Kudzayi Kariri is Integrated Food Security Phase Classification Regional Trainer for Southern Africa, at the IPC Global Support Unit hosted by FAO based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
*This series of ANH Academy career journeys were taken from real interviews, carried out by Lauren McIntyre, IMMANA Research Uptake Manager.
Tell us about your background. Where, when, and what did you study at university for your undergraduate and graduate studies?
So firstly, I should say I'm a Zimbabwean. My bachelor's was the University of Zimbabwe and I did agricultural economics. After I did my bachelor's, I joined the Government of Zimbabwe, Ministry of Agriculture, Department of Agricultural Economics and Markets, as an Agriculture Economist. I spent seven years there. During that, I also became a Technical Assistant and Parliamentary Liaison Officer to the Minister of Agriculture and Permanent Secretary. I did that for two years, being an assistant to the Minister, you know, doing his Cabinet Reports and responding to parliamentary questions, and other things, still doing agricultural economics. After that, I left the government and joined the United Nations, Food and Agriculture organisation (FAO) in Zimbabwe. When I joined at that time, as an Information Officer, economically things were very bad for Zimbabwe. The government, development partners and donors weren't seeing eye to eye, they didn't trust each other. NGOs didn't trust government, government didn’t trust NGOs. So, at that time, I was with the coordination unit of the FAO, because I had roots within government, being the technical assistant to the Minister, people knew me. So, when I went to the FAO, it was good for them because at least I would break that barrier. I was getting information from the government side and I was getting information from the development side, so FAO became like the centre of all agriculture interventions. At that time, I was in charge of the agriculture interventions, we produced an atlas of who was doing what, where and when. I was also in charge of training other NGOs, in terms of data analyses, GIS, Excel and things like that. I was also a part of the food security activities that the FAO was doing in Zimbabwe specifically the Agriculture and Food Security Monitoring System (AFSMS).
When I was in high school I did Maths, Physics and Chemistry. To tell you the truth, I didn't know about agricultural economics until I went to university and at that time engineering wasn't paying. People were saying that you’ll end up being unemployed because no one was looking for it. I then decided to go to the Faculty of Agriculture. I met some people, they said, everyone is looking for agricultural economists; banks are looking for agricultural economists. I said, okay, fine, let me try. That's how I ended up being in agricultural economics. I don’t regret that decision at all. I was lucky, because I had somebody who was there to guide me and say “look at this, this is what you should be doing, you won't go wrong”. So yeah, I took it up.
Have you ever worked outside of the field?
It wasn't outside the field per say but for example, as I mentioned banks were taking agricultural economists. I spent a year internship with one of the biggest banks in Zimbabwe. I'd been offered a job after finishing my studies. But during that time, if you recall, we were talking of early 2000s, Zimbabwe was in a crisis. We had that land reform process, and the banks were relying mostly on huge commercial farms for financing, so I was part of the corporate banking arm of the bank. So, when they started losing clients, the farmers on their books were really sort of wiped out the next day. I went to talk to the managers, they said there was nothing that they could do. It was no longer possible for them to expand the unit, because it was no longer relevant. So that's how I then ended up looking for government work. I didn't expect the government, but I enjoyed my work.
What does your job now involve day-to-day?
The IPC, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, is like a gold standard now for classifying food insecurity and acute malnutrition. We are a unit covering SADC (Southern African Development Community). We have about 16 countries with SADC and out of those 16, we have over 10 countries that do IPC, either to classify acute malnutrition or food insecurity. In 2016, I moved from Zimbabwe to Johannesburg as a regional trainer for IPC, training people in food security analysis, and stuff like that. Since last December (2020), I've been acting regional coordinator, because the person that was there, who was my former boss, left, so I filled her shoes. I focus on strategic issues, making sure that countries uptake IPC as a standard for classifying the severity of food insecurity and acute malnutrition.
What are the biggest challenges in your work?
