export oriented cash crops in west are apple, walnut, olive oil, ginger, medicinal and aromatic plants. We frequently observed that cardamom and kiwi are widely expanding to Western Nepal and mainly from the Eastern Nepal because of their demand and price. Interestingly, in many Western districts farmers are pro-actively establishing cardamom pilot plots and they are getting support from government and non-government organizations.

Climatic difference between plains and hills provide comparative advantage for farmers. For example: farmers from hills supply fresh vegetables to the plains when it is off season in plains and vice-versa. Similarly, due to agro-ecological difference, both parts provide market to each other. Beside, products from hills get comparatively very high price in major cities due to their unique taste, nutrient value and organic nature. For example, price per kg of a local variety of rice named marsi gets almost five times higher price than the average quality rice produced in plains. Farmers of hills are gradually capturing such opportunities.

The private sector is aggressively coming to invest in the high value commercial agriculture and invested a lot in the recent past. The returnees migrant workers, agricultural professionals, political leaders and entrepreneurs all have started engaging in high value commercial agriculture. The Central bank also directed the commercial and development banks to invest more in agriculture. Similarly, international development partners, who were not interested to invest in agriculture in the past because of their priority in other sector are also giving priority to agriculture to generate employment opportunity, enhance export and improve livelihoods of farmers.  We observed that even large scale processing plants started to install in the Western Nepal. For example, a ginger processing plant was established in Surkhet, Western region. This plant has increased confidence of farmers and they were able to sale of ginger and better price.  Ginger processed in Surkhet is now exported to Germany and the Netherlands.


Tea plantation in Eastern Nepal @B.Upreti


Though good initiatives have started in promoting high value export led crops in Nepal, there are several practical and policy challenges ahead to promote high value cash crops.

  1. Price instability: the price of cash crops frequently fluctuates and the government is not able to achieve price stability. So, observation of sharp fall and rise in price of cash crops in the past raise question of future price stability.
  2. India is major cash corps exporting country from Nepal. However, Nepali farmers constantly face hurdles in Indian customs while exporting their products. In peak season the challenge is higher with the harvesting and export of perishable commodities like: ginger or vegetable. In 2018 too, farmers and traders lost millions of Nepali rupees by decay of hundreds of tons of ginger.
  3. Knowledge, skills and technologies: Producers are still largely using traditional knowledge and use of modern technology is limited. Majority of producers have weak capacity to use advance knowledge, skills and technologies in processing: cleaning, drying, grading and packaging. Consequently their products get lower price.
  4. Nepal government is developing policies and strategies. However, there are still poor inter-ministerial coordination, bureaucratic procedures, manipulations of middle-men and brokers, and corruption.
  5. High value cash corps are also affected by natural processes like climate conditions, seasonality, intensity of rainfall and hailstorm etc.). This influences prices.
  6. The marketing system is still at the initial stage of development. The traditional market place, locally known as Haat Bazzar are still dominant platform for farmers and buyers. Developing theses local market systems into modern market requires time and efforts.
  7. Connectivity is still a bottleneck for agriculture development in remote Nepal. Even when the road networks connect different parts of the country horizontally as well as vertically, many areas are inaccessible or seasonally inaccessible. Nowadays, mobile phones and agriculture related applications have increased access to information but institutionalization of technological advancement is far away.
  8. Banking sector (saving and credit co-operatives and banks) are not yet fully committed to provide easy access to finance. However, the banking sector is jow increasing its investment in agriculture sector due to provisions made by the central bank.
  9. In the short term, the availability of skilled labour is a major challenge for commercialization of high value agriculture because of lack of competent skilled labour force in the market.

Cardamom: from flower to fruit @S.Jaquet

Considering the recent positive development at political, constitutional and legal and farmers’ levels, we can conclude that the prospects of commercialization of high value agriculture is high in both Eastern and Western parts of the country. The current policy and institutional set up, pro-active initiation from newly elected governments, process of development of agricultural infrastructures efforts are paving ways for the commercialization and modernization of high value agriculture. However, the road ahead is not as straight as there are many challenges and uncertainties in this sector.

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Consumption of quinoa in Bolivia

By Alejandro Romero Merlo

Bolivia has more than 50 native varieties of quinoa among which is the real quinoa (Risi, 2015) cultivated mainly in the South Highlands and which at the same time is the most demanded for export, thanks to its larger grain size and particular colors. It is known that since the 1970s began to spread the nutritional properties of quinoa and since then its demand and export prices were rising steadily to reach the highest peak in 2014, a phenomenon called the quinoa boom. This fact attracted the attention of a large number of local and foreign researchers who sought to understand the direct and indirect effects of the boom on producing families.

The expansion of the agricultural frontier, the habilitation of pastoral lands for cultivation, an improvement in economic income, the return of migrants, greater investment in the education of children, access to basic services, among others, are the main effects reported in the literature on the subject. However, some publications were controversial in Bolivia because they referred to a lower consumption of quinoa in the Bolivian population due to the higher cost of grain.

A 2011 New York Times article refers to the growing popularity of quinoa in U.S. and European markets, making it less accessible to low-income Bolivians. Concern was also expressed about the need to rethink the purchase of quinoa from Bolivia in order for the product to fall in price and contribute to ensuring food security for the population. Other reports (Jacobsen, 2011) argued that quinoa was the main food of the Bolivian population, and that the incentives of the boom to produce quinoa for export would severely affect the food security of the population. This argument is generally supported by the relatively low per capita consumption of quinoa in Bolivia. For example, it is estimated that in 2013 one person consumed 1.21 kg of quinoa per year, a value that grew to 2.31 kg by 2018. However, this is not a very accurate indicator considering that the country has a great diversity of geographical regions with very different food habits, and that this average does not reflect consumption in the producing areas of Quinoa.

In this context, this small essay seeks to answer how and to what extent has the export of quinoa affected the consumption of this grain in Bolivia? To what extent does production for export limit or discourage the consumption of the producers themselves?


