Imagine helping rural farmers living in poverty in Zimbabwe and assisting small-scale farmers in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and India. Imagine the ability to impact the lives of people across the world living in challenging social, environmental, and political conditions due to climate change and food insecurity.

These farmers, and those in similar situations who live thousands of miles from Blacksburg, are the ultimate beneficiaries of +Policy Fellow seed grants awarded in 2021-22 to Virginia Tech faculty who proposed research with broad applications and strong policy implications. Awarded annually on a competitive basis by the +Policy Network and funded by the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment, the program aims to team up policy experts with interdisciplinary collaborators to start or grow the policy arm of ongoing, expanded, or new research. 

"The +Policy Fellowship aims to strengthen faculty expertise in policy by encouraging researchers to consider policy questions from early stages of their research projects,” said Isabel Bradburn, program director of +Policy Network and associate director for strategic and faculty initiatives at the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment. "The +Policy Fellows program facilitates research by adding a policy lens to basic research where appropriate or by helping researchers develop new content expertise through collaboration."

Jeffrey Alwang, professor of agricultural and applied economics, and Brianna Posadas, assistant professor of plant and environmental sciences, both in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, teamed up for the +Policy Fellowship to help address poverty in Zimbabwe. Alwang, who has years of experience working internationally with governing agencies on agricultural economic policy, collaborated with Posadas for her statistical analysis skills and mentored her on policy aspects of the research.

Having lived and worked in Zimbabwe in the 1990s, Alwang developed professional affiliations with Zimbabwean and World Bank officials for his work on poverty reduction. “In the fall of 2021, the World Bank contacted me about working with the Zimbabwean government with their poverty analysis,” Alwang said. “The country is highly dependent on agriculture and the agriculture is not very productive, but it is very vulnerable to climate change.”

The team took a household data set and overlaid it with information about drought, rainfall, and other environmental information from satellites, remote sensing, and ecological studies. “We put human beings on this map of climate and agro-ecological conditions in Zimbabwe,” Alwang said.

The team's product, "Reversing the Tide: Reducing Poverty and Building rResilience in Zimbabwe," is now an official document of the World Bank. “This assessment, which is specific in showing where the poor are and what their specific problems are in different parts of Zimbabwe, will be used to interact with their policymakers to intervene and reduce poverty,” Alwang said.

The work of the +Policy Fellowship team provided the people of Zimbabwe with a tool to empower them to address their own critical needs. “The impact is just beginning,” Alwang said. “In the next couple of years, you’re going to see quite a bit of this work done. The nice thing is that it will be mostly done by Zimbabweans.”

A group gathers around a table to discuss a +Policy Fellowship grant to help address poverty in Zimbabwe
Jeff Alwang and Brianna Posadas teamed together for a +Policy Fellowship grant to help address poverty in Zimbabwe. Seated (from left) are Nelson Taruvinga, director of household surveys Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZIMSTAT); Rob Swinkles, World Bank; Munjira Mutambwa, ZIMSTAT; an unidentified member of ZIMSTAT; Rose Mungai, World Bank, Precious Zikhale, World Bank, and Grown Chirongwe, ZIMSTAT. Photo courtesy of Jeff Alwang.

Maaz Gardezi, an assistant professor of sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, is principal investigator on a National Science Foundation study on precision agriculture technologies in the U.S. Through the fellowship, Gardezi expanded this research to Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and India, establishing ties to a region with which he is familiar, as he is native of Pakistan.

Gardezi’s says the ultimate goal is for the governments of the four countries "to use our research to devise policies to incentivize farmers to use certain irrigation practices that have proven to be more beneficial to farmers and the environment. We also want to inform innovation policy in South Asia so that technology developers can deeply understand who the farmers are and what challenges they have when using these technologies and practices.” The irrigation practices are those that use climate smart irrigation technologies (CSI), such as solar and drip irrigation.

To achieve his goal, Gardezi formed transnational interdisciplinary teams in each of the countries, including researchers already doing work in those areas, to help him connect with the locals and decision makers. Gardezi’s teams conducted focus groups and interviews in each of the four countries to learn how farmers were actually using the CSI technologies -- as opposed to how it was assumed they were using them. They also met with the Asian Development Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, universities studying digital farming, and owners of some larger farms who had adopted the technologies. 

“You have to network with the government and development partners,” Gardezi said. “The policy world depends on not just research, but who you know.”

Gardezi’s research is still in progress. At the October 2022 Earth System Governance Conference in Toronto, Canada, his team disseminated the information that was  gathered in the interviews and focus groups. “If our work is successful, the governments can use policies to incentivize farmers to adapt certain behaviors that researchers have proven are more beneficial to stakeholders, the environment, and the community,” he said.

The +Policy Network emerged as a result of the work of Virginia Tech’s Destination Areas. An outgrowth of the Policy Destination Area, the network reflects the original Destination Area’s mission and expands the breadth of engagement across Virginia Tech. For more information about the +Policy Network and the +Policy Fellowship program, visit the website.

Written by Felicia Spencer