It's funny, because since I started, during my early days of being employed, I previously mentioned that I was a technical adviser to the Minister and Permanent Secretary. At that time, I had a dual role. I had to report to the Director of the Department of Agriculture Economics who was basically my boss, but at the same time I had to report to the Minister as well as the Permanent Secretary. People want to have the same information, and when they don't have the same information they are bound to accuse you of doing things that they don't know about. It's the same challenge that I'm having now sitting here in Johannesburg. We are hosted in what you call the resilience hub, which is called REOSA. So, within REOSA, we have a coordinator and then in Rome, the Global Steering Unit, which is managed by the IPC GSU Programme Manager. So, you have these different people that I need to update regularly. At the same time, we do have within the region a technical working group that's chaired by SADC as we implement IPC work through the SADC Regional Vulnerability Assessment and Analysis programme, and I also must update those people. So, you need to balance that coordination and a coordination role is not easy. Sometimes people will come to say, “oh, how come I wasn't told about this?” So, if I'm writing an update, I need to make sure all these people are given the same information. Then, I have to talk to governments. We have governments that when you do analysis, they don't want high numbers, right? You got to do an analysis, and you say you have 2 million people, they'll say, “No, no, no, no, no, that's not true. We only have 1 million, we don't agree to 2 million”. There is that political tension and you need to say, “No, this is a technical discussion”. Then on another hand, you go to a country, they don't want low numbers. Why? Because of course, they use that number to get support. So, it's a balancing act that borders also on politics and coordination. Of course, you need to know how to talk to people, you need to be there, and whatever you do it can really create some serious problems. And then you have SADC, the regional body that governs most of these countries.
What are the most satisfying parts, or the best parts, of your work?
I enjoy it, I tell you, I like the idea that I'm helping someone, although I'm sitting on a desk somewhere but I'm actually helping someone who really needs food. When you look at the food gaps, when you analyse food security, at the end of the day, what we're trying to do is for those that we want to save their lives and safeguard their livelihoods and make an impact at that level - that to me is a lot. When I think about somebody in a district in Zimbabwe, for example, or in Mozambique, we have a crisis, it could be due to a Cyclone or something at the time. Now, when you do the analysis, you think, look, this analysis has to better whatever it is in that space. So that feeling is fulfilling.
What do you expect to change in your field of work in the next five years?
For a long time, the food security sector lacked a common language, speaking with one voice, and measuring an apple with an apple. Here we are with IPC now, and if we do this the right way, you see all the countries benefiting using IPC – to some extent you're sure that whatever help is coming is effectively and efficiently distributed. Look at the donors, if they want to compare Zambia and Zimbabwe, if they're doing IPC, then say, now this is okay, they look the same. So, I want to see the whole SADC region having a common approach of analysing food insecurity. That's where I want to be. It's one of the things that I've been considering for a PhD. Zimbabwe has one of the indicators they use for measuring and reporting on food insecurity and there's been many challenges with that indicator over the years, and I feel a deep understanding of it. It's not that it's bad but maybe we need to refine it and report better. So, that is something I am considering pursuing.
What inspires you at the moment in your field of work? Is it the topic you just mentioned?
Yes, exactly! One thing that really gets my blood pumping is when I get a dataset, from a survey from a country, mining that data set, analysing it – it really tells its own story. Most countries have different levels of capacities and if I tell you the amount of information that countries sit on right now, that can actually be re-analysed and repackaged, mined, and then we tell the story, I think we can say a lot. Something that we've been encouraging countries to do, and also of course, countries have their own challenges with data collection, data quality, but we have been trying to push for improving how they collect data and analyse data. I hope that in time I can look back and say I helped these guys to achieve something.
Have you experienced a time where you had to learn huge amounts in a short space of time, like a learning curve?
Yes, it is always the case! When you're analysing data from different countries, countries are using different methodologies, different indicators. One thing that I didn't understand was the HEA, the Household Economic Approach. Some countries were doing it and it’s something I took for granted when I was with FAO in Zimbabwe. When I got be a trainer, and then analyse data and go to the country to do a piece analysis, I had to quickly learn the HEA, I had to know what it means, because those already in a country are expecting you to actually facilitate and lead the process. So that was something that I quickly learned very well. I think some of the indicators that we are not familiar with, even the new SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) indicators, FIES (Food Insecurity Experience Scale), as well as POE, (Prevalence of Undernourishment). Those are things that I had to read very fast, understand them, and then at least once you go to a country you don't look blank. But, generally, because now we are no longer regional, the GSU has been promoting what we call ‘cross fertilisation’, where when you go to another region, whether Asia, East Africa, you need to really learn very fast and some things are not specific to a region. I think it’s good to open up. I have a friend of mine who is an HEA expert and he believed that this indicator was everything, to him. When you talk of other indicators, he used to be so defensive. For me, I think to open up and view possibilities, there are a lot of possibilities out there. Of course, you can be an expert in one field, but at the same time don’t just block everything else. Be open to possibilities within your field.
Talking about challenges now, is there a time to experience failure in your career path? And how did you deal with it?