There are more than 50 varieties of quinoa in Bolivia.  @A. Romero

To begin with, reviewing the official statistics it is estimated that in 2018 the production of Quinoa in Bolivia reached 70763 tn of which 33106 tn were exported and 23000 tn were destined for domestic consumption through state purchases. The remaining margin of 14657 tn corresponds to the production informally traded in local fairs (Center International of Quinoa)[1]. Therefore, it can be concluded that half of the national production is destined for domestic consumption.

In recent years, the Bolivian State has encouraged the consumption of quinoa in the country, incorporating processed quinoa products into the Bolivian diet as a complement to school breakfast in educational units or their distribution in support programmes for pregnant women, for example. In other words, incorporating these products into direct transfer packages that are part of subsidy programmes for vulnerable social groups. Through these programs, it has directly purchased quinoa transformed products from producer organizations to promote quinoa consumption throughout the country.

Quinoa is and has been one of the main foods of the Andean part of the country that covers the highlands and part of the valleys and not so in the rest of the territory, that is, the consumption of quinoa has always been higher in the Andean or highlands area that represents 28% of the Bolivian territory[2]. Following this logic, what is most important to observe is whether this consumption has varied in the highland region and specifically in the areas producing quinoa as a result of marketing in foreign markets. There is very little historical information related to the quantification of quinoa consumption in the areas mentioned, since it has never been followed up.

It is precisely in the Southern Highlands where the FATE Project consulted 305 producer families in the Province of Nor Lípez and Antonio Quijarro (at the end of 2015), about the distribution of the real quinoa harvest and, specifically, about the amount destined for the family’s consumption in one year.

The answers were multiple and wide-ranging. From families that consume very little quinoa to those in which, apparently, the so-called golden grain is indispensable in their daily diet.

moliendo quinua

Traditional way of grinding quinoa to obtain flour. @A.Romero

To get a better idea of these characteristics, a cluster analysis was performed using the quinoa consumption per person variable in one year. Four groups of different sizes were found, which allow us to have a better idea of the consumption characteristics in both regions.

One of the observed trends is that the greater the production of quinoa, the greater the proportions of the crop destined for consumption, in addition to higher levels of quinoa consumption per person in a year. For example, in the region of Nor Lípez, south of the Salt of Uyuni, 10% of households reported having devoted almost nothing of their harvest to family consumption for various reasons, including having lost all their crops due to some climatic factors (strong winds) that buried all their plots with sand.


FATE 2015 Survey: Characteristics of quinoa consumption in Nor Lípez, Southern Highlands. Source: Own preparation

Another larger group (46% of households) say they use 14% of their harvest for family consumption, which translates into a consumption of 35 kg of quinoa in one year per person, similar to the per capita consumption of rice in Bolivia (32 kg/person/year)[3]. For the third group that represents 34% of the interviewees, the production of quinoa for family consumption is even higher (17% of the total production) reaching 108.9 kg per person per year. Finally, another group with 11% of the interviewees claimed to use 24% of their harvest for family consumption, meaning that in this group per capita consumption reaches 305.4 kg per person per year.

In the other Province (Antonio Quijarro), located to the East of the Salt, the same tendency is observed, that is to say that a greater production of quinoa is also accompanied by greater production destined for family consumption and greater levels of per capita consumption. It should be noted that these interviews were conducted when the real organic quinoa grain was traded at around 900 Bs/qq i.e. a relatively high price that does not seem to have negatively influenced household consumption decisions.

Many of the interviewees from both regions mentioned that consumption takes place not only in the community where it is cultivated, but also in other urban areas where the children live for educational reasons for a large part of the year. They take quinoa stored each time they visit the community, or the parents take the product to them, often.

In this sense, and based on the exposed data, it is difficult to think that the farmers of the southern highlands are no longer consuming their own quinoa due to the high market prices. It should also be considered that the families interviewed belong to producer associations organized exclusively to market and export the quinoa produced.


FATE 2015 Survey: Characteristics of quinoa consumption in Antonio Quijarro, Southern Highlands. Source: Own preparation

The producers sell part of their production to intermediary traders who visit the communities to collect the grain. The destination of these transactions is the diversification of the food diet including fresh vegetables that the intermediaries themselves take to the place to sell them or in some cases exchange (barter)[4] with quinoa. It must be remembered that, due to the extreme weather conditions in this region, real quinoa is the only crop that has the capacity to develop under such conditions, meaning that it is not possible to cultivate other species to diversify the diet of families living in this area.

The above leads us to think that it is necessary to monitor more closely the decisions of consumption of quinoa at local, regional, national and global levels. However, it is important to note that the production of quinoa for commercialization does not necessarily seem to be associated with lower levels of consumption in the areas producing this grain. What is necessary, in order to promote a greater use and consumption of grain in the diet of producer families, is to provide the necessary equipment for the benefit of quinoa at the local level, since one of the factors that hinders its use in the various typical dishes of the region, is the time needed to remove the saponin and make the grain readily available. It should be remembered that this task is done manually in the communities and is generally carried out by women.

[1] Consulted in:

[2] A 13% of the national area is occupied by valleys and yungas where consumption is much lower because there are other alternatives to the daily diet based on the consumption of vegetables and fruits. The rest of the surface corresponds to the tropical plains (59%) of the east where eating habits are very different and the nutritional properties of the grain have only recently been disseminated.

[3] Per capita consumption of rice in Bolivia by 2015 was 32 kg. Consumption of flour products (pasta, bread) was 47 kg. Consulted in:

[4] 200 days of frost, saline soils, frequent droughts and minimum rainfall of around 200 mm per year are reported. (Aroni J, Cayoja M, Laime M, 2009)

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Sharing the struggles: Meeting strangers in a giant village

by Marie-Luise Hertkorn

Being an ambitious young researcher, I enjoy celebrating success: Conference submission accepted! Fieldwork grant received! Paper published! Young talent prize awarded! To me, each small achievement is not only a source of pleasure and pride, but it also brings about lasting motivation for the rougher stretches of the PhD journey. And the road can be rocky indeed. Yet, while informal discussions among PhD students revolve around the terms “struggle”, “challenge”, and “crisis” with unswerving regularity, relatively little is written about it. For one thing, there is no standard publication format for discussing challenges, and secondly, it’s much easier to go public with success than to write about failure.

