Learning through strong partnerships

Sithembile Mwamakamba has many years’ experience of building partnerships and capacity in Africa. She oversees the ‘climate smart agriculture’ programmes portfolio at the African policy advocacy network FANRPAN (Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network). This involves implementing projects and programmes to increase sustainable food production, while both strengthening farmers’ resilience to effects of climate change and mitigating against it. Now a Cheney Fellowship is allowing Sithembile to apply her knowledge and expertise to explore best practice in partnership working and influencing policy.

FANRPAN was established in 2003 to provide a platform where government, farmers, academia and the private sector can come together as equals, to discuss how to improve food and nutrition security in Sub-Saharan Africa. FANRPAN works to supply governments with the evidence base for effective policy-making, while giving a voice to those, such as small-scale farmers, who are often excluded from the process. As such, their approach to building capacity is two-fold: helping the policy-makers understand what evidence they need and how to use it and ensuring all stakeholders have the ability to input to the policy process.

An equitable partnership

Sithembile first became involved with the University of Leeds through the AFRICAP programme, which is led jointly by the University and FANRPAN. The programme, funded by the UK government through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), is working with organisations in Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania and South Africa to build an evidence base to underpin new country-specific ‘climate smart’ policies in agriculture and food production. The programme is the first of its kind that FANRPAN has been involved with that is a true 50/50 partnership, as Sithembile explains:

“Programmes tend to be led by organisations in the USA or Europe, with African organisations as lower level delivery partners,” she says. “AFRICAP is quite different, as it involves a fair exchange of ideas and FANRPAN is involved at all stages as an equal partner in design and delivery of the programme.”

Through the Cheney Fellowship, Sithembile is looking at this issue in more detail, carrying out research into the balance of power between the Global North and South in development projects. She is part of a team from the universities of Leeds, Southampton and Glasgow, analysing the partnership structure of projects which, like AFRICAP, are funded through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), looking at their formation, administration, financial management, structure, communications and implementation. The aim is to develop a working paper that informs the next funding round of the GCRF, to help ensure future projects are based on best practice in partnership working.

Learning about learning

AFRICAP has also been the catalyst for the other area of research that Sithembile is pursuing through the Cheney Fellowship: a PhD into how policy-makers learn from evidence and the process by which they can be influenced. Jointly supervised by the University of Pretoria and the University of Leeds, Sithembile will use an AFRICAP project in Zambia as the case study for her research. This project involves working with the Ministry of Agriculture to develop a strategy to expand their soybean production and build capacity in developing evidence-based policies.

“We will be running workshops, and drawing on evidence from research, working with policy-makers in the Ministry to help them through the process,” explains Sithembile. “In this instance, we are working on something from scratch, which is very exciting, as it gives us an opportunity to guide how the country takes forward its soybean production. This makes it a perfect case study for my PhD, to analyse how policy-makers learn from the process.”

Both aspects of the Fellowship will bring benefits to Leeds, according to Professor Tim Benton, who jointly leads AFRICAP with FANRPAN’s CEO, Dr Tshilidzi Madzivhandila:

“Sithembile’s findings will feed into our policy work within AFRICAP and other GCRF projects, and help us ensure that we build effective and fair partnerships in all our research,” he said. “She’s also made several presentations to early career researchers at Leeds, helping them to shape their research ideas and make contacts in Africa to build their research networks.”

Time and space

The Cheney Fellowship has also given Sithembile something very precious – time and space from her demanding, full-time role as Programme Manager at FANRPAN to pursue her own research. The flexibility of the fellowship has enabled her to juggle her work around the research, spending several blocks of time at Leeds over the two years.

“The Fellowship has opened so much to me, which I really appreciate,” she says. “I’ve been able to interact with a whole range of new researchers. I’ve taken part in events that have expanded my knowledge of climate change issues. It’s been a fantastic opportunity which I hope will bring as many benefits to others, through my research, as it has to me.”

About the Cheney Fellowship

The Cheney Fellowship is a programme established thanks to a generous donation of £2.5m made by Bacteriology and Biochemistry graduate Peter Cheney and his wife Susan to the University of Leeds. Thanks to the fellowship, outstanding scholars like Sithembile from around the globe are able to spend time at Leeds to develop their research at the University. More information about the fellowship can be found here.

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