Failure has never been an easy thing to do or accept. When you sit on something, then you fail to achieve it, sometimes you blame yourself, sometimes you blame the system, sometimes you blame other things, but failure does happen. Remember, I spoke about different countries and when they see numbers in different countries that brings in politics and things like that. We have had challenges with my home country in terms of uptake of IPC. However, what I've learned over the years is to not just look at one solution, and instead open your eyes to the possibilities. So, what I did then was to use another avenue, an avenue other than formal systems. I then decided to maybe look for somebody else who can maybe help people understand where I am coming from. So, I then engaged somebody else, spoke to that person informally and at the end of the day it took a long time for it to materialise but the results came through. So, don’t give up but be open to the possibilities and talk to other people. If I didn't talk to the guy that I am referring to, I wouldn't have known that's possible so it’s important to have like-minded people to rely on, such as mentors, but really, it's just good to talk to somebody when you get into a challenge because they'll point you to another view that you had no possibility of looking at on your own.
What advice would you have to others about that?
Let me give you a personal experience as an example. When you get into a field, the food security sector or whatever - within Zimbabwe, we are the people who were known for analysing food security, crunching the numbers, and although it was a closed system, I never gave up in understanding and trying to learn from those guys. Don’t be quick to give up, be ready to listen. I remember how I broke in the system, when they gave me one of the datasets and I had a pile of paper to go through and cross check the questionnaire, whether it was a data entry error or just enumeration, so I had to go through that system, I didn't give up. Otherwise, if I had not done that I don't think these guys would have taken me in. So, once I did that, these guys asked me to do different things and then I started interacting with them. It's good to have a network and to belong to a community of practitioners. When you are young, you are eager to learn and you're perhaps willing to do things that other people may not want to do. This means there is a lot of room for you to grow quickly. But you don't need to be alone, you need to be somewhere where you belong to a community of practitioners, whether it is from the same university or from SADC. For example, now, I have networks in like 10 countries and beyond, and people just write to me with many things to discuss and some time I'm not only providing solutions but I'm also learning on my part about things that I don’t know are happening. So, we should to open up and belong somewhere and remember that you don't grow in a day. We all want to grow but if somebody asks you to do what you think as menial, but that job, that work, do it with all your heart. You never know how it can reward you.
How do you manage stress at work? What advice do you have for others?
In this sector there is a lot of stress. I've told you, people can just come and say, “why is it that you didn't tell me this?” and it can be political; sometimes you need to massage egos. It is hard so I'm glad that within the IPC GSU, there is a system where they try as much as possible help employees with stress and stuff like that. I used to have back at the office, well I still have, a stress ball, but now I am mostly home. I believe talking to someone really helps and I think my wife has been one of the people that really helps to talk to, in fact, I think now she can actually do my work! Especially now she knows everyone, she has been part of my meetings, sitting there when I am in a meeting. So, she's, been a pillar of support. Also, not taking things personally. This is work after all, and we do have a life beyond work – a good work life balance is very important. I remember last year we went for a retreat and one of the things that we people do, we put our emails in our phones, so even after working hours you’re responding to emails and stuff like that. It’s something that I said, No, we need to separate and we need to have our time, my own time, time for the kids and to talk to other people socially – and having that separation really helps.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Hmm what do I like to do? I believe I talk a lot, I'm a social person. One of the things that helps is that I easily talk to people. I also travel a lot. Well, I used to travel before the corona happened. I used to evaluate, or test, beers. I would go to an area to drink local beers and compare it to what I had in other countries. So, wherever I go to a country, I make sure I don't drink any beer from outside the country. It’s not like I drink a lot of beer but it's more like a sport. At the end of the day I write notes. Like “this beer is crafty”, then I evaluated and I'm done. It really helps me reduce my stress level, get down, and socialise. There’s a lot behind beers - when you go to a country, like Ethiopia, they have that honey wine, and when you talk to somebody, they'll tell you a lot, there is this passion behind it. So that's what I do mostly. I also play soccer but I haven’t been playing soccer lately. It's a different world now.
How do you balance family and work life?
Well, like I was indicating, the work life balance is very important. I have two kids, a girl and a boy. And the youngest is a boy who happens to have a lot of energy and he inquisitive. I try as much as possible to be there for him and most of the time we are doing activities together. In 2019 and before, sometimes I would travel for some time so I’d make sure that once I come back, I made time for the kids, like going out somewhere and spending the whole day playing and stuff. But these past two years, we have been the teachers, we've been the parents, we’ve been everything, so we’ve spent a lot of time with kids.
I believe it's very important to have a good balance, you cannot be effective if you are having one or the other take more of your time. If you are having a lot of work, at home, stress levels increase, you can only be effective when there's a good balance. Forget the phone when it's after hours, give time to the kids, also look at other interests that you like to do, that way you can actually grow and realise other things that you don't even know. There's a lot of things that are there to learn, having a hobby, you know, there’s nothing wrong with writing a review of beers, for example, or looking at flowers, or growing flowers, or something that you do to distress. It’s very important. One of the things that I appreciate now is to take time off. You have a hectic schedule, you have an analysis that is two weeks long. After that, get some get some time to relax, cool down the temperatures, talk to your wife and other people around you.