In one of the aforementioned discussions, my colleague Patrick Illien and I decided to venture an advance: challenges are an integral part of research, and rather than keeping our struggles secret, we should acknowledge them as a source of insight and growth. Let us rethink the crisis, let us reflect, let us share! An exchange on research related struggles might, first, help us to find solutions for our own research projects and inspire others to do the same (thereby potentially preventing some of the failures that really are preventable), second, inspire an adjustment of grad school programs to better prepare us for coping with crises, and third, contribute to normalization of PhD research as an inherently crisis-ridden endeavor. Dear readers: Welcome to the Sharing the struggles series! You are cordially invited to comment and contribute. I am starting today with some of the challenges encountered during my fieldwork in East Nepal.

Drawing from rich research experience in East Africa and South Asia, I set out to my fieldwork in Nepal with two implicit assumptions in my mind. First, I was convinced that after having lived and worked in many different countries, I would be able to adjust to the field context almost instantly, without any notable frictions. Second, I thought that I wouldn’t conduct interviews with strangers any more: in contrast to the smaller research projects I had done before, in my PhD research I would finally take enough time to blend in with the social fabric of the village, familiarizing with every single respondent – at least a little bit – before embarking on the more formalized phase of conducting interviews. How wrong was I.

First of all, the expectable fieldwork trouble occurred: My translator got sick, so I patiently waited for her recovery in Kathmandu. Then the bus drivers were striking (for good reasons), so it was impossible to leave the capital. Though we managed to find a bus from Kathmandu just one day later, the driver was harassed on the way (“strikebreaker!”), and we got stuck after a day’s ride in a little town in the South of the country. The village was only a few hours’ drive away, but it was impossible to reach: The monsoon-soaked roads were still impassable for small cars, a range rover would have blown the budget, and the bus drivers kept striking. Above all, fieldwork teaches you to be patient, keep your mind together, and trust that all will be well.

Demonstration blocking the road to the study area     © Marie-Luise Hertkorn

Consequently, before we even arrived in the village, my scheduled buffer time was used up. In anticipation of further delays, I decided to be pragmatic and start interviewing right away, rather than opening up the fieldwork phase in the usual smooth way with participatory observation. I thought I would get to know the whole village anyway, day by day, while meeting my respondents’ family and friends. But when we finally reached our destination a few days later, my vision crumbled: This was not the kind of clustered village I had expected to work in, based on my experiences in other parts of Nepal. Instead, I found myself in the middle of a vast area of farms, far-flung all over a gigantic steep slope. A walk from the lower part to the host family’s home took us 2.5 hours, and the upper parts extended far above, up to the top of the hill and beyond on the other side. I came to realize that this “village” had no center for people to convene, no marketplace for weekly shopping, no bar where people would meet. Social life, as it seems, takes place in a decentralized manner, within the circles of neighbors, family, and friends. So, how would I ever blend in the social fabric if there was not the “one” village community I had expected to find? Given the vast dimensions of the settlement area, familiarizing with everyone was effectively impossible.

Parts of the study area viewed from the neighboring hill     © Marie-Luise Hertkorn

The advice of an experienced anthropologist helped me manage: go on walks, talk to the people you meet on the way, and downsize your expectations. It is not necessary to be friends with everyone in order to conduct high-quality interviews. Instead, trust the power of your reputation – after some time in the field, people will know you before you even meet them. And he was right.

The good thing with selecting interview partners randomly is that the respondents’ houses are scattered all over the place: Every day I spent hours hiking up and down the hill in search for the people on my list. And while in the beginning I had rushed from one place to another to complete as many interviews as possible in a day, I now started to take little conversation breaks whenever I met someone working on the roadside. “Namaste, are you in good health?” – “Yes, I am, and you?” – “I am healthy as well. What work are you doing?” – “I am cutting branches for my livestock” – “Ah really? Where do you live?” – “Just over there, behind those trees. What are you doing here?” … In the course of these countless small conversations, I had the chance to pitch the purpose of my stay, whereby a very basic command of Nepali was incredibly helpful to make these encounters joyful for all the parties involved. And while I never met most of these people again, the small discussions helped pave the way for building trust with future respondents whom I never met before: “Ah, you are the foreigner who speaks Nepali? I have heard about you!”

In addition, I regularly visited some of the small shops scattered all over the village – not because I needed anything in particular; I mainly went there for an evening chat with the owner, hoping to meet some other customers, which sometimes was the case. I attended a funeral and a memorial ceremony – out of interest, on the one hand, but also with the hidden agenda to simply get noticed. And it worked: “Ah, you are the one who attended the funeral two months ago? We didn’t get a chance to talk then, but I saw you there!” These small encounters served as an effective icebreaker in interview situations between strangers.

“No Dal Bhat, No Life” – A fancy tourist version of Nepal’s everyday dish     © Marie-Luise Hertkorn

Contrary to my expectations, and despite some very kind people who introduced me to their country, it took me several weeks to adapt to the Nepali context. Raised in a culture of rather explicit communication, the gentle nature of the people and the much subtler, often non-verbal ways of greeting, saying goodbye, and expressing gratitude were confusing. “Don’t say thank you to your sister”, a woman with whom I shared the room pointed out to me when I thanked her for the tea she just made for me. Jokes were unintelligible to me, even when translated. Never have I struggled that much on so many different levels in any of the field contexts I have worked in. Water issues? No problem if it’s scarcity, I can shower with one liter of water, but the daily rains in Nepal in the beginning of my fieldwork and the consequent mildew in my luggage were hard to accept. Fieldwork ailments? I’d have been well prepared for diarrhea and I have coped with cockroaches and lice in other countries, but I didn’t expect an allergy to make my throat swell and a flu infection to immobilize me for days. Food monotony? I can feast on maize, beans and potatoes for months, but the Nepali food (which I loved in the beginning) became difficult to swallow just after having eaten Dal Bhat for ten days.

