Date released
23 October 2020

By Tamaya Peressini, ACIAR Graduate Research Officer

If it weren’t for COVID-19, I would currently be in the Philippines working with local and Australian researchers integrating ways to manage Fusarium wilt in smallholder banana production. While the work and research are continuing at a distance, the pandemic has provided me with the time to reflect on the last 18 months working at the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). 

I joined ACIAR in February 2019 (it still feels like yesterday) and since then it’s been a whirlwind of experiences, learnings, and a whole lot more of everything still to do! Joining ACIAR from an honours project centred around crop genetics at the University of Queensland and then joining a workplace with the best and brightest minds in agriculture research for development (AgR4D) tends to have that effect.

On my first day, my mentor, Irene Kernot, Research Program Manager for Horticulture, asked me ‘So what brings you to ACIAR?’ Simply put, I want to help ensure there's enough safe and nutritious food to feed the world sustainably. 

That hasn’t changed. But what has, is my view on the way forward in my research career and how I best proceed with a better understanding of smallholder horticultural systems.

Here’s my insight on three experiences and learnings that have helped to kick-start my career in AgR4D...

1. Learning from farmers and researchers on the ground

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have visited ACIAR projects in the field throughout various stages of the project cycle – during the scoping, inception, middle and end. 

My work has taken me from Bangladesh, Laos, the Philippines, Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu, Tonga, the Solomon Islands and around sweetpotato farms in Bundaberg with growers from Papua New Guinea (PNG). 

I’ve got stuck into reviews that evaluate the outcomes and impact of projects across good agriculture practices for vegetable farming systems, wheat breeding programs, fruit production and protected cropping. 

I’ve been able to learn from farmers, project leaders and other early-mid career researchers about their experiences.

Researchers in the field
With Anjini learning about her family's protected copping farm in Tavua, Fiji. Her family is involved in an ACIAR project helping farmers in the Pacific produce high value vegetables in greenhouses. Producing vegetables in greenhouses in the tropics comes with numerous challenges, such as pest and disease management, structural considerations, changes in agronomy and market access. Producing vegetables in greenhouses means that smallholder farmers can produce quality vegetables all year round which opens opportunities to supply to high value tourist markets such as hotels because of the increased quality and consistency of supply. Anjini works on the farm and is the main contact point for ‘middle-men’ purchasing produce for markets and selling seedlings.

Not only has this given me a quick introduction to smallholder horticultural production in person (because I sure didn’t before starting at ACIAR…and you bet did I learn quickly); it’s been invaluable to learn from their experiences, understand what’s keeping them awake at night, and what questions they still have for the researchers.

Which brings me to the next section…

2. Getting to the crux of what makes a good research project 

Two words, one question: ‘so what?’

You’ve been able to diagnose a disease rapidly with a new method – so what? How do you intend for this research to benefit the next user? Is this disease even a problem or likely to be a problem in smallholder farms in the region? Is it going to make a difference in the short or long term to a farmer; and if so, what’s in it for them?

From my experience being involved in project design and reviews,this is something that always needs to be visited.

researchers in the lab
At the Bangladesh Wheat and Maize Research Institute's (BWMRI) Plant pathology laboratory in Dinajpur. As part of an ACIAR project, the researchers are breeding for wheat varieties that are tolerant to wheat blast disease. Wheat blast arrived in Bangladesh in 2016 and has spread to multiple growing regions across the country, including areas close to the border of India, posing a significant biosecurity concern for South Asia. As part of the project, the researchers at BWMRI are investigating seed treatments that could prevent the severity of disease development in the plant.

The very nature of research-for-development is that things change, your assumptions may have been incorrect, and you need to adapt your research to best reach the people you want to benefit the most from your research. Sounds like common sense, but often these perspectives come in hindsight, and that’s ok! ACIAR itself is a learning organisation.

No matter what you are researching, the same questions can always be asked of yourself (as a researcher) and of the project. What do we know now that we didn’t know before? And with this new knowledge, so what?

Researchers in the field
Getting to the ‘so what’ with Soane from the MORDI in Tonga (far right) and Dr. Richard Beyer. Here we are talking about the impact community-driven citrus orchards on Eua Island in Tonga. The team at MORDI have been working with two communities to establish and maintain citrus orchards to introduce new varieties that will extend supply of citrus in the market. 

3. The importance of brokering meaningful research partnerships

My favourite workshop I’ve attended with ACIAR was run with the Partnership Brokering Association. I was fortunate enough to participate in this training with the institutional John Dillon Fellow cohort from PNG and the Pacific. It was such a rich learning experience that triggered a light bulb moment of what a genuine research partnership really looks like. 

As part of the DFAT and ACIAR funded project HORT 2014 097, sweet potato farmers and researchers from PNG visited the sweet potato capital of Australia. There were many lessons learned and shared on the farm and market visits, all of which sparked new ideas and business opportunities for the farmers.
As part of a DFAT and ACIAR funded project , sweetpotato farmers and researchers from PNG visited Bundaberg Queensland, the sweetpotato capital of Australia in 2019. There were many lessons learned and shared during the farm and market visits, all of which sparked new ideas and business opportunities for the farmers.

Often, we see a lot of things called a partnership. But really, it’s just a ‘transactional relationship’, there hasn’t been the honest discussion of why organisations are going into the research partnership together. These conversations should talk about the shared values and vision of all parties taking part in research, and what is bringing them to the table with complete transparency. I’ve been able to directly apply these learnings in the development of pipeline research projects.

I’ve only mentioned three things, but there is a whole lot more I can say about how much I’ve loved this graduate experience. Here’s a few more briefly:

  • Being mentored by the many brilliant minds at ACIAR, both in Australia in our 10 country offices
  • Listenting to a variety of experts speak at ACIAR during lunchtime 'brownbag' sessions and learning about the many challenges facing agricultural development throughout the Indo-Pacific
  • Building a network of researchers through project visits, meetings, and conferences
Researchers in the field
Mr Kaitu Erasito Natures Way Co-operative (right) and Seeseei molimau-samasoni from Scientific research organization of Samoa (left) at a small patch of breadfruit trees in Fiji. Kaitu is explaining the range of pruning practices and schedules tested to assess what’s the best practice for controlling tree vigor, total yield and fruit quality.

Every day feels like a linear progression in learning, thinking, evaluating—and I relish the challenge. I thoroughly enjoy working with the amazing people in this industry. I'm humbled to be learning so much at such an early stage and look forward to the next steps in my AgR4D career.

Tamaya Peressini is a Research Officer on the Graduate Development Program at ACIAR. The Program provides a unique work experience opportunity for Australian university graduates with an interest in international agricultural research and policy development. 

ACIAR Graduate Program 2021

Applications are now open for our Graduate Program for 2021, if you or someone you know is interested in international agricultural research for development, we would love to hear from you! 

Apply online here.