September 18, 2002

C.U. Faculty Assist With Kenya Region

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For the next five years, an interdisciplinary team of Cornell Faculty will be working together to better understand the relationship between Kenyan farmers, the Kenyan agricultural economy and the Kenyan environment.

The Team

The team, consisting of Prof. Alice Pell, animal science, Prof. Susan Riha, earth and atmospheric sciences, Prof. Johannes Lehmann, crop and soil science, Prof. Larry Blume, economics, Prof. Chris Barret, applied economics and management and Prof. Max Pfeffer, rural sociology, will be working to develop a computer model that predicts the response of the Kenyan population to changes in Kenyan agriculture.

“We are trying to figure out what makes people invest in their natural environment in a situation like Kenya’s in which both the environment and the people are at the margin,” said Pell.

“In traditional farming systems, people used to clear land and then leave it in fallow and clear some new land,” Pell said. “Because the population has increased, it is no longer possible to allow the fallow period and soil nutrients are [thus] depleted.”

This depletion of nutrients in Kenya’s soil is one of the major concerns of the members of the interdisciplinary team and will be one core components of the intended computer model.

“Part of the task of having to build a model is that we have to organize our thoughts very very carefully,” Pell said. “We have to deal with the structure of the model…[and] it is very hard to figure out at what point is the human input affecting the system and at what point is the biology dictating what happens without much human input.”


These distinctions will comprise the behavior of the model and will allow members of the team to decide which related features are important enough to merit consideration in the model.

“If we do the science effectively, we can then develop an effective solution,” said Pfeffer.

To determine the structure of the model, members of the team have held weekly planning discussions. “The problem that I saw with this project was trying to link dynamic economic models with dynamic biophysical models [and] having them run kind of simultaneously,” said Riha.

Most members on the team are very enthusiastic about the project, especially its interdisciplinary aspect. “I really enjoyed the groups because I was very excited, especially by the economist,” Riha said.

“I am very excited about the whole project, because I don’t think there are a lot of cases where the biological scientists and the social scientists really try to work together,” added Pell.

The research and the development of the model are being funded by a $1.67 million dollar grant awarded to Cornell by the National Science Foundation. This grant was awarded to Cornell through the foundation’s Bio-complexity program which typically awards grants to about six percent of submitted requests. The team of Cornell faculty has also received funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to follow-up on the results of the research portion of the project. This funding also includes money for graduate students to aid the team in working on the project.

The Cornell Team will be joined by the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute and the International Center for Research in Agroforestry in Nairobi. If the project is successful, Pell hopes to have the grant renewed after the five years have elapsed.

Archived article by David Andrade