I was startled. The researcher I thought I was – well-versed in the ways of the world, a chameleon taking up new colors in seconds – had vanished, and confusion was all that remained. I didn’t understand what was going on, and I was frustrated of my perceived failure to blend in as seamlessly as I had done in other, more “difficult” research contexts.

What finally helped me cope was, first and foremost, time for adjustment to the new ways of communication. Second, I again downsized my expectations: I accepted that I would simply not be able to fully “go Nepali”. Of course, I kept trying hard to adapt, for instance not to express verbal gratitude for small favors, but I stopped scolding myself when a “thank you” accidentally slipped off my tongue. When I later came across a store that sold muesli in the little town nearby, I replaced one of the two daily Dal Bhat servings by more familiar food. And while some people were really astonished how one could voluntarily eat cold food in the morning, my host grandma was delighted to share my morning oats: having lost a number of teeth, the soft porridge was easy for her to chew.

Morning at a host family’s home     © Marie-Luise Hertkorn

In the end, and mainly thanks to the extraordinary people skills of my second translator, I managed to adapt, despite the initial challenges. I have remained a stranger in many ways, but most importantly, I understood the basics of communication. To name a few: thanking with smiles, adopting a new melody in speech, making jokes that people find funny, understanding the gentle ways of being teased by friends, and communicating that I’m leaving without using the word “goodbye”. As much as I struggled to get used to these new ways in the beginning, it was equally hard to leave behind the kind people I had embosomed. By now, I might even be ready for another portion of Dal Bhat!

So, what are the key learnings from all these challenges? I would like to conclude with four personal insights. First, sometimes it is necessary to just persevere, trusting that after a few challenging weeks things will become better. Second, for my next fieldwork period in a context I am unfamiliar with, I will by all means take extra time to adjust, even if it means sacrificing some precious interview days: knowing how to effectively break the ice and relate to people will very likely result in greater depth of the narrations. Third, even if the field context does not allow for extensive familiarization, there are ways to make oneself known without meeting everyone in person. And finally, it is alright to not fully blend in and to acknowledge the fact of remaining a stranger – given that one learns how to build bridges the local way.

Bridge on the way to the study area     © Marie-Luise Hertkorn

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The ambiguous image of collective organizations

By Eva Ming, master student

Motivated by the first results of the FATE-team of Nepal about the manifold benefits of collective organizing, e.g. access to financial services and acquisition of new knowledge and skills (KC et al., 2016; Upreti et al., 2016), I set out to Nepal for my fieldwork. I had in mind an idea of collective organizing as a form of grassroots solidarity with strength in numbers. Results from the household survey revealed striking differences between the numbers of participants in collective organizing by gender, where 56% of the women and 18% of the men who were interviewed responded that they engage social groups like cooperatives, credit and saving associations or mother groups (Upreti et al., 2016, p. 140). This notable difference in the number of participants by gender that indicates a feminization of organizing aroused my interest. My master thesis thus aims to investigate the feminized space of collective organizing in cardamom farming based in Eastern Nepal.

The time in the field was very enriching. I learned about the way these cooperatives and social groups function, how the people engage with these groups and each other and how the involved people experience their participation. However, it was also challenging, as there were so many new things for me to experience and to learn. And then, there were these elusive moments of confusion, which I hardly noticed at first.


Discussing the experiences about the participation in social groups in a focus group discussion    
@ E. Ming

From the beginning, even before I went to the field, I struggled with the concept of group. There are many ways to look at them. From the point of view of organizational sociology, social groups can be conceptualized as organizations with elements like membership, aims, structures, decision-making processes and resources (Preisendörfer, 2005). However, the risk of embracing such an organizational perspective is that groups may be defined too mechanically and important contributing factors such as power relations may be overlooked Groups can also be understood in terms of collective action. Here, the focus is on the actions taken by a group of people, rather than on the groups themselves (Meinzen-Dick et al., 2004). Yet another approach considers groups as a bundling of individuals, who share similar characteristics in their social milieu. Groups are then considered as less of an assembly of people, who unite as a response to particular motivations, but as a categorization, imposed from outside. The categorization may not exist in social reality but only from a theoretical point of view (Bourdieu, 1985; Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1996). For example, people with the same educational background and similar economic situation may be summarized as one class without the requirement that they know each other or share a sense of belonging to this class.

Based on this preliminary review, we can see that there are several important dimensions of collective organizing – the groups themselves (including elements like structure, resources, aims, etc.), the actors involved and the actions, which are conducted by the groups. These different dimensions are interlinked, yet, they are not the same.

Considering the scope of these interpretations, I thus struggled with the question about what I was examining: Do I look at the groups as entities or do I look at the individuals who form the groups? Are these individuals, who constitute the group, the group itself or is the group more than its parts? Sometimes, when I poured over my research concept, I had the feeling that I was looking at an ambiguous image. Depending on which aspect I focused on, I saw completely different images. In the end, I decided that, at least for the data collection, I needed to investigate both aspects – the groups and their internal structure as well as the individual actors and their involvement in the groups.

The moments of confusion continued to occur while I was in the field. First of all, two general observations in relation to collective organizing surprised me. The first observation is the importance of external actors. Even though, local cooperatives exist, collective organizing is strongly influenced by external actors (i.e. state officials, local governments and members of NGOs). They are involved in forming the groups and provide knowledge and other resources. The second observation is that almost every cooperative or social group is involved in financial services. Even if the group was originally formed with a different purpose in mind, today, most of them offer loans and encourage savings as a part of their main activities. So, I started to realize that collective organizing is not the bottom up process I imagined when I set out for the field, but far more complex with influences from many different actors with their own interests.

