May 2, 2014

Driven but down-to-earth, Rafael Merchan MPA-DP ’13 has seen his career take him from Cali, Colombia, to New York City and now to Malawi. As an international development fellow with Catholic Relief Services, he combines his background in agricultural economics with the everyday workings of a development organization to help eliminate malnutrition. He spoke with Sarayu Adeni MPA-DP ’15 about preparing for the summer after the first year at SIPA and navigating the realities of work in the field.

It’s been almost a full year since you graduated. What does your life in Malawi look like?

The image we have of the field is really a myth. We have 8-a.m.-to-6-p.m. jobs and we rarely get to leave the capital city. The few occasions when you get to go to the field it’s for a quick assessment with your local partner, involving focus groups and field demos. But unless you’re doing emergency work, most expats spend their time in the office, far from the romantic image one tends to have about fieldwork.

Most of my colleagues are Malawians but there are about four other international staff members in the office. My direct supervisor is actually an alumna of SIPA! In terms of travel, I’ve been to southern Malawi several times, as that’s where most of our projects are located. I also travelled to Kenya to co-lead a workshop on natural resource management.

Right now we’re in the midst of writing a large multi-year grant proposal for USAID. The goal of the proposal is to reduce food security and malnutrition. Because there is a large design team with support from HQ and our regional office, they thought my role was going to be marginal. But quickly I demonstrated that I could do a lot more than compiling background info, and now I’m the co-lead writer for one of the four strategic objectives. I’ve also brought new partners into a consortium and presented ways to make our project more innovative.

What is agricultural innovation in a Malawian context?

There is plenty of room for innovation in Malawi, as most of the farmers still practice subsistence agriculture. Given that land is quite degraded and yields continue far below regional averages, our emphasis is on finding ways to boost productivity immediately while improving the long-term health of the soil. One of the methods we are promoting to improve long-term soil health is called Conservation Agriculture with Trees (CAwT). Conservation agriculture is based on three basic principles: minimum soil disturbance, maximum soil coverage, and mixed and crop rotation. The synergies created between these principles allow the soil to recover and retain more moisture. One of the big challenges in Malawi is the [combination of] strong climate fluctuations, too many dry spells, and flooding. With CAwT, crops become more resilient to these fluctuations.

How did your MPA-DP coursework get you ready for all this? Any favorite classes?

Tony Barclay’s and Glenn Denning’s courses [in management and food systems] were enjoyable and very relevant to the type of work I’m doing now. I also enjoyed Lisa Sachs’s extractive industries elective. I loved Gender and Development, an elective taught by Dave Busch. Not only was I the only guy in the class, but also the content was very practical without neglecting theoretical background.

Grad school in general teaches you how to best organize yourself and make the most out of your limited time. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, the ability to navigate among courses, student groups, events, and social life in such an intense way as at SIPA will leave you prepared for any fast-paced work environment.

Summer is almost here. Looking back on your own experience, what advice can you give to current MPA-DP students as they head out to their field placement assignments?

That was one of the highlights of the program. I worked for the United Nations’ REACH program, an initiative created to support UN agencies and governments design and implement national plans to address chronic malnutrition. I had the opportunity, along with two other classmates, to visit the World Food Program’s headquarters in Rome for a week-long training. We then travelled to our respective countries. I went to Maputo, Mozambique to assist in the setup of the REACH office there.

I think it’s important to prepare for your trip as much as you can. You’re going to be super busy in the months before summer, but try to find time to read about the country you’re going to—its politics, culture, religion, current affairs, etc. Once you get to the country, you won’t have time for this type of thing, plus the locals will appreciate your insights about the country. Also, stay flexible. Sometimes I had to do very mundane tasks but I found ways to learn something from it. Finally, network. The connections you make within the organization and in the country could be your exit strategy after graduation.

What’s an important reality check you’ve had in Malawi?

I nurtured my home basil crop for weeks, and right before I started to harvest it, I woke up one morning to find it infested with aphids. Also, the daily torrential rains are wreaking havoc in my vegetable plot. I can’t help to think how my life would be if I had to depend only on that garden, the daily reality for most people in Malawi.

Sarayu Adeni MPA-DP ’15

Learn more about Columbia SIPA’s MPA in Development Practice.