IWMI’s Sidra Khalid and Najeeb Ullah won this year’s Transformative Research Challenge hosted by the World Food Forum
Interviewed by Samurdhi Ranasinghe, Senior Communications Officer, IWMI
IWMI’s very own Sidra Khalid, Senior Research Officer – Gender and Social Inclusion, and Najeeb Ullah, Monitoring Evaluation and Learning Specialist, recently won the special prize at this year’s Transformative Research Challenge (TRC) hosted by the World Food Forum (WFF). Sidra and Najeeb, from the IWMI team in Pakistan were among the eight finalists who were chosen from 162 entrants for their outstanding research on improved fish farming in Pakistan.
With around seven years of work experience in the development sector, Sidra holds a master’s degree in international development and a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Her area of expertise is gender equality, sexual and reproductive health, and women’s empowerment.
Najeeb has an MBA in human resources management and a bachelor’s degree in computer science. He has worked in research for development as a monitoring, evaluation and learning specialist for 12 years.
Watch Sidra and Najeeb’s research pitch for the TRC
The modest but dynamic duo won the special prize for their research pitch on ‘Transforming nutritional practices and livelihoods through improved fish farming in Pakistan’ under the TRC category, Better Life. Read our interview with Sidra and Najeeb, as they share some interesting perspectives.
What made the two of you team up for the World Food Forum (WFF)’s Transformative Research Challenge (TRC)?
Sidra: It was a spur of the moment decision. When I got the email about the TRC, Najeeb and I had been working together on a saline aquaculture project. So, I thought we would make a great team.
So, your pitch for the TRC was based on a project you were already working on?
Sidra: At the time of the call, we only had a week to turn around a concept note. When we were brainstorming ideas, we were in the middle of collecting data for the saline aquaculture project. Based on our initial assessment we thought we could kind of run with it and expand it a bit more. Saline aquaculture is not a major sector right now in Pakistan, but there’s a lot of potential for it to grow, including opportunities for women and youth to be involved. And it easily lent itself to this year’s TRC theme.
Najeeb: As a monitoring and evaluation specialist, I always look at how we can bring about a solution that is impactful. While we were brain storming ideas for the TRC, one of our interns, a zoologist who was working on the data collection for our saline aquaculture project, came up with a simple set of solutions on ways saline aquaculture can help rural farmers overcome some of their existing problems. That is how we matched our work in progress to the TRC challenge.
When you entered the TRC, did you think you’d win a prize?
Sidra: We only had 3-4 days to submit the concept note. For me it was a fun project, and it was more about getting new experience. I was confident our pitch was strong, but I honestly wasn’t expecting that we were going to win anything.
Najeeb: It was the same feeling for me. We weren’t expecting much when we submitted the initial application. But once we started refining it together with our mentor, I did feel like we might make it to the list of finalists, but I really didn’t imagine us winning a prize!
Pakistan is experiencing extreme weather events more and more frequently. Can you explain how your proposed research can help farmers combat climate change?
Sidra: Because of rising salinity levels due to climate change, most farmers involved in freshwater aquaculture in Pakistan have lost their livelihoods. In this context, saline aquaculture provides an alternative means of livelihood.
Najeeb: Yes, around 40,000 acres per year is being affected by secondary salinity in Pakistan. You cannot grow on salinized land. But farmers can easily counter this issue by switching to saline aquaculture because there’s plenty of groundwater that is saline in the region. These practices can be strengthened through capacity building, providing farmers with incentives, ensuring the necessary structures are in place, improving water quality, and equipping farmers with improved fish species that are saline resistant.
You mention a ‘circular economy’ for a better environment as one of the solutions in your research approach, can you explain how this works?
Najeeb: The concept of a circular economy is that you make use of all existing materials and any byproducts. So, nothing in the farm setting will go to waste. But farmers will require proper training in order to initiate these circular economy practices.
What’s the next step in taking this research proposal forward?
Sidra: The current saline aquaculture project that we are undertaking is funded via the CGIAR. There’s a lot of interest from our partner (World Fish) and the donor (ACIAR) to continue this project once it ends in January 2023. We hope our TRC pitch will help us get funding to take this research even further.
What did you learn from this experience and what advice would you give other young or aspiring scientists?
Sidra: For me, this was more about the learning experience. It was the first time I got to work on a research proposal and be involved in the design phase of things. It gave me a new perspective. So, what I would tell other colleagues is, just to go for it! Because what started as a fun project, won us a prize. So, there’s no harm in trying and stepping out of your comfort zone.
An idea does not need to be complex; it can be very simple. I think some people get intimidated trying to think up completely innovative, out-of-the-box ideas that nobody has ever done before. But when you really look at most interventions, programs, and projects, they are mostly repurposed work. You just need to add your own little spin to it.
Najeeb: My inspiration came from Dr. Nafn Amdar and Dr. Arif Anwar who were winners of the last year’s TRC. I have huge respect for them as excellent researchers and senior colleagues, and that was the motivation behind me taking part in the TRC. It’s a great career highlight for me and my colleagues. It gives a big boost to your career. Last year’s TRC winner, Dr. Nafn Amdar, was the judge at this year’s TRC. How inspiring!
So, my advice to youngsters is that you don’t have to be an expert in any specific area to come up with great ideas. If we can do it, that means any young researcher can do it. You just need some bright ideas and some problem-solving skills to tackle complex problems. Don’t be afraid of being wrong; that this might not be the right solution or that you’re not knowledgeable enough. Our pitch for the TRC was inspired by the ideas of one of our interns! It’s a two-way street, both young and senior colleagues can learn from each other.
If you could leave a mark in the research-for-development sector, what would it be?
Najeeb: Ultimately, research needs to help the end user. My aim would be to create positive change at the grassroot level in the fields of aquaculture, agriculture, and water management.
Sidra: My research always incorporates aspects of gender equity and social inclusion. So, my goal is to move the needle towards a more equitable and just society.