My confusion became stronger as I delved further into the subject. The experiences about their membership, which the women shared with me, revealed an ambivalence in the feminized space of collective organizing.


The long journey of one investigated cooperative with many positive changes as well as major challenges along the way. @ E. Ming

On the one hand, I’ve met strong, brave and very engaged women, who are proud to be part of a group and who told me about the benefits:

“Before, I used to work only at home. But now, I get the chance to attend meetings and to go to places, which are work-related with the cooperatives. And then, we have built the capacity to speak in a mass, which I did not use to do before.” (Female interview partner, 49 years).

“I have more friends now. I know people from other places. […] And there is no difference between poor and rich in the village. Everyone is part of it. We have also people from far away, like the neighbor village […]. And I don’t have to depend on my husband for household expenses. […] And then, if I need, I can take loans and use it.” (Female interview partner, 46 years)

Through their membership, the women gain access to financial services, which are sparsely accessible in remote areas, and independence from their husbands’ financial resources; they have the opportunity to network socially and exchange knowledge with other women. Through these opportunities, they development self-confidence and the courage to speak in public. In other words, the female cardamom farmers begin to claim participation in public spaces and social life.


The monthly saving collection meetings as an opportunity to save, to network socially and to exchange knowledge. @ E. Ming

On the other hand, the women told me of new dependencies that they become entangled in through their participation. They are bound to the groups through contracts and debts, often for a long time. Furthermore, there is a mutual dependency amongst the members, because they decide about loan applications from each other and because their own savings are used to provide loans. This is aggravated in groups, where members have to vouch for each other and then have to fulfil outstanding debts with their own monetary resources, if another member is unable to pay back the loan:

“These groups give money without putting any property down. But they have their own members as a witness. So, if the person takes a loan and cannot pay back in time, so they, the persons of the group, have to give their savings. They [the groups] will take the money, nevertheless what. They don’t care if I am poor or if I cannot pay back the loan. But the person, who had stayed, or all the group members, they take the savings from their own account, just to pay the loan back in time.” (Female interview partner, 49 years)

Linked to these dependencies, the potential threat of indebtedness weighs heavily. The women shared stories with me about family tragedies, because members had been caught in vicious cycles of indebtedness:

“I am not talking about me or my members. But it [the membership in credit and saving associations] has given like mental problem to other people also. Because they take loans and if they cannot pay back the loans, then someone has. Somebody had to run away and even, they have died. And they are in loss, because they take a big amount of loan and they cannot pay back.” (Female interview partner, 46 years)

In addition, many credit and saving associations are formed and run by NGOs. While these NGOs have helped to empower women, the organizations also profit from providing loans as they earn money with interest rates levied on the principal amounts borrowed. Most of these NGOs prefer women-only group, because women are considered to be more reliable in paying back the loans. So, not only do the NGOs profit at the expense of the women, but a situation is created where the responsibility of taking loans and paying them back lie mostly on the shoulders of women.

Considering all of these factors and interdependencies, every time I thought I understood something, another piece of information added a new way of understanding the complexities around collective organizing. Again, I had the feeling that I was looking at an ambiguous image. The longer I was in the field, the more often this image of collective organizing as ambiguous occurred to me. Then one day, I was conducting an interview with a member of a saving and credit group that took place in her living room. On the wall of this room was a drawing that attracted my attention. I like it and looked at it several times. Only after the interview, the research participant brought to my attention, that the drawing was an ambiguous image.


A very famous example for an ambiguous figure: My Wife and My Mother-In-Law, firstly published by the cartoonist W. E. Hill, 1915

Ambiguous images are something fascinating and a broad range of people have dealt with it, as a brief web-based search reveals. Ambiguous images are images and figures that can be seen from at least two perspectives, thus encourage at least two different interpretations. It is not possible to see both interpretations simultaneously. Only one perspective appears at a time. Nevertheless, both perspectives are versions of one and the same picture.

What does it mean for my research, if I carry this analogy of collective organizing as an ambiguous image with me? Basically, it reminds me that there is neither an easy nor a final answer. The analogy points out that reality is (or may seem) contradictory, because there exist different perspectives and interpretations of the same picture. This does not imply that is impossible to resolve these contradictions. It might be that someone with more knowledge about the context is able to integrate the different perspectives into one coherent whole. However, in my case, with my background, conducting research within a context that is not very familiar to me, it means that I encounter contradictions, which I have to withstand. There is the ambition to arrive at a concise conclusion by the end of the thesis. You would like to set up a balance sheet to make a clear statement. However, reality is more complex than that and it may be that research, which aims at such precise statements, is incomplete and unable to capture the essential of a given phenomenon.

The analogy further reminds me that the perceived contradictions do not deny the truth of one perspective. For my research, this means that cooperatives and social groups may empower the women under certain conditions, while creating new sources of dependencies and vulnerabilities in other aspects. The analogy underlines that dual perspectives on groups may exist side by side and it implies that it is my duty as a researcher to keep an open mind and to try to uncover and include these different perspectives.


Bourdieu, P. (1985). The social space and the genesis of groups. Social Science Information, 24(2), 195–220.

Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, L. J. D. (1996). Reflexive Anthropologie. (P. Bourdieu & L. J. D. Wacquant, Eds.) (4.). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

KC, S., Upreti, B. R., & Subedi, B. P. (2016). “We know the taste of sugar because of cardamom production” links among commercial cardamom farming, women’s involvement in production and the feminization of poverty. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 18(1), 181–207.

Meinzen-Dick, R., DiGregorio, M., & McCarthy, N. (2004). Methods for studying collective action in rural development. Agricultural Systems, 82(3), 197–214.

Pandolfelli, L., Meinzen-Dick, R., & Dohrn, S. (2008). Introduction. Gender and collective action: motivations, effectiveness and impact. Journal of International Development, 20, 1–11.