Have your family influenced your career decisions at all?
My wife has, she's one of my biggest cheerleaders. Even in terms of me considering a PhD, she's like, you can! We have data that we can use, we have a lot of things that we can do, so she’s been like “Come on Kudzayi, you can do this!”. She has been there for me and I appreciate that.
Thinking about advice and inspiration, you mentioned that you had a role model at the start of your career. Have you had any other role models?
I’ve had numerous! I've had people pushing me. I had one person who was my role model and now he's become like a brother to me, he was someone that I looked up to, even from the Zimbabwe side, we're together, we moved again together to Johannesburg, he’s someone that would encourage me to go beyond what I normally do, he was also somebody that taught me quite a lot of things. There are certain things that you can get so mad at, I talk to him and he says “no, man, look at the bigger picture” and I’m like oh, yeah, okay, fine, we have to do this. That's the bigger picture that you need to look at. Now, we're more like brothers and appreciate his influence, it’s huge. So yeah, I've had quite a number that have been there, people that I can even just call and talk about work, my life, what I'm going through and it shouldn't be about work only, sometimes I just talk about the kids. I think that relieves a lot of burden on you. That guy I mentioned is also pushing me to the PhD, so I hope I do it.
Have you had experience with mentoring?
I have a bit. Within these countries, some people have actually left, and wherever they go, whether they’re working for governments, whether somebody wants to do a study and research a topic, I do believe I have people who look at me as their mentor. There is actually a guy who's now in the States and funny enough, he didn't study agriculture economics, he is a pharmacist, but I was there to guide him through his masters, he went to do his PhD which I actually encouraged him to do – it’s been like informal mentoring.
If you were a mentor now, what challenges do early career people face now that weren’t there when you started?
I think there are good things about social media. You can easily talk to somebody in your network, and there’s quite a number of people that you can ask questions to. When I started we didn't have WhatsApp, and Twitter and stuff. We relied on people and having that relationship. I think most of beginners now, of course, there's a lot that for them on social media, but you cannot just believe everything, and you actually need to have that relationship and interact with a person. I've seen quite a number of people who will say “I read about this guy, he wrote this…” but no, they've never engaged and spoken and had that human interaction and that bond. Of course, they might be exposed better than we were but I believe the human element is so important and you need to have that. If you have that relationship, you break a lot of barriers and even end up talking about other things. These days I realise, we have this fear of being judged, which I think we didn’t have initially, there’s more of that in the world than we had.
What is one piece of advice you could give to someone beginning their career in your field?
I think start small, there are possibilities and this reminds me…I was having a discussion with a friend and colleague, and we saw this advert that somebody had put out for a ‘food security expert’. We connected with the person and discussed it. Then, I realised, there are a lot of things we take for granted, for a person to be really an expert, you need to start small and appreciate those little things. If you have never done data collection and don’t even know how the indicators are, you’ve never seen for yourself a paper questionnaire or whatever type of questionnaire is, you have never enumerated, never had an opportunity to ask, to enumerate somebody or go there and sit with somebody doing so – if you are given that opportunity, go for it. You learn a lot. When it comes to actually doing an analysis and you’ve talked with someone about the processes, then it makes sense. Imagine somebody who has never been to the field, never seen rural families, such as someone in a M.Sc. or PhD, there are some things you’ll never appreciate unless you’ve seen some of the context. If you are given the chance to enumerate, go and enumerate! Same goes for designing a questionnaire, so at least you know the steps. This can help for when it comes to doing an analysis on an indicator, you can consider potential errors from the field and you can look at the food security indicator, look at the food groups for example, you then appreciate what it means when someone has a particular score, you can think oh yea maybe these guys were eating starch and veggies only, then at least you appreciate those things. So, yea, starting small is so important. Some people doing M.Sc. think they know a lot but in fact practice and experience is underrated.
Would you recommend a place for people to go to learn about food security?
I think the best place now, I wouldn’t want to be biased, but I know there are a lot of websites on building capacity in food security, we have the FAO website and their e-learning courses, also WFP (World Food Programme) and then there’s the IPC website which has quite a lot of information and there is also a learning platform. The good thing about IPC is that it brings in quite a lot of other facilitators across different institutions and lots of different indicators that have been developed other the years. You may find that you got to a certain institution and they only have their own institutional indicators. We do have a website where people can go to help them grow, learn and build capacity to undertake food security analysis.