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Farming in transition in East Africa: financial risk taking and agricultural intensification

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  • Full or part time
    Prof E Fevre
    Prof J Robinson
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description


This is a project within the multi-disciplinary EPSRC and ESRC Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) on Quantification and Management of Risk & Uncertainty in Complex Systems & Environments, within the Institute for Risk and Uncertainty. The studentship is granted for 4 years and includes, in the first year, a Master in Decision Making under Risk & Uncertainty. The project includes extensive collaboration with prime industry to build an optimal basis for employability.

In East Africa, and specifically in Kenya (where this study would be based) small-holder livestock production systems, in which farmers grow crops and keep a small diversity of a small number of domestic livestock, are moving from a subsistence model, where farmers grow produce for home consumption, to one of increased commercialisation, intensification and consumer focus (Pretty et al 2011), where livestock and crops are also grown for commercial gain. Simultaneously, a greater proportion of Africa’s population is urbanised, making market-oriented farming more important for food security. This change requires farmers to engage with new value chains for both inputs and outputs. Shifting from a subsistence system to one in which the market dominates represents a huge financial risk for poor farmers. The returns are uncertain, due to market volatility, poorly developed value chains (especially for livestock and animal source foods) and increased exposure to infectious disease problems. Despite these risks, such changes are clearly happening throughout Kenya and elsewhere in Africa, because success can reap great financial rewards.

Understanding the motivations behind this risk taking, and it’s impact on the family, how long it takes to generate a return and what sacrifices are made in pursuit of profit, is a highly relevant objective. Understanding the changes at an individual farm level would allow extrapolation to understanding these changes on a larger scale, and inform the advice that several intermediaries (NGOs, government, private sector institutions, etc.) give to farmers and policy implementers. In addition, understanding farmers’ financial decisions can help financial institutions and those who support them to offer tailored, context specific financial products. Kenya has an impressive history of innovation in the financial services sector, targeting low-income households (eg Mpesa, MShwari, etc).

We are currently implementing a project under the ZELS initiative (Zoonoses in Emerging Livestock Systems), funded by the BBSRC, DFID, ESRC, MRC, NERC and DSTL, which is exploring several aspects of agricultural change in western Kenya. This is an excellent opportunity to link our existing studies of value chain economics, animal genetics and pathogen surveillance to financial and socio-economic issues of risk-taking in farming. Our industrial partner, the Financial Sector Development Programme (FSD) - - has previously implemented the Kenya Financial Diary Project ( which tracked cash flows of 298 low-income Kenyan households over a one-year period. The diaries, which were designed to capture data across all sectors, and therefore included a relatively small number of livestock farmers in transition, provide an excellent methodology to understand farm-based economics.

In this project, the prospective student will select a number (eg up to ~20) of households at different stages of this agricultural transition, and spend a year in the field collecting detailed household financial, economic and social data using the FSD Financial Diary methodology. Each month, a detailed questionnaire recording relevant financial details will be applied. This will be supplemented by observations, conversations and more focussed interviews over the year with different family members (including women) and any casual workers or relatives who are working with the household. Special attention will be paid to changing household dynamics, in particular how traditional and any new tasks are allocated and undertaken within the household, and how any such shifts may challenge traditional gender roles. To supplement the observational data, permission will be sought from participants to photograph and possibly film aspects of the household and landscape pertinent to the study. Using these data, a comprehensive picture of the social and economic risks, will be gathered.

The project will involve approximately 1 year of in situ fieldwork. The ideal candidate will be an anthropologist or social scientist with an interest in economics and micro-politics of family life in agricultural communities. The candidate will be well supported with project related infrastructure at the field site and will have extensive access to the expertise at FSD and its partners.

Secondments: 6 months within FSD’s Africa’s office in Kenya; 3 months at the Institute of Anthropology, Gender and African Studies, University of Nairobi.

Funding Notes

The PhD Studentship (Tuition fees + stipend of £ 13,726 annually over 4 years) is available for Home/EU students. In addition, a budget for use in own responsibility will be provided.


Pretty, J., Toulmin, C. and Williams, S. (2011) Sustainable intensification in African agriculture. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 9:1, 5-24.

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