Preisendörfer, P. (2005). Organisationssoziologie. Grundlage, Theorien und Problemstellungen. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

Upreti, B. R., Subedi, B. P., KC, S., Ghale, Y., & Shivakoti, S. (2016). Understanding dynamics of rural agriculture and employment in Nepal : Evidences from Ilam district of Eastern Nepal. Nepalese Journal of Agricultural Sciences, 132–141.

Source Image:

My Wife and My Mother-In-Law, by the cartoonist W. E. Hill (1915). Nature, International Journal of Science: Accessed: 09.10.2018

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Doing a household survey using tablets

By Maliphone Douangphachanh, Saithong Phommavong

Nowadays, there is a growing tendency of using modern equipment in doing research. Data collection by using a tablet is one trend which is practised by many research projects and students all around the world. Using tablets for data collection comes up with pros and cons. Some pro arguments relate to a paperless technique, time and energy-saving method, cost efficiency, and skill and experience enhancement. Firstly, due to the online application, the survey consumes less questionnaire paper sheets and thus is considered as an environmentally friendly data collection technique. Secondly, it saves time and energy. Using a tablet saves lots of time during and post-survey. A tablet is small and light, but it can “store many paper sheets”. During the survey, an enumerator only swipes the screen of the tablet to ask the first to the last questions with no need of opening any paper sheets.


A MA student conducts data collection using a tablet for the first wave household survey at Dong village, Laongam district, Salavan province, Laos 2015. @ S. Phommavong

After the survey, the data is cleaned and submitted to a server hub directly which is less labour intensive than manual data entry. If we used the paper-based questionnaire, data entry would require lots of labour days to complete the task. The tablet can solve those problems and makes life easier. Data collection by tablet costs less than the paper-based method mainly because the labour cost for data entry is minimised. Nevertheless, it is necessary to check data before submitting the form to the server. Cleaning data after the submission remains necessary. Finally, using a tablet for the survey enhances enumerators’ skills and experience for modernised data collection techniques. The following statement is from an enumerator, and he shares the experience of using a tablet:

Through a survey with all six villages, I gained much good experience regarding team working, communities’ experiences and using a tablet. I think using a tablet is a perfect tool for surveying.  I [would] love to use the tablet for my future research; this is the green survey and easy for uploading to the database system. Based on my learning from the survey (using tablets), I would like to recommend that to ensure the good use of tablet. First, the communities where it will take place have electricity (this is the case in Lao there are some villages they do not have electricity access). Secondly,  [it is important that] we are familiar with the question form in case of tablet error, e.g. during the collection of data in the second wave of the survey, 2018. Lastly, when we use a tablet, making notes of the most important information may be needed as well. (Outhoumphone Sanesathid, a FATE PhD student)


 “Making notes of the most important information may be needed as well“. Household survey, May 2018. Bolaven Plateau, South of Laos. @R.Steffen

Nevertheless, data collection by using tablet also has some con-sides: complicated and time-consuming preparation of Excel form, enumerators’ training, battery charging, and cleaning data before submission. Preparation of the standard Excel form is the most crucial tasks before the survey. If an error with a variable is found, this might cause serious impact to the whole data set and thus requires additional adjustment time.  The whole set of questions in the tablet needs to be connected smoothly and systematically from the first question to the last question. Training on using a tablet for a survey is significant and consums longer time than paper-based data collection.  It is necessary to ensure that enumerators understand both the context of the questionnaires and the way of using a tablet. Therefore; the training should be longer in order to assure that all enumerators can collect quantity and quality of data. Another challenge of using a tablet is the battery because tablets need to be fully charged before an interview, otherwise it may cause data loss during the survey because it might not save automatically.  Finally, data should be cleaned before submission to a server hub which is time-consuming. If the data on the tablet is not checked clearly before sending to a server, it will affect data quality and analysis.

The FATE-Laos completed two waves of household survey data collection, the first one in 2015 and the second one in 2018. The first data collection by using a tablet covered 532 households in two provinces, two districts, and four villages, and the second one covered 719 households in two provinces, three districts, and six villages. The first wave of the survey consists of  15 enumerators; who spend two training days, four questionnaire testing days and 13 days in the field. The second wave of household survey was divided into two periods of time due to the larger sample. In total, the survey was conducted by 14 enumerators in 25 days excluding training and questionnaire testing days. The questionnaire for the second wave which was modified for some parts had a total of thirty-one pages. If paper was used, the team would have printed 22,289 pages.



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Reflection of field visit: insights for my research

By Sushant Acharya

In my past twelve years of career as a staff in development projects, I did many field visits. Unlike earlier visits, the visits I made in the first year of PhD (December, March and April) were different for me in many aspects. This time, I was not concerned with project delivery and results. I did not have office vehicle, staffs from partner organization to guide and the beneficiaries waiting for us. Moreover, these visits were opening my eyes in the long journey of research – gender relationship in high-value agriculture. My first visit was of reconnaissance type where I got an overview of production and processing and introduction with stakeholders. The second visit helped me to understand the problems more closely. Having such overview in the Eastern part of Nepal, I felt something is missing then went to visit Western part of Nepal. This blog synthesizes reflections of those visits.


Cleaning the cardamom bushes @ S. Acharya

I have selected field sites in the Eastern region of Nepal. This area has long been known for commercial production of high-value agriculture commodities. But due to high out-migration from farm sector to non-farm sector, gender relationships are changing rapidly. Researchers argue that  despite of high number of women in high-value agriculture, ‘condition’ and ‘position’ have not improved relative to men. This situation is further poor in the higher nodes of value chain. Taking the case of promising commodity – cardamom, I am trying to see how the platform for men and women are constructed and why these platforms are not equal. I came up with some factors as: mobility, accessibility, access to resources (includes knowledge / skill), social norms and values and market. The subsequent sections elaborate these factors by taking support of case-stories.

