Conversations make the fieldwork flow: Xolile Ncube on what it means to study with community.

Coring earth samples in a bog, walking through the bush at 2am with a headlight on, counting frogs and quolls - that’s all fieldwork, but fieldwork also looks like talking to each other. For the last few months, that’s exactly what PhD Scholar Xolile Ncube has been doing in her home country, Zimbabwe. 

Zimbabwe has a rich history of producing iconic environmental researchers such as animal biologist Lindela Ndlovu and plant geneticist Rachel Chikwamba. It is also nation that carries a rich history of being researched by non-African academics. So what does mean for a local-national to do research in partnership with the interests and concerns of her people? On her way back to Australia, and just as Crawford Fund scholarships open for their next intake, we grabbed five minutes with Xolile to talk about the experience of doing fieldwork with your community. 

With the support of a Crawford Fund scholarship, Xolile has been in-country evaluating the effectiveness of Agricultural Innovation Platform (AIP) initiated innovations for sustainable smallholder irrigation schemes. Her research is rooted in years of working with smallholder farmers in rural Zimbabwe, and observing how food insecurity in Zimbabwe has increased.  

“Nothing in this world beats being able to conduct research within a familiar environment, where one has an understanding of the local culture, and nothing is lost in translation as communication is in the local language.” She says. 

“Being placed in a context where you look like the people around you and they look like you, builds instant trust as greetings are shared in a familiar language and culturally relevant jokes and conversation are shared before each interview begins. The Transforming Irrigation in Southern Africa (TISA) project funded by the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) has afforded me and other African researchers the opportunity to immerse ourselves in research around livelihoods and food security in Africa, where we were born, raised and have worked towards contributing positive agricultural outcomes in our respective countries. This research space has historically been dominated by non-Africans and it has been a joy to watch the space open up to researchers of African origin in past decades. Above all we get to own the narrative and tell our own stories.” 

Before getting into fieldwork, last year Xolile described the conditions that led to her research. 

“With an increase in drought events in my country, it has been heart-breaking year after year watching farmers plant seed with so much hope, only to harvest so little that it is inadequate to feed their families, let alone to utilise as seed in the next agricultural season. By gaining a good understanding of country specific contexts, irrigation agriculture has great potential to increase agricultural productivity, provide an income and restore the dignity of rural farmers not only in Zimbabwe but for the different parts of Africa.” 

You can read more of that conversation here. Now, after spending 11 months reading and researching, and one a half months visiting two irrigation schemes in the Matabeleland recion of Zimbabwe, Xolile’s research is coming to life, with all kinds of amazing stories being shared with her on her fieldwork journey. 
“I have spoken to male, female, elderly and young farmers at the schemes and to national level stakeholders about the project and how scaling has occurred over the past 9 years of project implementation. I have heard of stories about how influential farmers have arisen within the irrigation schemes. A female farmer of note being Sihle Dube, who is the chairperson of the Landela Block at Silalatsahni Irrigation Scheme. She is a member of the Agricultural Innovation Platform (AIP) and has been instrumental in sharing information about the soil and water monitoring tools, input and output markets and agronomic practices. One cannot have a conversation with any of the irrigation scheme members without her name being mentioned, which is a big win for female farmers who have been historically underrepresented in leadership and decision-making roles.”  

“At national level,” Xolile adds, “Irrigation Department employees have been generous in speaking about how the implementing organisation (International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics) shared information about the positive impacts of the soil monitoring tools at national fora. The Irrigation Department has adopted the tools and to date has installed 269 tools at 33 irrigation schemes across the country. I look forward to learning more about the irrigation schemes, the project and how the positive impacts it has had on the targeted irrigation schemes have led to adoption at different levels within Zimbabwe.” 

We can’t wait to see what happens next on Xolile’s PhD journey. 
Each year the Crawford Fund, through each state and territory committee, offers Student Awards that are open for Honours or Postgrad students (both domestic and international students). Each Award is up to $4000. Most recipients use the Award for international travel, exposing themselves and their research to an international dimension. Further information, including the application process, can be found here. The closing date is the 15 May 2023, for travel in the 23-24 financial year. 

The image in the body of this story is Xoilie Ncube sitting with Sihle Dube. Photo credit Michael Wellington (2022).