Get to know Ed
- Academic focus: Development, agribusiness value chains and food security issues with a regional focus on sub-Saharan Africa
- Previous position: Division Manager of Agribusiness Development at the African Development Bank where he managed continent-wide investments, partnerships and research in support of the Feed Africa strategy
- Academic background: Mabaya earned his MSc (1998) and PhD (2003) degrees in agricultural economics at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science (1994) from the University of Zimbabwe.
What projects are you currently working on? What impact is your work making in the world?
I rejoined Cornell in 2020 after spending two years at the African Development Bank. My top priority for now is to reconnect with the wider development community at Cornell and other academics. As for projects, three are on the top of my agenda right now:
- First is my applied research work on creating and maintaining enabling environments for private sector led seed systems serving smallholder farmers in Africa. This is a collaboration with The African Seed Access Index (TASAI). My seed systems work is anchored in my firm belief that improved seeds can deliver state-of-the-art technology to farmers including higher yields, disease and pest resistance, climate change adaptation, and improved nutrition.
- Second, I plan to build a strong research and outreach program anchored around digital solutions for smallholder farmers. During my time at the African Development Bank, my division launched a new flagship program on Digital Agriculture and I would like to continue working in this space. I am excited about the potential of these new digital tools to solve problems ranging from extension services, microfinance, market access, risk mitigation and insurance, etc.
- Third I would like to continue creating engaged learning opportunities for students interested in international agriculture. Programs like the Student Multidisciplinary Applied Research Teams (SMART) are a great way to challenge students to apply the knowledge and skills learned in the classroom in real world settings. It is also a unique way to share my passion for international development with young minds.
Being in academia, I accept that my work is always going to be one step removed from the desired impact in the world. There are many foot soldiers including government, development agencies, private companies, community based organizations, etc. that are working on the frontier of development challenges. My job as a scholar is to generate the right research that informs investment priorities, policy reforms and other decisions to alleviate poverty and malnutrition.
What do you like to do when you aren’t working?
When I am not working, I like to spend quality time with family and friends. I am a people person. To reconnect with my agrarian upbringing, I like to garden and do yard work. To keep fit, I enjoy hiking and bike riding. For entertainment, I watch movies and listen to music or podcasts.
Three adjectives people use to describe you:
Motivated, Curious, Honest.
What would you like people to know about your field?
At the risk of repeating the obvious, I would like people to know that development is complicated. There are no silver bullets to many of the challenges and every context is different. Moreover, just when you think that you have figured out a solution to a specific development challenge, the nature of the problem and resources available to address it are likely to change. This dynamic nature of development can be frustrating and, for people outside the field, it can look like no progress is being made. However, once you accept this dynamic nature of development you are motivated to stay on the frontier of knowledge and best practices.
If you had unlimited grant funding, what major problem in your field would you want to solve?
I would invest in anything that sustainably improves livelihoods for smallholder farmers. According to International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), there are about 500 million smallholder farms worldwide who provide livelihoods for more than 2 billion people. These smallholder farmers supply 80% of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. They are also among the poorest people in the world. If we can alleviate poverty among smallholder farmers, the world would be better for most.
What does global development mean to you?
Global development is somewhat personal to me. I grew up on a smallholder farm in rural Zimbabwe. My escape from poverty can be traced directly to my parents adopting productivity-enhancing agricultural practices (especially improved seed and chemical fertilizers). With the extra income that my parents made from selling surplus agricultural products, they were able to send us to good schools, which in turn opened up new opportunities. Fast forward to the present day, I know that I am privileged to be at Cornell University with its unique reservoir of skills and knowledge in international agriculture. If I can harness these resources to solve the many challenges facing smallholder agriculture, I can help fulfill Cornell’s vision as a global land grant university.
Tell us about the most impactful experiences you’ve had as a development practitioner.
I have had many experiences that have shaped my views as a development practitioner. My recent two years at the African Development Bank was an excellent opportunity for combining my expertise with financial resources and partnerships to design projects that impacted millions of livelihoods in Africa. To see lives transformed from these interventions was extremely rewarding.
I have also been shaped by the vast body of literature on agricultural economics and development that has been refined over many decades. However, there is only so much that we can learn from reading reports, journal articles, and academic presentations. Ultimately, it is through experience and personal interactions in the field that we can understand the deeper context of development.
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