We met with many people and incidents with some of them were really powerful to reshape own views. When I met the manager of local women agri-cooperative, she was selling goods from her small grocery shop. In addition to grocery, she manages furniture enterprise and cardamom farm. Her husband, on the other hand, is trainer of bee farm management. He is also local contractor for the development works. By role and income, husband and wife look equal but they differ in space of their work.


Cardamom entrepreneur briefing about processing cardamom @ S. Acharya

Her husband requires maximum mobility while she is confined to her village. Her husband drives motorbike to go around but she could not. Regarding constrain to mobility, she shared an interesting story that she pushed her husband to participate in events, on behalf of her. The simple reason was that – her husband makes this within very short-time and for her this could take hours of walk. I found many women who miss similar events due to constrain in mobility. Mobility mostly in hills is constrained either by less frequent movement of public vehicle, driving skills, poor condition of roads, or by social norms and values.


Women doing head and tail cut of large cardamom (processing) @ S. Acharya

But I met some ladies who crossed the above barriers and became successful in their profession. First one is a cardamom nursery lady. She has visited different places of the Eastern region of Nepal to learn nursery skills, promote cardamom seedlings and transfer of skills to other villagers.  She first got nursery skills from the government authority, Cardamom Development Centre. Since then, she is producing high quality seedlings and making good income. We met many women who travel to market frequently to sale cardamom. But in their case, gentlemen were not at home. Similarly, the homestay lady in field site (where FATE team stayed) has travelled to different parts of India and Nepal to learn homestay management skills. She opines that women are recognized in community only when they demonstrate themselves financially independent. This reflected me that women who cross constrains can develop themselves as competent women.

I got another perspective when I talked with women from trading family. She was daughter-in-law in a Marwari (traditionally business group) family. Her family has been on cardamom business for the past three generations. By education, she holds a graduate degree and possesses knowledge and skills related to cardamom trading. But she was confined to family space – care works. When I asked her husband how she can complement their business, he responded as: “though she can complement, it is not possible in Marwadi family. But women from Pahadi (Hill) community are assisting their husbands”. Right before, we had met with lady from hill community. She was managing more than 15 wage laborers, one supervisor and trading cardamom worth hundreds of thousands rupees.


Labourers at Birtamod loading cardamom to export to India @ S. Acharya

This led me to flash back knowledge about energy that I learned in high school. A Marwadi woman possesses a maximum potential energy in terms of her capacity, but the social norms and values create barrier to her to convert potential energy into kinetic energy…

Likewise, I was surprised to see how rise and fall in price of cardamom effects in gender relationship. Three-four years back, i.e. in 2014/15, price of cardamom was in its peak i.e. 30 USD per kg. Men and women, both were engaged almost equally in farming. At that time, purchasing a motorbike, installing solar panel and having television was not a big deal even for the small farmers. Even out-migrated men were returning home because they could earn more here from cardamom. Further, they had advantage of being together with their family. But with the fall in price (i.e. in March, 2018, it was around 9 USD per kg), men are leaving, especially poor farmers, again jumping to non-farm sector and abroad jobs. They find hard to solve the problem of hands-to-mouth from cardamom and leave home parking their motorbikes in the terraces.

Such field incidences make me sometime feeling nostalgic, sometime feeling excited and sometimes my thoughts are aggressive / revolutionary. Moreover, I observed, very closely, the entire phenomenon of production, processing and trade of cardamom. I further saw how mobility, accessibility, access to resources, social norms and values and agency differ for men and women. This has provided enough ground to look more in-depth with respect to capability and role performance of women and thereby I will locate the condition and position of women. These insights will guide my entire research period.

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The re-shaping of quinoa producers’ livelihoods in the Bolivian Southern Highlands: A tale of markets, climate and mining

By Gloria Carrasco,

As a new PhD student, the process of getting increasingly involved in the study area has been a truly enriching and rewarding experience. During the last months, I have been exploring the situation of quinoa production in Bolivia’s Southern Highlands, first from a more distant-external perspective and then moving to a closer look and comprehension of the reality of quinoa growing families nowadays.

quinoa Stenn 2017

Quinoa Production parcels near the salar flats in the Southern Highlands of Bolivia, @T. Stenn

It is impressive to see how quinoa-growing communities have gone through important transformations over time as a result of their interaction with socioeconomic, political and environmental factors. One key change factor is market fluctuation. As a result of the opening of international markets, households have shifted from a family farm production model to an export production model, leading worldwide quinoa exports until 2014. However, the latest fall in quinoa prices resulting from a greater international supply has led to a decrease in revenues, pushing households to find alternative income sources outside agriculture.


Quinoa farmers in the Bolivian Highlands, @S.Bieri

Another factor increasing household vulnerability is climate change. Already an agro-climatically poor zone, the Southern Bolivian Highlands are likely to suffer longer periods of drought and frost, causing harvest shortfalls and driving diversification among quinoa producers and their practices.

Within this environment, climate variability and market fluctuations are just a few of the shocks experienced by the inhabitants of the Southern Highlands. A change factor that, we, the FATE Bolivia team, have started to study is the arrival of extractive industry and its impacts on quinoa growers’ livelihoods. The Southern Bolivian Highlands hold an exceptional wealth of natural resources. Currently, one of the most ambitious state-led projects is being implemented, the industrialization of the evaporitic deposits of the Uyuni salt flats. Likewise, the San Cristóbal deposit, considered one of the largest open-pit zinc, lead and silver deposits in the world, is located in this region. Its exploitation takes place through transnational companies and a weak participation of the state throughout its history.

