Peter Thorne coordinates the Africa RISING project in the Ethiopian Highlands.
I was born in Bristol in the UK. After my school studies, I went as an undergraduate to Oxford University in the UK. My original intention was to study zoology but I found myself spending far too much time with fruit flies on that course so I switched to a degree in agriculture and forest sciences. On completion I moved to the University of Nottingham where I completed my Ph.D. research in animal nutrition in 1986 with part of the research studies carried out at the University of the Philippines in Los Banos.
My career has encompassed both the public and private sectors focused mostly on the evolution of mixed farming systems in Africa and Asia. Before joining ILRI, I spent 12 years as an independent consultant working on both research and development projects. I started my career, post-qualification, in the Pacific Islands working for the what was then the UK government’s Natural Resources Institute (NRI).
In my current position in Africa RISING I see my main role as providing scientific leadership, ensuring that this complex project is operated in a way that promotes harmonious collaboration amongst our multiple partners and finding ways to tackle the difficult question of how to intensify mixed farming systems sustainably.
The project has already displayed a number of unique features. For me, the interaction with USAID as a donor has been extremely positive. We have been able to develop research themes for Africa RISING with them on a very equitable footing; more like a partnership than a donor – client relationship. They have also been very flexible and displayed considerable understanding of the difficulties in implementing genuine systems research. Another very positive aspect has been the emergence of our partnerships both within and without the CGIAR system.
I would like to see Africa RISING providing some genuine evidence that working at the system level can add real value to the component research that the CGIAR system, in many cases, does very well.
As a leader of the project I see the most challenging part of working in Africa RISING is the Cross-centre working which is a new challenge for us that is not always supported by the infrastructure and management processes of the individual centres and the CGIAR as a whole. Our partners have worked really hard to make Africa RISING a genuine multi-centre project rather than an un-integrated set of single centre activities. I hope we will now start to see some of the real benefits of doing this in the research that we produce. To address this challenge I provide a punch-bag, a focus for all the other partners to join together and take out their frustrations!
The main lesson I learned so far is that I have always felt that strong productive partnerships emerge from the coming together of people who do not just have common professional interests but are able to interact effectively on a personal level. This has certainly been the case with Africa RISING. However, what I have been extremely impressed by has been the extent to which the individuals involved in Africa RISING have been willing to make that personal commitment to making the partnerships work whatever their institutional background or country of origin.
An interesting part while working in Africa RISING is that I seem to have focused mainly on partnerships which surprises me a little. I do however think that it is significant as, without these sound partnerships, it is absolutely certain that Africa RISING would sink; at least in attaining its stated goals of supporting sustainable intensification of mixed systems.
A recent experience during a partner meeting at one of the Africa RISING sites sticks in my mind. At each site, the core partnership is formed from the Woreda (government) bureaus of agriculture, local universities and regional research centres. During a social event I was very pleased to hear that Africa RISING had been able to convene the first proper meeting between the heads of these three organisations.
To my mind, if the project can also facilitate this kind of coming together, then we have a great opportunity to contribute to another dimension of sustainability; namely the institutional sustainability of agricultural research and development in the country as a whole.