Interdisciplinary Lessons from the South Africa Regional Reseach Team

The SAAMIIP team (from center bottom) Olivier Crespo, Thembeka Mpuisang, Andries Fourie, Wiltrud Durand, Weldemichael Abraha, Davide Cammarano, and Hlamalani Ngwenya Photo by Koketso Molepo

Interdisciplinarity and Diversity
is our strength

By Hlamalani Ngwenya, Olivier Crespo, Wiltrud Durand, Thembeka Mpuisang, Andries Fourie, Weldemichael Abraha, and Davide Cammarano

The Southern Africa Agricultural Models Intercomparison and Improvement Project (SAAMIIP) is investigating farming systems in South Africa and Botswana and is one of seven AgMIP regional research teams in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. One of the principles of AgMIP research is the necessity of interdisciplinarity. This piece presents the experience of the SAAMIIP team as its members navigated through the complexities of interdisciplinary research at all levels. Interdisciplinary research is three fold: 1) different expertises and disciplines (e.g. Climate, Crops, Socio-economic and Stakeholder Liaison); 2) engagement of a wide range of stakeholders from the different fields and at different decision levels; and 3) a wide range of outputs.

“Perceptions and views change as things are discussed, moving from what we did as individuals to a collective”
– Hlami Ngwenya

Interdisciplinarity defined: Interdisciplinarity is not the same as multidisciplinarity. MULTIdisciplinary implies MULTIPLE actors working together. INTERdisciplinary denotes INTEgration of some sort. In order to be relevant, the research team needed to go beyond their technical skills, and acquire competencies to communicate with other experts and various stakeholders. They were also compelled to gain competencies in order to take the same emerging research output/result, articulate it, package it and deliver it in a way that made sense to a wide range of stakeholders.


“If we do not understand it, we should not expect anyone else to understand us”
– Hlami Ngwenya

The SAAMIIP team was planning a stakeholder workshop for the development of Representative Agricultural Pathways. A few days before the workshop, the team still did not have a shared understanding of the different aspects of the Pathways and the construction methodology. Discussing these issues virtually did not help bring clarity, and in fact created more confusion and frustrations. The team decided to come together face-to-face and go through the process step-by-step. They shared experiences from their different fields, asked each other ‘hard’ questions, and accepted to be probed. Everyone had to listen attentively to make sense of the whole story line. It was after an iterative process of going back and forth; that they began to understand how the different part of the puzzle came together. With this process they were able to handle new information and understanding at individual and team levels, and eventually were able to generate shared meaning as a collective. This type of learning only becomes meaningful with face-to-face interaction and sharing.

Learning to make sense together: Interpretation is very important in any communication process to understand what is observed or said in a given context. Because of the SAAMIIP team’s different backgrounds and schools of thought, it was inevitable for them to interpret similar situations differently. The natural reaction for individuals is to fall back into their little cocoons when dealing with complex issues such as climate and paddling into unknown areas like uncertainties.

Confronted with the difficult task of engaging with stakeholders, the SAAMIIP team had no choice but to work closely together and improve ways of sharing and articulating lessons learned. This however was not a ride in the park, as the team’s pre-conceived mental models, entrenched values, and deep-rooted practices were challenged. They needed to be aware of how all these challenges affected interactions with each other, and ultimately influenced stakeholder engagement. Their success resulted from paying attention, listening to one another, and understanding each other’s point of view.

Learning to play the roles together: The different expertise of the SAAMIIP team members included multiple roles and responsibilities, but these diversities could be destructive and hinder the functioning of the team. However, when recognised and embraced, this diversity had a great potential for enhancing the team’s performance. The SAAMIIP team paid special attention to understanding each other and accepting that individual success can only be measured at a team level. By understanding each team member’s strengths it was possible to tap on competencies when needed and complement each other. With their combined expertise, the team could work as a collective.

Learning to support each other: The modelling work is complex and challenging on its own. Working across different fields adds another layer of complexity. The team constantly had to push their boundaries and venture into unknown spaces. Supporting each other meant providing a safe environment to learn and explore, and sometimes failing without being judged. It also meant rallying behind each other and encouraging and acknowledging efforts. It often comes from simple words of encouragement like “You can do it”, “Yes we can”, “Well done”, “It is a team effort”, which helped conquer fears and tackle challenges head on. These words of encouragement became part and parcel of the team’s conversation and interaction with one another.

“The more time we spend with each other and the more we got to know each other (life history and challenges) the more we appreciated and understood each other and therefore the better we gelled. No pretences to uphold. We got to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. That resulted in a better working together.”
– Andries Fourie

“As a ‘hard scientist’ it is uniquely challenging to engage with stakeholders in a meaningful way (in terms of message, communication, needs, etc.) But it is valuable and unarguably necessary to bring research into action, and sometimes most importantly, guide research value for society (which is, I hope, what every researcher does from various distances).”
– Olivier Crespo

“The sense of ‘interdisciplinary’ in SAMIIP brings strong collaboration and is crucial for effective translation of outputs into decision support tools and policy, but the challenge faced by collaborative production of knowledge with stakeholder’s involvement remains as an open issue for the bigger picture of the region (SADC).”
– Weldemichael Tesfuhuney