In this scenario, the impacts resulting from globalization and the increasing opening of commodity markets become evident. For its part, the current government operates in favor of extractive industry supporting state and private extractive activities, positioning it as a guarantee for development associated with the generation of income and employment for the local population. However, a prosperous economy based on the development of extractive industry is not always the result. Moreover, beyond the severe environmental impacts, another possible difficulty resulting from extractivism in the region is the competition for natural resources such as land and water, and the decreasing capacity of local inhabitants to access them and govern the territory in which they reside.

soil deterioration romero2017

Deterioration of the soils due to the exploitation of mineral resources in the Southern Highlands of Bolivia, @A. Romero

Thus, considering all the factors involved in the construction of this scenario, the following questions arise: Can extractive industry be compatible with agricultural and livestock uses? Is there a competition over natural and human resources between mining and quinoa production? How does the presence of extractive industry affect into the transformation of quinoa producers’ livelihoods in the Southern Highlands of Bolivia? Has the presence of extractivism led to the generation of new capital and non-agricultural jobs that contribute to the diversification of quinoa producers’ livelihoods?

As we can see, the Southern Bolivian Highlands offer a truly particular and complex context and it is really exciting to be part of the FATE Bolivia team and have the opportunity to contribute to a better understanding of these and other livelihood change factors, exploring their implications for rural households and evaluating the vulnerability or strength of households’ life strategies, not only according to economic income criteria but also recognizing whether they lead to welfare.

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Closing the gender gap in farming households: An entry point towards agricultural transformation in Africa

By Eileen Nchanji, Chantal Ingabire and Eliud Birachi

“Agricultural transformation is one of the leading efforts for poverty reduction and food security in Africa. Governments, development agencies and researchers agree on the role that can be played by agricultural transformation in a countries’ economic growth. The main idea is to shift from the subsistence production that has involved the majority of African farmers, to a more productive and market-oriented farming. Such a transformation is possible in Africa, but to move forward, we need to close the agricultural gender gap, which remains one of the greatest barriers. This gap is not about the number of women farmers. In fact, roughly half of Africa’s farmers are women. The gap is […]“.

Please find here this blog post from our team in Rwanda.



Rwandan farmers @S.Bieri

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From R4D to P4D: the transformation of “stakeholders” into partners

By Sabin and Stéphanie

One of the challenges of Research for Development – R4D – is the word in between: the “FOR”. How do we get there? How do we turn our insights, our data, our analysis, our explanations, and indeed, our questions, into pathways FOR development? Indeed, what is the magic for achieving any change at all? How can research connect to what is at the heart of development? The experience of the FATE project indicates that it takes hard work. At the core is a jointly prepared and carefully managed process by which the abstract character of “stakeholder” turns into a genuine partner for a commonly shaped goal.


Hard work – even getting to the very remote origins of the production of Quinoa Real involves adventure: snow in the Southern Highlands, in the middle of summer.

In January, the entire FATE team met in Bolivia. Two generations of PhD students joined us, making this the biggest meeting we’ve had so far. And the remotest one, too. The fact that the Bolivian people, in the face of their president’s urge to cling to power, recently seems to have re-adopted some of their well-tested practices of political protest from the past did not contribute to favor the circumstances in which this meeting took place – least of all for the Bolivian team who did an amazing job in receiving us.


“Lithium and industrialization for living well”

We traveled to the remote Southern Highlands of Bolivia in order for the whole team to get a sense of the extreme conditions under which the campesinos in the region produce one of the most popular foods of our times: quinoa. It is, however, not only quinoa, but the high-end variety, Quinoa Real – the royal quinoa, that is grown at the shores of the Uyuni salt flats.

One of the challenges of the regional producers is that, as nearly 100 countries of the world have embarked on quinoa production, markets became saturated, resulting in a dramatic collapse of prices since 2015. The distinction of Quinoa Real from other varieties for health-conscious consumers is one of the tasks the producer association has to engage in.

At the core of this trip were the stakeholder meetings with quinoa producers and members of the regional cooperative, SOPROQUI (Sociedad de Productores de Quinoa). We were invited to two communities, Colcha K and San Pedro de Quemes. The representative and spacious town hall of Colcha K was the location for the first meeting, whereas a gym, sponsored by the national investment programme “Evo cumple*”, was turned into the auditorium for the San Pedro event.


Stakeholders’ meeting at San Pedro de Quemes

Each meeting was inaugurated by formal speeches from local authorities, contributions from the representative of the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés and our FATE partner, Elizabeth Jimenez Zamora, a few words by the FATE project leaders, and, of course, by local carnival dancers. The ceremonial part was usually over by less than two hours.


Traditional carnival dance at Colcha K

One of the contributions to this event by the FATE project was an exchange on agricultural crops produced for export from the FATE partner countries. Presentations given by Saithong Phommavong, Bishnu Upreti and Eliud Birachi offered insights to our guests on how Lao, Nepali and Rwandan farmers address some of the problems they are faced with as they produce for international markets. Not least, everyone had the chance to compare the quality of Lao coffee beans to the Bolivian varieties, taste the surprising sparkle of spicy cardamom seeds and critically assess the practices of Rwandan potato and bean production. The attention our country coordinators received, including a range of to the point questions raised by the fascinated audience, was impressive.


Interactions between the FATE team and the local stakeholders

The fact that lunch – clearly also a core element of the event and an incentive for the association members and their families to attend – was delayed by more than three hours speaks to the attraction of the discussions. Finally, our guests all received the report of the analysis of our first survey on quinoa production in the region, including a number of most illustrative graphs, authored by our new PhD student, Alejandro Romero (click here to download the report).

It is in moments like these that we feel to be closest to what we want to achieve: R4D. The bringing together of expert knowledge at a range of levels, the sharing of questions, problems and insights, the opening up for diverse pathways of development. More than anything, it involves translation – not only literally, between languages, but between methodologies, approaches, different knowledge types, and culture in its widest sense: regional, urban-rural, academic, practical and generational cultures. These communal experiences are an expression of the commitment of all of the involved partners. The personal encounters, the insistence on shared understanding and all the hard work that flows into these efforts, is what turns “stakeholders”, and that includes us as researchers, into partners for development.


FATE team, 2018

*The slogan “Evo Cumple” means Evo fullfills.

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