Showcasing the future of agriculture in Myanmar
A group photo taken on the first day of the MyFarm Final Showcase in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, 12/10/17. Photo: Reianne Quilloy (from IRRI)
On a recent Saturday morning at a hotel conference room in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, the atmosphere was far from that of a typical agricultural showcase.
In one corner of the room, an elaborate puppet show was taking place, while in another, young researchers in white lab coats were doing cooking demonstrations with large baskets of pulses.
Crowds streamed past small-scale models of perfectly rendered miniature fish farms and rice paddies, and listened while enthusiastic academics – ranging in age and mostly female – discussed their research into livestock, fisheries, chicken farmers and rice storage techniques.
Guests inspect the MyRice table at the MyFarm Final Showcase. Photo: Reianne Quilloy (from IRRI)
The showcase, in Myanmar’s capital, was the culmination of several years of work, and the endpoint for five different projects that, together, make up MyFarm, the multi-disciplinary program jointly funded by the Australian Centre for Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The research presenters were, in this instance, vying for the chance to have a professional videographer work with their team to produce a video about the achievements of the project; the 150-strong crowd were asked to cast their votes before the morning was out as to who most deserved to win.
The projects, focusing respectively on rice, pulses, fish, livestock and farmer strategies, all share a common goal – of improving the livelihoods of rural men and women in the Ayeyarwady Delta and Central Dry Zone of Myanmar. And, for this weekend at least, the goal was to convey the depth and breadth of the research undertaken so far.
Australian Ambassador Nicholas Coppel inspects the MyPulses display at the MyFarm final showcase. Photo: Reianne Quilloy (from IRRI)
Myo Kywe, the rector of Yezin Agricultural University, one of the project’s main partners, was beaming as he took in the showcase.
“This is excellent – we have got a lot of experience in the room,” he said.
“For me, this is not a ‘final’ showcase – it is continuation of many things to come.”
He said he had realised, through absorbing some of the program’s research findings, that important changes needed to be made in Myanmar’s government structure when it came to agriculture.
“In Australia, agricultural extension services is just one department - a one-stop service,” he said.
“Here, in our country, we have agriculture, livestock, farmer organisations, irrigation – all in different offices. We should integrate. We should have an extension work knowledge centre, one that does everything and coordinates people better.”
Dr Jayne Curnow, a research programs manager at ACIAR, said the showcase, including the previous two days of project presentations and ensuing discussions, had a valuable cross-disciplinary purpose.
“These meetings facilitate discussions not just between the Australian researchers and the Myanmar researchers - there's a lot of opportunity for that - but also between researchers from Myanmar in certain sectors and other sub-sectors in agriculture,” she said.
“I think we also start to get a sense of the depth of work that goes on. Researchers are particularly poor at communicating their results. Researchers are trained to public academic articles, for the most part, that make everyone go cross-eyed in terms of interest, but slowly but surely I think that researchers - and this isn't unique to ACIAR or the work that we do, but universities more broadly - are learning that we need to work with science communicators or start to develop those skills yourself to be able to get the message across of what you've actually achieved. And certainly we've been seeing what's here today.”
David Shearer, the director of International Partnerships and Program Delivery at WorldFish, another program partner, said the showcase had been a perfect example of how ACIAR had managed to “fund the arrows” linking diverse projects together.
“It's about the learning, and it's also about the next stage of investment as well, which is becoming more multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional investment,” he says.
A large part of the proceedings in the days leading up to the showcase had involved researchers standing up to rigorous questioning from team members of other projects, and the invigorating debates that ensued, in both English and Myanmar. It was, in other words, the stuff that multi-disciplinary, cross-cultural research projects were made of.
“Whenever you engage in a crowd like this, that's definitely what you get,” Mr Shearer said.
“Grit is what the psychologists now are talking about as the key success factor, grit is passion and perseverance, and being in this kind of community, with researchers who are delivering development impact, there's no doubt that the common element is grit.”
And for all the excitement generated by the sharing of research findings, there was also an element of impatience in the room, as many researchers and team leaders were already looking to future collaborations.
For Yer Tint Tun, the Director-General of the Department of Agriculture in Myanmar, the showcase just showed how much more work needed to be done.
“It is very good, this integration, but it shouldn't be in this room. It should be outside, with the farmers,” he said.
“It's very important. While this project is very appreciated, it is too small. We want medium to large-scale, so that's why, according to the results of this exhibition, we need to combine, we need an integrated approach for each project.
I am very interested there are so many ideas, but the evaluations and monitoring of the research is very important.”
Dr Curnow said the showcase had also carried important cross-cultural lessons.
“One of the things that we've been talking a lot about is a failure can also be a success in science, and making that okay,” she said.
“We’ve been providing that leadership and the opportunities that come by for our Myanmar colleagues here because of the cachet they have by collaborating with international scientists. That happens in Australia as well - you get more kudos if you've been travelling overseas - and Myanmar's no different. There's a lot more weight behind their findings than they expected.”
At the end of the showcase, the guests, who had spent all morning networking and being inspired, were asked to rate the projects’ final presentations. Not surprisingly, the pulses won out with their cooking demonstrations and baskets of beans, and will now have their achievements captured on film.