Campus impact drives global crops work in Africa

posted April 3, 2017 8:58 a.m. (CDT)
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    UW-River Falls associate professor of sociology Paige Miller, right, on a six-month-long stint as a gender consultant assisting the International Crops Research Institute in Kenya, was in Hyderabad, India, for a biennial global planning meeting when these women approached her on the street and asked for a photo with her.

Working among legume farmers in Africa, Paige Miller is half a world away from Wisconsin. Despite the distance, Miller’s work on another continent is providing her with a wealth of experience that will influence her teaching at UW-River Falls.

Miller, associate professor of sociology at UW-River Falls, is in the middle of a six-month-long stint as a gender consultant assisting the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Kenya. She is working to integrate gender into a project called Tropical Legumes III.

A cooperative effort by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and National Agricultural Research Systems partners from Sub-Saharan Africa and India, TL III is an international initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. According to the project’s description, “TL III aims to develop improved cultivars of common bean, cowpea, chickpea and groundnut and deliver their seed at scale to small-holders in Gates Foundation focus geographies.”

TL III is building upon the work of Tropical Legumes I and II, both of which were previously funded by the Gates Foundation. TL III is a four-year project focusing on six specific tropical legumes — legumes that small-holder farmers in seven African and two Asian countries tend to prefer. The project also works to strengthen breeding programs and seed platforms already in place to improve their capabilities, allowing them to deliver large, sustained output to small-holder farmers. The ultimate aim of TL III is to improve the livelihoods of small-holder farmers in selected locations.

As a gender consultant on the project, Miller’s work is related to integrating and mainstreaming gender into the project. She is tasked with providing four deliverables related to gender yield gaps in agricultural productivity.

“Women tend to produce less than men, largely because of the quantity and quality of agricultural inputs used by female farmers,” Miller said. “Two of the deliverables are reports assessing the empirical evidence about the extent and causes of the gender yield gap and the second report is a review of policies designed to address the yield gap in agricultural production.”

Miller will collaborate with the rest of the team for the third deliverable — designing interventions that will reduce the yield gap. She also will focus on the development of a monitoring system to track the effectiveness of the interventions. The monitoring system serves as the fourth deliverable of Miller’s research assignment.

“The Gates Foundation is funding the TL III project and also my position as a gender consultant. The Gates Foundation is very interested in funding these kinds of projects. Development aid is a big part of what the Foundation supports, and incorporating a focus on alleviating global gender inequalities, particularly as it relates to social and economic development, is a big part of the kinds of work they are interested in funding,” Miller said.

The aim of much of the foundation’s work, and specifically TL III, parallels much of Miller’s focus at UW-River Falls, where she has been involved with both the Women and Gender Studies Committee and the Association for International Development.

“Since I joined UW-River Falls in 2009, my research has focused on female scientists in Ghana, Kenya and Kerala, India, so I’ve been working in the area of development and gender for some time,” she said.

Miller, former winner of UW-River Falls’ Excellence in Advising Award and Excellence in Research, Scholarly and Creative Activities Award, anticipates the positive effect her international work will have on her teaching and research there.

“I think the project and living in Kenya for six months will impact my teaching in both unexpected and expected ways,” she said. “Experiences like this make us better teachers. Just like our engagement in research and conference activity keep us abreast of developments in the field, which we use to enhance our lectures and class activities, outside partnerships — particularly those that take us abroad — enhance our understanding of our own subject matter.”

This enhancement, she said, is a crucial aspect of teaching and will directly impact the education she brings to students at UW-River Falls.

“The experiences I am having as a gender consultant are varied, challenging and easily applicable to almost every course I teach,” she said. “I will leave this position with a much more nuanced understanding of the complexities behind that awareness and international development more broadly.”

Miller also praises UW-River Falls for continuing the push for global engagement.

“I’ve been nothing but impressed with the work our university does with global engagement, particularly in Western Europe,” she said. “For a number of very understandable reasons, there have been fewer opportunities for global engagement in places like Africa and India. While we have programs in Africa and India on our campus, this position offers an unprecedented chance for me to make new connections that might lead to any number of places but also potential new programs and opportunities for students and faculty.”

The effects of Miller’s position with TL III is two-sided. Not only is she contributing to the strengthening of a needy population, but she is also representing UW-River Falls and its mission on a global level.

“In the current political climate of the state and nation, we frequently hear about the lack of need for majors like sociology. Acting as a consultant for ICRISAT demonstrates — in a very real way — sociology’s potential to cultivate job skills and applicability of a degree in sociology to a broad range of careers,” she said. “In this way, this position demonstrates, not only to our students but also to others on and off campus, the relevance and importance of a liberal arts education.”

Overall, Miller knows her work with TL III is just one instance of UW-River Falls’ commitment to being global, innovative and excellent.

“These kinds of outside partnerships, of which there are many on the UW-River Falls campus, are reflective of a university with faculty who are truly multidisciplinary and engaged,” she said.

For more information on the TL III project and Miller’s work, visit http://​tropicallegumes.icrisat.org.






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