Talking with Michael Hailu

Photo of Michael Hailu

Michael Hailu, director of the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA). Source: © 2012 CTA

Michael Hailu is director of the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), based in Wageningen, the Netherlands. CTA works to improve the flow of information on agricultural and rural development in African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries. In 2011 IFPRI and CTA launched collaborative activities in several areas, including the CTA’s Brussels Development Briefings, which are bimonthly policy dialogues for policymakers, development practitioners, researchers, and others. We asked Hailu about current development issues and his own path to international development work—and we threw in one extra question just for fun.

What’s the biggest development issue you see?

Of course, the big issues are poverty and hunger. There are policy and institutional constraints in addressing these issues, but I would say one really important thing is capacity. This means having well-trained and appropriately remunerated nationals at different levels—technicians, researchers, policy people—with adequate skills and resources so they can make a difference on the ground. We talk about so many new technologies and approaches, but there aren’t enough people to actually make them happen.

How can we address it?

Governments cannot do it alone. Private-sector engagement and linking farmers to markets can make a significant difference. If agriculture continues as a subsistence activity, then we won’t really get away from where we are. But if people see it as a viable business that can improve their livelihoods, young people will be interested in staying on the farm and doing more. It’s critical to look at the value chain and find where more of the benefits can go to the smallholder farmers. With higher incomes, they can invest more in their farms and also become consumers contributing to the rural economy. The whole lifestyle in the rural areas can be improved—infrastructure, health, education, services—so that the rural space becomes much more livable.

CTA works to improve information for developing countries. Why is this so important?

Timely and up-to-date information is critical in learning about new techniques or accessing markets for smallholder farmers. CTA facilitates access to information and exchange of knowledge at various levels—from farmers’ groups to extension workers, researchers, trainers, educators, and policymakers. Lessons from policy and practice from one country may be useful to another country. And in many instances—for example, in the remote villages of Gabon’s tropical forest—CTA’s Spore magazine is the only source of up-to-date written material available to extension workers and villagers.

What excites you most about the work CTA is doing?

We recently launched a new strategy identifying three key priorities for CTA until 2015—strengthening regional agricultural policy processes, supporting priority value chains, and strengthening the information, communication, and knowledge management capacities of institutions and networks in the countries where we work. We are one of the few international organizations devoted to facilitating information and knowledge exchange—using modern information and communication technologies as well as more traditional means—to support agricultural development, particularly smallholder agriculture. From bringing together farmers’ organizations, policymakers, and researchers to debate important policy issues to helping rural youth exploit the potential of information and communication technologies, CTA does work that benefits a wide range of stakeholders in the agriculture and rural development sector.

How did you get into international development?

To be honest, it was kind of accidental. I was in the university in Ethiopia during turbulent political times in the country, which brought a lot of uncertainty and an insecure situation. An ad was posted for a job at ILCA [International Livestock Center for Africa, now the International Livestock Research Institute]. There were about a thousand young university students interested in the job, and they picked 10. I was one. Although initially it was accidental, I’ve always been interested in development and in working for the betterment of people’s lives. So it’s very much in line with my own philosophy and values.

You grew up in Ethiopia—what meal do you remember most clearly from your childhood?

My favorite dish is doro wat, which is chicken in a spicy sauce. I think my mom makes the best doro wat ever. If you are a reasonably well-to-do family, it’s a typical meal you might have once a week or a couple of times a month. In a rural household, you might have it once or twice a year, during holidays like Easter or New Year. Some people like kitfo—raw meat. Many Ethiopians say that’s what they love, but I still like my mom’s chicken.

– Heidi Fritschel

In This Issue

Building Bigger Dreams

Can we improve people’s well-being by raising their aspirations?

Into the Spotlight

The grain teff has been consumed as a staple in Ethiopia for centuries but is little known outside the country. Now, researchers are training their attention on this understudied crop.

Untangling the Asian Enigma

Although South Asia has the highest concentration of undernutrition in the world, in the past two decades Bangladesh and Nepal have both achieved striking improvements in the nutrition of their citizens. How did they do it?

Does Money Talk?

FEATURE: Millions of poor people around the world are enrolled in safety net programs that hand out cash or food. What’s the best way to design these transfer programs?