Remote field research and silver linings

Taking the first step in a big project such as a master thesis is one of the biggest challenges – or so I thought as I was trying to find a topic that would fascinate me enough to stay motivated pouring my heart and soul into for a whole year. In order to boost that motivation, I wanted to take this last milestone of my master’s degree as a chance to go abroad, not just as a tourist but as a field researcher, an opportunity I would probably never have again. Combining the topic of agroforestry, which has always fascinated me, with a case study site, and hence field work, in rural Tanzania were the golden combination I had been looking for.

Needless to say, in face of Covid-19 conducting field work in Tanzania myself became impossible and the most exciting part of my thesis fell through, and with it my motivation, or so I thought.

Charcoal production in Tanzania and agroforestry

My thesis focuses on the potential of agroforestry for more sustainable, on-farm charcoal production practices. In Tanzania, charcoal production is an important source of income for many rural households. At the same time, current mostly unsustainable production practices are threatening the forest ecosystem along with the livelihoods of the rural people dependent on the forest products and ecosystem services.

Silver linings

The original plan was to conduct approximately twenty in-depth guideline interviews myself, with the help of a translator. As it soon became clear that travelling to Tanzania and conducting the fieldwork ourselves would not be an option in the face of the pandemic, data collection needed to be outsourced to a local research team. Thanks to connections of my supervisors from a larger research project with local researchers from a previous visit the team was quickly put together and data collection commenced just a few weeks later for both projects at once.

A total of 161 charcoal producers were interviewed across six villages in Kilosa district, Tanzania, included participants from three villages, which were part of a project promoting sustainable charcoal production, and from three non-project villages. Further interviews were held with members of village and district governments in order to account for the local, formal institutional context. The only interviews I was able to conduct myself via Skype were five interviews with academic experts on core research topics – i.e. charcoal production, producers’ livelihoods and agroforestry.

Map of the research area. (Source: adapted from Chipwaza et al. (2015) PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, 9(5), p. e0003750)

Since the total sample of 161 interviews exceeded the scope of a master thesis, a subsample needed to be determined by applying a purposeful sampling. Additionally, in order for me to analyze the interviews, which were all conducted in Swahili, they also needed to be translated into English, another major task that Tanzanian research team carried out for us. I conducted a qualitative content analysis to 20 interviews with charcoal producers from villages A, B, C, and D, eight and three with members of village and district government, respectively, as well as to the five expert interviews (36 interviews in total).

To my own surprise, and in no small part thanks to my supervisors and my fellow master-thesis-writing-colleagues in the “Master-Rümli” (Y23-G10), my motivation did not tank as feared. Instead, it rose to unexpected height as the first translated transcripts trickled in and first results started to emerge from the data. Reading through the transcripts and analyzing them I found myself in a juxtaposition between gaining so much insight into the interviewees’ lives while at the same time feeling like I couldn’t possibly know anything at all about let alone do justice to their reality since my interpretation was largely based on my imagination of what the field might look like.

Thankfully, the Tanzanian research team answered countless questions, provided many photos and reassured me with insightful and meticulous feedback on the results and interpretation.

Remote results and conclusions

In the four villages charcoal production is a predominant activity and its environmental consequences are starting to be felt. On-farm production is mostly a result of permanent land clearing for agricultural purposes. Hence, no trees are replanted or left to regenerate, making current practices highly environmentally unsustainable. Due to the lack of alternative income generating opportunities in the region, however, many interviewees will continue to depend on charcoal production in the future to supplement the low agricultural productivity and income. In order to increase the sustainability of charcoal production – on- and off-farm – new trees need to be planted. However, on one hand, such an undertaking involves a number of challenges, including land size, tenure security, land conflicts and a major lack of information about charcoal regulations. On the other hand, farmers generally highly value trees for their manifold benefits.

Additionally, widespread awareness about the negative environmental impacts of charcoal production and forming community institutions, like the charcoal producers’ association, have proven to be a fertile ground for introducing new and more sustainable practices. Governance of charcoal production in general but especially at the local level must be improved through capacity building in order to achieve longevity and self-sustainability of such efforts.

Former kiln site for charcoal production, Kilosa District, Tanzania (Photo: Vincent Gerald Vyamana)

More silver linings

After ten months of hard work and a series of setbacks making for a bumpy ride, I ended up handing in my thesis, unexpectedly still motivated and fascinated, on 02. December 2020. The master exam took place a week later, both turning out better than I would have ever dared to dream considering the circumstances.

Winning second place in the SGAG Prize was just the icing on the cake, making all the energy, nerves, sweat and tears worth it and all together a memorable – if only remote – journey.

Mena Seifert

MSc Thesis
Mena Seifert (2020): The Potential of On-Farm Trees for Sustainable Charcoal Production: Challenges, opportunities and human and social capital implications of charcoal production from on-farm trees in Kilosa District, Tanzania
The SGAG Prize is awarded to master’s and diploma theses that have a great practical relevance, high innovativeness and great relevance to action.
Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Angewandte Geographie (SGAG)