Food and sustainability

Clear goals and flexible means

Little I knew when I sent my project idea to BCFN back in 2014 that I would now be based in Timor-Leste doing a PhD about such project. Life takes it’s course, that is for sure, and many times in completely unexpected ways. This is the story of the journey since I took that plane from my home town at that time, Sydney, to Dili, a land of new beginnings.

Ten months after winning the BCFN Young Earth Solutions contest I moved to Timor-Leste, a small and young nation in Southeast-Asia that became independent in 2002 after years of social unrest. This post-conflict country has the third highest chronic malnutrition rate in the world, where one in two children might experience the irreversible consequences in cognitive and physical development associated with early age stunting.

Empowering mothers to address child malnutrition sustainably was the goal of my project idea, aiming to teach and demonstrate integrated vegetable and poultry production combined with nutrition education activities, a suitable project for a country where agriculture is the main livelihood activity for 71% of its mostly rural population. The core idea focuses on increasing the availability and access of nutrient-dense foods at the household level while teaching adequate feeding practices, thus combining the right knowledge with the means to achieve it.

One of the possible strategies to make the project a feasible reality was to link it to research, as it would enable me to support myself through a scholarship while I could dedicate the funds from the competition prize to operational research costs. And so it happened, just over a month since my arrival to Dili, Timor-Leste’s fast developing and dusty capital, I was awarded a PhD grant and admitted to a doctorate programme in Darwin, northern Australia.

The question then has been how to adapt the project idea into a sound research study and to leave aside my passion as a development practitioner in order to start framing my thinking as researches do. Although it took a while to digest, I realised that aiming to implement the project while doing research on it was a little overambitious, and I had to come to terms with the fact that the doctoral project is probably a sufficient undertaking in itself.

For the last two months I have been refining the research proposal, which looks at whether the degree of women’s empowerment influences the effectivity of nutrition-sensitive agricultural and livestock programmes in supporting dietary quality outcomes for children. But alas, no programmes promoting chicken production and involving women are currently being implemented in Timor-Leste, a former Portuguese and Indonesian colony, which required finding a creative solution to keep the research project true to its original framing.

The answer lies in collaboration. My current approach seeks to partner with programmes that incorporate nutrition education for vulnerable households - similar to the second component of the initial project idea, and cooperate with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to provide support for the chicken component through a vaccination intervention currently being implemented. Among Timorese households 87% raise poultry yet mortality rates are high due to Newcastle Diseases, and through this vaccine an increase in animal numbers, and eggs, is foreseen.

Finally, the research focuses on women’s empowerment in agriculture and linking with the agency UNWomen and their gender equality work in the primary sector would make most sense. Establishing these partnership is my next goal, which will enable to explore the outcomes that I was aiming to achieve through my project, yet now through a two-way collaboration between an international NGO, a government ministry and a multilateral organisation, with an early career researcher.

This story has taught me the following: the key is to know your clear direction while being alert and open to life playing its part and showing you different ways to get there. In a nutshell, clear goals and flexible means. Which reminds me of a sentence my dad used to say to me was young, over and over again, “La vida dóna moltes voltes, i més de les que t’esperes!” (Life takes many turns, and many more than what you expect!), and he was right.

Gianna Bonis Profumo

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