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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

Meet Dr Shailaja Fennell

Shailaja Fennell grew up in some of the world’s biggest cities, but now spends her time working with small rural communities in developing countries. A Lecturer in Cambridge’s Centre of Development Studies, she has just reached the end of a two-year project to understand youth aspirations in rural India. Her experiences have taught her the importance of a collaborative approach, an open mind, and why putting yourself in other people’s shoes is the best way to design research.



Q: What’s the point of your research?

A: I’m interested in food production and rural development. The big unresolved question is whether the Green Revolution in India has been a success in creating better farming options, or whether people want to leave rural areas because farming isn’t financially attractive to them any more.

My latest project looked at youth aspirations in two regions of rural India where the Green Revolution of the 1960’s generated high-yielding crop varieties: the Punjab in the north, and Tamil Nadu in the south. Mobile phone technology has really caught on amongst young people, so we used this as a way to try and understand their lives. We found it’s a myth that young people in rural India can’t use technology, and it’s a myth that young women get left behind. Over 95% of people we questioned at both sites owned mobile phones, and there’s no gender difference in mobile phone usage. On the supply side, the phone companies think these people will only use the minimum text-only package because they’re poor. But that’s a myth too. We found that they’re really into social media. 90% of the young people in rural India use WhatsApp! It was amazing.

Most important for us was what these young people were discussing on their phones. They want to know how to write a CV, they’re talking about career choices, they want to improve their English. Nobody in Tamil Nadu identifies themselves as a farmer, even if they’re living in farming households, whereas in the Punjab they wanted to be farmers. So there are regional differences in two areas with similar incomes but possibly different employment opportunities.

Q: How is this relevant to Global Food Security?

A: It’s becoming difficult to get a sustainable income from agriculture in many parts of the Indian subcontinent. That’s partly because of climate change. Water supplies are shrinking, and food can’t be grown in the same way it used to be. We’ve seen that the rural youth in Tamil Nadu don’t want to be farmers, but they’re not managing to get jobs in cities. They’re keen to use the technology network as a means of diversifying their opportunities linked to agriculture, whilst remaining in rural India. There are many options that link directly to food supply, from developing technology to monitor water levels, to refrigeration of crops, to using phone networks for better marketing or deliveries. We hope our results will feed into future work on overcoming the ‘digital divide’ – the technological gap between developed and developing countries.

Q: Have you ever had a Eureka moment?

A: I listened to what people were saying in the cities of Africa and Asia about the rural youth, but when I actually went to rural areas the reality was very different. I realised that very often people just accept things they’re reading in the newspapers without question, but it’s not always correct. I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing research without actually going in and sussing out the field for myself.

Q: What might other people be surprised to found out about you?

A: I’ve been obsessed by birds and plants all my life. I love classifying things, and as a young person I was part of an environmental group. I did science at school and it wasn’t until I was finishing school in Delhi at 18 that I thought about studying economics. There were protests about water, electricity, and cutting the urban forests, and I couldn’t understand how these things were happening without consultation. I thought studying economics might be a way to find answers.

Q: What’s the best advice anyone’s ever give you?

A: Research questions are so often designed around a problem we think exists. My colleagues in Asia and Africa have taught me that it’s critical to start by writing out the problem, rather than by designing the solution, and going out into the field to test whether you’ve actually conceived of the problem in the right way. Put yourself in their shoes, situate your problem - whatever it is.

Q: What’s your favourite research tool?

A: Survey design. A survey is a tool that allows you to enter somebody else’s life and ask them questions about how they perceive things, rather than you setting the agenda. It gives you a slice of data that you can triangulate with other types, like secondary or international data. And it doesn’t have to be just tick boxes. I don’t ask: ‘do you use the phone for this, this or this?’ I ask: ‘what do you use your phone for?’ I’m trying to understand people’s lives through the choices they make.

Q: What do you enjoy most about interacting with people on the ground?

A: Development is about trying to understand what works and what doesn’t work. Being on the ground allows you to start redrawing the problem in terms of where the local people are and how they see it. I learnt that it’s important to remember you’re a visitor in their world, and you have to have respect for the community you’re entering.

Q: Who or what inspires you?

A: A number of people have been important in my thinking about human development, the environment and food security. Thomas Malthus still inspires me, despite being maligned in the 21st century, because he was very curious about the relationship between food and population. And the late political economist Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics, was an incredibly creative thinker in terms of the notion of common property and collective action. She took her ideas into the real world to improve things like policing and schools - she’s extremely inspiring. 

Q: How would you like to be remembered?

A: As someone who was curious and collaborative in her approach to research. I have a large group of doctoral and postdoctoral students and I don’t tell them what to do - I’m curious about why they ask the questions they ask and I want to understand their strengths, and help them build on these. That’s a big change in the way research is done. I was frustrated with research for the first 20 years of my academic life because of the lack of collaboration, and I hope that in the next 20 years I’ll be part of the change.


Shailaja’s project was funded by the UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI), and conducted in partnership with Anglia Ruskin University, the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras and the University of Punjab, Chandigarh.