Tell us a little about yourself?
Robertson Khataza is a researcher and lecturer at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), Malawi. He received his PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics from the University of Western Australia (UWA), a Master of Science in Development and Resource Economics from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) and Bachelor of Science in Agriculture (Agricultural Economics) from the University of Malawi (Bunda College). Prior to joining academia, Robertson worked as a program evaluation specialist for a number of organizations including Action Against Hunger (AAH), GOAL Malawi, Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM) and International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).
What are some of your research interests and why are you passionate about it?
Broadly, some of my interests are on understanding household preferences (decisions) and welfare outcomes in response to the prevailing changes in the socioeconomic landscape both opportunities and challenges. My current research interests include investigating technology adoption, productivity (efficiency) effects of technologies and impact on household welfare and other outcomes. The most recent research that I am leading, an ALL-IN project, focuses on use of ICT applications in agriculture. This project is exciting because the dissemination of almost all information for agricultural extension and marketing services still relies on human extension agents and conventional ICT platforms yet nearly every household owns or has access to mobile phone.
This digital revolution presents an opportunity for agricultural advisory services to be disseminated more quickly and widely therefore complementing in-person extension advisory services.
What are the most interesting research findings from your work so far?
Farmers are excited about digital extension and marketing service. Research findings reveal that farmers prefer to receive text or video containing advisory information via their mobile phones. In addition, farmers are willing to pay about US$4/month for improved service delivery. Over 80% of the interviewed farmers affirmed that they would pay the stated offers.
The findings highlight an important paradigm shift where agricultural advisory services can be deployed through mobile-phone based channels (text, voice, or video) to compliment human extension agents. Currently, the number of farmers being served by one extension worker in Malawi is too high for effective service delivery: 1 extension worker serves up to 2000–3000 farmers within a radius of 30-50km and in areas where the terrain is also difficult to navigate using a bicycle.
What are some challenges you face in your industry?
There are two challenges worth highlighting. Firstly, there are no written guidelines on the practice of giving gifts and handouts since many state and non-state agencies operate in the same communities. Some for example, give monetary or material incentives to research participants.
Farmers tend to view those not giving out donations as stingy or dishonest because they suspect that the researchers have kept the “gift”. This perception sometimes affects respondent’s responsiveness in terms of attention given to such researcher’s or research program vis a vis other projects that present “gifts.”
Secondly, the farming communities have been overly researched. To date farmers have provided responses to thousands of researchers (millions of research questions). This has implications on respondent’s cognitive fatigue to take more surveys or a basis for failed expectations. Therefore, new researchers need to understand the context of the research, be alert on the quality of responses and probe inconsistent responses. Otherwise, respondent’s cognitive fatigue and expectations about future interventions could bias the respondent reasoning and the quality of responses they provide.
What is the most promising and /or exciting part of your research work?
I enjoy research work because for every field visit and interaction there is always something new to learn from farmers. The stories from the farmers show a deep understanding and experience of their work and aspirations they have irrespective of the challenges they face.
As researchers, this greatly enriches the story (research context) we tell to the global world.