February 22, 2023

Researcher Highlight: Q&A with Didier Alia

Didier Alia

Dr. Didier Alia recently was appointed a Research Assistant Professor at the Evans School. Alia is an agricultural economist with a broad research interest and expertise in international development with a focus on agricultural technology adoption, agricultural transformation, climate risks and adaptation. He received a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics from the University of Kentucky in 2017. Prior to this appointment as a Research Assistant Professor, Alia worked for several years as a Research Associate at the Evans School Policy Analysis and Research Group (EPAR).

The Evans School grabbed a few minutes with Didier at the start of this new appointment. 

Evans School:  You are a noted expert in agricultural economics, with a focus on crop productivity and agricultural transformation in Africa. How did you become interested in a research career and in this particular area of study? 

Alia: I came from a small West African country, Benin, that is resource-poor and where agriculture is still the primary source of livelihood for most households. My own family is an agricultural family unable to rely solely on farming to a point that my parents have migrated to the city to seek informal non-farm employment. Growing up, I have seen firsthand the constraints facing farmers in my community. Later in my studies, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, I learned that these constraints are common across most of sub-Saharan Africa and other developing nations. After my Master in Statistics and Applied Economics, I worked at AfricaRice, a leading rice research center and this experience further motivated me in pursuing doctoral studies in agricultural economics and specializing in crop productivity and rural transformation in Africa with the hope to contribute to solving issues facing rural farmers through policy-oriented empirical studies. 

Evans School: You are active in many other areas of research as well, right? 

Alia: Currently, my research also relates to agricultural price analysis, barriers to trade and developing countries’ access to global markets, and food safety and food regulation in the global food value chain. I often approach this work through gender and inclusion lenses. My work also engages issues related to urbanization, education, health, and trade and their implications for rural development in Africa. 

Evans School:  Upon finishing your Ph.D. in 2017, you joined the Evans School Policy Analysis & Research Group (EPAR) – what are some of the most important research findings to have emerged from your work with EPAR? 

Alia: When I joined EPAR in 2017, my first project involved processing large-scale multi-topics household surveys for African countries. It has become incredibly clear to me how important data are to evidence-based decision-making, and yet statistics on agricultural households for most African countries are rare. So, my work with colleagues at EPAR has contributed to global public good with various agricultural development indicators made available. Our work has contributed to the research community by making our code freely available on GitHub for researchers based in Africa or interested in African agriculture to use. My other projects at EPAR involve analyzing decisions around indicator definition and constructions that have important implications about how specific and marginalized sub-groups (women and small farmers) are represented in statistics and policy analyses. Another important finding of my work includes assessing the constraints and drivers of agricultural technologies adoption, productivity growth, and rural transformation in Africa. 

Evans School:  Even though much of your research is grounded in Africa, it connects to a host of issues in other global settings.  What research insights from your work stand out as particularly relevant to other regions of the world? 

Alia: Although Sub-Saharan Africa as a region has its own specificities, issues facing small farmers and their communities in Africa are also prevalent in other regions of the world, most notably South Asia. My work at EPAR also involves India and other South Asian countries. In that region, and in other low-income nations, farmers increasingly face the challenges of climate change and its threats to livelihoods and way of life. My work on agricultural statistics measurement, understanding the drivers of agricultural technologies adoption, productivity growth, and rural development in Africa can inform both the research agenda and policy interventions in these other regions of the world. 

Evans School:  Given your training and experience – what are a few key professional skills or competencies you see as essential to achieving success in agricultural development? 

Alia: Like all other social sciences, Agricultural economics has become empirical and data-intense. So, a good understanding of statistics and data and a passion for empirical questions are essential skills for success in this field. Additionally, developing the ability to engage other disciplines and proximate partners in Africa are important professional skills. 

Evans School:  How do you envision your work and research program evolving in the coming years? 

Alia: My work is already shifting toward an integration of climate risks and how climate shocks affect rural households’ production and livelihoods. In the coming years, I envision my work and research program to continue to expand in this area. I am also increasingly interested in using a diversified set of datasets in my work, including merging data from novel sources such as remotely sensed and social media data with traditional household survey data to timely study rural development issues. Finally, I envision expanding my work into the capacity development of analysts in Africa who are instrumental to the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of policies that affect the lives of the poor. 

Evans School: We are lucky to have your work and ideas contribute to our Evans community and to the broader global scholarly community.  Thanks for chatting! 

Alia: Thank you.