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Goodbye Rome, Hello Nairobi.

notes from a hotel room

semi-overcast 18 °C

My last few weeks in Rome were good. I’ve met a lot of great people at FAO and have begun to understand a little more about how the organisation works and also my own job.

I feel very privileged to have been able to work, eat, drink, dance alongside so many interesting people from across the world. Yes, we all rant at each other regularly about the annoying system, but as Louisa pointed out to me… we get upset because we care about what we’re doing.

My own project has become a little clearer. I’ve been trying to analyse what has been going on with it both in Rome and Africa. Who’s who. Who’s done what. Where the strengths and weaknesses are and what are the best possibilities to move forwards. This is largely in the context of how we can help crop scientists do better science. On the side I’ve also been reading up on how products of research using biotechnologies (such as a new variety of rice that will tolerate drought) actually reach to small poor farmers and the impacts that they may have.

It perhaps shouldn’t have been surprising to me that this is a major major stumbling block. There are countless improved crops which only stay in the lab, or with the rich farmers. It is easy to think that a new improved rice is the answer. Even if we assume that this new improved rice really is great, and has been crossed into farmer favoured lines so maintains all the characteristics that farmers like (which is a big if) then there are still lots of problems.

“But surely”, says the innocent plant scientist “All we have to do is multiply seed and give it to farmers”. But this is quite a big “all we have to do”. Producing seed is apparently a big bottle neck. In addition, extension systems in many countries are inadequate, staff poorly trained and access to information limited.

I’ve also, in the last few weeks, begun to make my mark in a wider sense on the organisation. I think I mentioned in a previous blog the importance of coffees. How the organisation is so big that it can be difficult to find out what’s going on, or how to do things, or who is the key person to talk to about use of rural radio stations to dialogue with farmers about their agricultural needs or who to talk to get a visa sorted for Kenya.

Also got chatting with the volunteers and realised that I don’t really know what each they do, or what their departments are experts in. Ok, I knew that: Frederic was studying migration of fisherman in west Africa; and that Claudine works on promoting the concept of the fundamental human ‘Right to Food’; and that Emily is trying to find machines that will help poor schools make milk from Soy and improve the nutrition of their kiddies; and that Alice studies trade flows of Fair Trade and Organic produce. But I didn’t really know more than that. We thought that it would be a terrible waste of the opportunities given to us to work in Headquarters if we left still not knowing. It was also apparent that some of us could help or advise each other on our projects. For example, Emily may know lots about Soy-milk-making-machines but less about growth of Soy crops, or about its nutritional details. However, Margherita is working on a School Gardens project and could quite possibly feed in background information.

It also seemed ludicrous to me, coming from a PhD background, that there was no structure in place to facilitate our sharing these ideas with each other. So, I (with some help) decided to start up a Volunteers Lunch Club, where any volunteers who want to can come and present their work , ask questions, get advice in an informal, non-threatening environment. Within hours of my first email being sent out I had 20 -30 enthusiastic YES’s. We haven’t done this officially at all and it feels a bit like we’re in a conspiracy to rebel against the formalised system of FAO that keeps us apart.

Then because I was leaving Rome, I handed over responsibility for organisation to some of my fellow conspirators at the end of the first meeting. I missed the second meeting (being in Calcutta, India for Sanhita’s wedding – which was incredible) and by the third meeting, three days ago the Volunteers Lunch Club had already evolved into the Volunteers and JUNIOR CONSULTANTS Lunch Club because some of the young paid staff felt left out and thought that they’d benefit from it too. Assuming the Lunch Club continues into the new year, we’re going to try to hit the Personnel department for formalised advertising to new young staff and suggest that they provide free lunches/coffees for us… worth a try.

Felt a bit sad to be leaving all that behind. My new friends. The comfort of having an environment I was getting used to. But work-wise, it makes sense. I’ve done all I really can do in Headquarters. And I applied for this thing for the purpose of getting field experience. Not corridor experience. So now I’m pretty keen to get stuck into my work in Kenya.

Arrived in Nairobi a few hours ago. Was picked up by a young man called Benson, who’s going to be working closely on my project with me – running the website. He dropped me at my hotel and said he’d come back in a few hours once I’d washed and had a rest. He seems like a nice guy. Laughs a lot and I know he has the respect of my bosses in Rome. I’m a bit nervous myself. Not quite sure what role to play. ‘The man from Rome’. The assertive coordinator. The listener. The motivator. Or just me. The danger of being too assertive to begin with is I might alienate people or not hear what they have to say. But if I’m too meek, I might get pigeon holed into a ‘not respected’ persona. I think, all I can do is be me though. I’m not good at playing games.

Will make a tour of the offices and meet the bigwigs tomorrow.

Posted by happydaves 17:22 Archived in Kenya Tagged business_travel

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