Jennifer Nelson has worked for more than a decade in agricultural research-for-development, in communications and project management roles.
Introducing: a new series that introduces our fellows to you.
Welcome to the debut of the Meet our Fellows series, highlighting the work and insights of EcoAgriculture Partners’ fellows in their own words, through short interviews with EcoAgriculture communications staff. EcoAgriculture Fellows’ are strategic collaborators with our organization, and their expertise supports both specific projects and broader analysis and strategic planning. Jennifer (Jenny) Nelson, who is working with us in collaboration with Solidaridad to advance integrated landscape management in Central America and our newest fellow, is our first subject.
Currently, Jenny Nelson is based in Mexico as program manager of the Global Wheat Program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT by its Spanish acronym), where she oversees a portfolio of more than 40 projects and works with scientists to develop and manage new projects. After graduating from Columbia University and working in public relations for social causes in New York City, she decided to focus her career in agriculture and international development, which led her to CIMMYT in 2003 to work in communications and project management for the Generation Challenge Programme.
From there, she joined EcoAgriculture Partners in 2007 as Communications Manager, working with the management team to develop marketing and advocacy strategies and materials. At Cornell from 2008-2012, she served as the assistant director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat Project as well as coordinator of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development, where she led the international service learning program and designed collaborative projects in Belize, China, Thailand, Dominican Republic, and Kenya. She also completed her master’s degree in public administration at Cornell University.
Jenny’s driving focus is adding value through collaboration, learning and integration. She is particularly interested in understanding and applying strategies for developing new business models and public-private partnerships.
What factors lead to you deciding to focus your career on agriculture and international development?
“I wanted to work in a field that creates opportunities for improving people’s lives – which, I suppose, could be said about many different types of careers! But I was interested in the basics: food, health, shelter, education, etc. All human beings have a right to safe, nutritious food. While this concept seems to be universally agreed-upon, there is a long way to go to make it a reality – a road that gets even more difficult with the looming specter of climate change. We produce enough food globally to feed everyone and yet not everyone has access to safe, nutritious food, and many of our current production systems are unsustainable. Hunger is still a persistent issue, and yet obesity is on the rise in even the poorest countries. Food production is being mechanized and intensified in many places, but that model won’t work everywhere. Agriculture and development are fascinating and endlessly rich areas to study and work in, and we have huge challenges ahead of us. I am glad to be part of a growing global movement of people who want to work on these issues from many different perspectives.”
What do you think is the most important or highest-leverage thing we could do to achieve the sustainable development goals?
“Honestly, something seemingly small that is really strangling development work is the too-short project life cycle. If we would invest in longer-term, bigger-vision initiatives instead of the now-ubiquitous 3-year projects, we could make fundamental, meaningful changes even in the most complex environments.”
How has your thinking about conservation, agriculture and development changed over your career?
“I started out in this career thinking that access to technologies developed through scientific advances—such as improved seeds and cutting edge crop improvement techniques—would be game-changers for smallholder farmers, and that if farmers are better off, then conservation goals will be more readily achieved. I now believe that access to technology is only part of the solution, and maybe even only a small part. There are lots of other drivers impacting the well-being of smallholder farmers and the environment, including power dynamics, culture, competence, and political will, among many others.”
Of the many projects you have worked on up until now, which has impacted you the most?
“As part of an agricultural development project I worked on, I visited a research station near Kulumsa, Ethiopia, in 2009, where they had just recently built an irrigation system that used rainwater collected in a pond on a hill across the road from the station. We went over to take a look at the pond, and I saw that it was constructed such that it had big earthen walls around it, which prevented the cows that were roaming around the hill from getting close enough to take a drink. I asked about it, and my guide, a local scientist, explained to me that the earthen barriers were to prevent not cattle from drinking but elderly people and children from drowning, because it was the lean time in that part of the country and many people were not getting enough to eat and would be weak and therefore could easily fall into the pond and wouldn’t have the strength to pull themselves out. I was profoundly struck by this, because I had not noticed that acute hunger was present here. The farmers and their families there relied upon their wheat harvests, and they’d reached the end of their stores and would have to scrounge to be able to buy grain now, and if the rains didn’t come when expected and if stem rust hit their crop, that would throw whole communities into famine. That project worked on developing new stem-rust resistant wheat varieties, and I realized how important the work was for farmers like those in Ethiopia.”
As the newest fellow for EcoAgriculture Partners, you also work with CIMMYT. How does your work there complement the work you are doing (or plan to do) with EcoAgriculture Partners?
“I think my work at CIMMYT complements my direct contributions to EcoAgriculture Partners in that I interact closely with agricultural research and production organizations at CIMMYT, and knowing how they work and what their priorities are is useful in understanding how to bring multi-stakeholder partnerships together, find win-win outcomes, and build trust for lasting collaborative relationships.”
Last week you co-led a workshop in Nicaragua with Solidaridad, which is the beginning of a partnership between EcoAgriculture and Solidaridad in that country. Tell us about your involvement with that program and what excited you most about it.
“I was there to present on the assessment that EcoAgriculture Partners had conducted in early 2017 on the landscape of the RACCS region, the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region of Nicaragua, and also introduce concepts of financing and implementing integrated landscape management. I was interested to learn about Solidaridad’s work in oil palm certification and other areas in Nicaragua and to understand the baseline and challenges for integrated landscape management in the Bluefields and Rama subregions of the RACCS. There seems to be quite a bit of interest in integrated landscape management in the region, but many of the actors are curious about exactly how to make it happen. I think EcoAgriculture Partners can continue to be a helpful guide and facilitator for this effort.”
After this recent workshop in Nicaragua, what comes next for the program to really scale integrated landscape approaches and make major impacts in that country? What excites you most about the program and its approach?
“I think next steps for the Solidaridad project will be to continue creating spaces and encouraging multi-stakeholder dialogue around integrated landscape management in the RACCS region. I don’t know enough about the Nicaraguan context yet to be able to say what would be needed to scale the efforts, but I did learn some interesting things that will be important going forward. First, the 1988 major hurricane, Joan, did an enormous amount of damage to eastern Nicaragua. I heard figures that it destroyed something like 40% of the forest cover, and while a significant amount of forest has regrown, it is still apparent from the air that the damage done by the hurricane has left a very fragmented landscape, and livestock cultivation has edged into many of the areas where forest used to be. Second, oil palm production is increasing, and it is an open question if this industry will be able to be both inclusive to smallholders and also proceed in harmony with conservation efforts in the region. Third, the lack of ‘ordenamiento territorial’ and other fundamental policies hinders efforts to properly plan and monitor land use in the region. Solidaridad is clearly a respected actor in the region, and they are well-placed to facilitate efforts to create platforms for integrated landscape management.”