Every summer in Sierra Leone, people face two months of hunger when stocks of rice run dry and prices escalate. Professor Tavneet Suri conducted a randomized experiment on the economics of a new high-yield rice to learn more about addressing this glaring issue. She found the hunger season could potentially be shortened, and yields increased for the adopters of this technology, mitigating the adverse effects of this lengthy period of starvation.

Suri, a development economist and the Maurice F. Strong Career Development Professor in Applied Economics at MIT Sloan, serves as scientific director for Africa in the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and co-chair of the J-PAL Agriculture program. She and J-PAL executive director Rachel Glennerster conducted an experiment—designed like a clinical trial in medicine—which tested the adoption and impact of a new kind of rice known as NERICA (New Rice for Africa). NERICA combines the high-yield properties of Asian rice with the resilience of African rice, which is known for resistance to drought and disease. The experiment tested mechanisms that could encourage farmers to try NERICA, such as subsidies to purchase seed, training in new cultivation methods, and information about how its adoption might affect agricultural and health outcomes.

“Initially we thought NERICA’s shorter growing season could produce two rice harvests, or that a higher yield would give farmers more rice to sell and increase their overall economic situation,” Suri says. “But that was not quite the case. We found instead a profoundly simple outcome. The duration from planting to harvest decreased from 130 days for traditional rice, to 100 days for NERICA. By coming in four weeks earlier and producing a higher yield, the hunger season was reduced. Families had more food, they could eat more consistently through the year, and their children’s nutrition improved.

“The effects were striking. As an economist, I look for causality. This is one of the first studies of its kind, using a randomized control trial to quantitatively show how an agricultural technology affects child nutrition.”

Suri’s research takes her across Africa, from Sierra Leone to Rwanda and Kenya. A fourth-generation Kenyan, Suri returned to her home country to conduct a credit experiment there, exploring creative ways to help dairy farmers obtain credit to purchase water storage tanks.

Storing rainwater in tanks is the best way to have a reliable supply of fresh, clean water for dairy cows during the dry season. But the storage tanks are expensive and farmers cannot afford them without a loan. Pondering new ways to provide credit, Suri had a eureka moment: she would test an asset-collateralized loan, using the tank itself as collateral. If a farmer falls behind on payments, the tank is repossessed. While this credit model is common in the US, for car loans and mortgages, it is almost unheard of in Kenya.

“Many more farmers purchased tanks; only one tank out of almost 1,000 was repossessed,” reports Suri. “With a more consistent water supply, cows did not get dehydrated and were healthier. But the effects did not end there. We saw an increase in school enrollment for girls, as they no longer had to spend long days fetching water for the household.

“Most of my ideas come from my travels through Africa,” she says. “It’s hard to imagine having that eureka moment sitting in my office staring at my laptop.”

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