CHAMPIONS OF CIAT

Climate Smart Agriculture for Transformed Livelihoods

Caroline Mwongera: “You cannot take science into the field without first understanding local farming contexts”

Caroline Mwongera grew up in a vibrant farm in the slopes of Mount Kenya, a mid-altitude zone where the community grew maize, beans and fruits such as banana, mango and avocado. Despite the pleasant memories, she remembers vividly communities from the lower altitudes, which were semi-arid, coming to ask for food because of drought. These occurrences would arouse her curiosity to understand and address this disparity, where one community had plenty of food and the neighboring community often faced hunger.

While Caroline proceeded through high school, she realized science and technology could help communities be as prepared as possible to adapt to climate hazards. Convinced that it was possible to mitigate and adapt to these challenges, she embarked on a career as an agricultural researcher. Five years ago, Caroline joined CIAT’s  Decision and Policy Analysis Research team as a Farming Systems and Climate Change Scientist. In her current role, she employs a human-centered design, where she believes problem-solving starts with the people for whom you are designing programs and ends with solutions tailored to their needs.

Caroline is driven by the experiences she gained working with communities on the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya, a semi-arid agrarian region beset by multiple obstacles to sustainable farming, including climate stress, while working at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

There, she compared local and improved varieties, as well as indigenous versus modern farming practices. This helped her appreciate how climate-adapted seed varieties and climate-smart practices helped smallholder communities adapt to climate challenges. For example, to cope with climate uncertainty in semi-arid regions, farmers practiced dry sowing before the onset of the rainy season, which would provide the maximum amount of precipitation to the crops. In addition, farmers had identified which varieties to grow in the short and long season, to match the length of the growing period. This experience convinced her that a whole-systems approach that recognizes the complex interactions among the physical, biological, economic, and social components of the communities where she worked would support her to provide sustainable recommendations.

“You cannot take science and technology straight to the field,” says Caroline.“Instead you have to co-create the solutions with the community.”

In her research community, she learned the traits of millet and sorghum varieties preferred by farmers, which were based on either taste, market, agronomic, nutrition and cooking traits. Understanding these local incentives helped Caroline better appreciate why community members were key contributors when it came to implementing strategies to address agricultural productivity in the face of climate change.

Bringing it home

Caroline’s Ph.D. studies in Integrated Systems in Biology, Agronomy and Environment focused on developing  a deeper understanding of how smallholder farmers cope with climate variability by applying a multi-disciplinary approach.

“It deepened my perspective to build my specialty in farming systems, climate risk, and food security,” she says.

She engages with research partners and colleagues to encourage the design of better programs for communities. She is highly involved in the identification of climate-smart agriculture (CSA) opportunities. She leads and mentors teams to ensure they have the necessary skills and experience.

Interestingly, Caroline does not see herself as a woman scientist but a scientist who is a woman.  Consequently, she sees gender equity not as a challenge, but as an opportunity for sustainable agricultural systems and development.

“Growing up as an only girl with two brothers, I always voiced my concerns and was heard. I still do that,” Caroline says. However, she enjoys being a woman in applied research because her natural gift of perception allows her to see nuances and be more thoughtful and receptive to others’ views when seeking practical solutions to agricultural challenges for farmers.

Caroline has come a long way to fulfill her childhood quest but she will not rest until she sees the impact of her work. She longs to hear that a farming family has not slept hungry, or that they were able to send their children to school and live a dignified life because of the direct result of the work she does. Her greatest satisfaction will be to see the solutions developed at CIAT result in transformed livelihoods.

“It doesn’t matter what solutions we develop if they don’t translate to transformed livelihoods,” she concludes.

By: Rosemary Nzuki.

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