Irrigation Research by Xolile Ncube Recognised by Crawford Fund

The Fenner School is celebrating PhD Scholar Xolile Ncube, who recently received Crawford Fund support for her doctoral research. Ms Ncube’s research looks at evaluating the effectiveness of Agricultural Innovation Platform (AIP) initiated innovations for sustainable smallholder irrigation schemes.

Australian Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Bronte Moules, welcomed the Crawford Fund’s support for Xolile’s agricultural development research travel in Zimbabwe. “We’re delighted that Xolile’s outstanding research is being recognised with Crawford Fund support. Zimbabwe and Australia share many climatic and environmental similarities and partnerships like this mean we can learn from each other and share best practice. The passion and commitment of Xolile and other young Zimbabwe scientists is inspiring, and it’s terrific that the Australian National University is able to support this critical research for sustainable development. These people-to-people linkages are the backbone of the Australia-Zimbabwe relationship and Xolile is furthering the deep connections between our countries.” 

Xolile’s interest in irrigation systems is rooted in years of working with smallholder farmers in rural Zimbabwe who are highly dependent on rainfed subsistence agriculture as their main livelihood. Over the years food insecurity in Zimbabwe has increased and smallholder subsistence farmers have become highly dependent on food aid. 

“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.” 

So why did she choose to do her PhD at The Fenner School? ANU’s strong focus on research was one of the main drawing factors, as was the School’s preexisting relationship with The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). ACIAR has funded an ANU-led project “Transforming Irrigation in Southern Africa” since 2013. The project is a collaboration of Australian and African researchers in Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. 

“I was so excited speaking to my supervisor Professor Jamie Pittock and learning that he leads the Transforming Irrigation Agriculture in Southern Africa (TISA) project implemented in Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe funded by ACIAR and implemented by the International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Zimbabwe. TISA has over the past 9 years had positive outcomes on the productivity, profitability and sustainability of targeted irrigation schemes and I love that my research gets to explore how agricultural innovations that have led to these outcomes can be responsibly scaled in order for more irrigation schemes to benefit from these innovations. ANU is also multi-cultural and very diverse and I get to experience and appreciate different cultures on campus. 

The additional Crawford Fund grant, which is part of the fund's NextGen program, enables additional and in depth research by a PhD scholar that extends the core project. In Zimbabwe, the research is a collaboration with ICRISAT, the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. Specifically, Ms Ncube will be working to assess how Agricultural Innovation Platforms under the TISA project have facilitated scaling practices – and assess which have been successful, and which offer crucial learnings. 

“Multi-Stakeholder Platforms such as AIPs have over the past decade gained popularity, not only as spaces where learning can occur, but also as forums where innovation and scaling can take place,” Ms Ncube adds. 

“The results from this study will contribute towards the very limited empirical studies on scaling of agricultural innovations that are currently available and also inform how responsible scaling can be implemented in Zimbabwe. The lessons can also be adopted by other countries and adapted to specific contexts,” she explains. 

Professor Jamie Pittock, Xolile’s primary PhD supervisor also thanked the Fund. “Australia and Zimbabwe share common problems as countries with vitally important agricultural industries but with water scarcity challenges. Xolile’s research is significant for better understanding how and why the sustainable irrigation innovations introduced in our Australia - Zimbabwe collaboration have spread among farmers and in business and government. Her answers could unlock the means of reducing poverty in farming communities, increasing food security and driving sustainable development. It’s terribly hard to secure the resources needed for Australian based researchers to collaborate with our African peers. The research travel grant provided by the Crawford Fund is a key component making this significant research possible. I am grateful that a talented Zimbabwean PhD scholar is being supported by Australian organisations in this significant research.” 

The funds are already proving crucial to Xolile’s research, because they allow her to work in country, on the ground, and with community: and that means better listening, better relationships, and better research. 

“Travel to Zimbabwe is very expensive and the financial support from the Crawford Fund Student Award allows me to travel to Zimbabwe in December of this year for my data collection, where I get to have conversations with farmers at selected irrigation schemes, with district, provincial and national level stakeholders, TISA staff and Non-Governmental Organisations who have adopted the agricultural innovations for the irrigation schemes they work with. I also get to speak to those in the community that are considered vulnerable including women, the elderly and those living with disabilities. I am grateful to have been awarded the Crawford Fund Award as it allows me to have these conversations in person, where I would have faced a number of challenges speaking to participants virtually or over the phone. I also look forward to being a part of a community of past and present Crawford Fund Student Awardees, I am excited to hear and learn about their experiences in the different countries they have travelled to,” she says. 

“I absolutely love that my research is being conducted in my country and I can draw from lessons from a project that is still being implemented. I am pleased that the TISA project has been intentional through AIPs in ensuring that the small-scale farmer is represented, and they are key players in decision making about their vision for their irrigation scheme and how they plan to achieve that vision. I am always excited to be part of projects where those voices which were previously not given a platform to be heard, are amplified.” 

Cathy Reade, Crawford Fund Director of Outreach and NextGen Program is delighted to have the attention of the Australian Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Bronte Moules. “The Crawford Fund has supported around 120 student awards over the last 6 years. The students tell us they benefit personally and professionally from the opportunity to get in-country experience and to connect with international colleagues and networks,” she says. The Fund’s 2023 student awards will be advertised later in 2022. 

Crawford Fund student award was also granted to Harry Campbell-Ross, whose work on finding ways to measure food system resilience at a community scale in rural, developing country settings, will be conducted in The Philippines. 

Updated:  19 September 2022/Responsible Officer:  Director, Fenner School/Page Contact:  Webmaster, Fenner School