Lisa Tiemann recounts her adventures in Africa and India during her 2023 sabbatical

Weekly seminar re-cap and zoom video

Fulbright scholar Dr Lisa Tiemann recently regaled seminar attendees with stories from her 6.5 months of sabbatical travels --mostly in the maize fields of central Africa, and in a sugarcane growing region in India. This is a re-cap of highlights from her presentation, as well as a bonus section (below) featuring her responses to follow up questions 

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In this, her 9th visit, Lisa focused on studying social aspects of small-holder maize farming in far western Kenya, with local partner Dr. Nancy Mungai, Professor of Soil Science and Agriculture and Director of Research at Egerton University in Njoro. Here they worked together with graduate students to sample agriculture soils and make recommendations to farmers to enhance yield.   

Many of the sites they visited were hours away by car from her homebase near the university in Njoro. “In some areas we were well off paved roads,” Lisa said, recalling the challenges she faced in the remote region, which is rife with small holder farmers who have worked the land for generations. “It’s a beautiful place, but travel gets dicey when it rains.”  

Lisa notes that without support of locals, this work would not be possible. “When doing international work it's integral to plan for working within the culture—including delays, time frames, transportation. You really must plan and budget for it carefully or you will get frustrated.” Over the years Lisa has developed strong relationships and solid skills for navigating the terrain. “Everywhere we went we were accompanied by crowds of children who were fascinated by our activities. They would just pour out of the classrooms when they saw us outside. Always very curious and helpful too! They always want to help.”  

During this visit, Lisa took on two new graduate students at Egerton University in Njoro, Kenya who were as helpful to Lisa as she was to them. “I could not do it without a reliable translator who knows the subject.” At the same time, We’re doing sequencing with SMock and this data will be unique for Africa,” Lisa said. “It will be one of a kind.” 

Sample collection was a major goal of this visit, and Lisa collected soil samples and interviewed growers about their farming practices.  

A broad meta-analysis shows that soil organic matter additions consistently results in higher yield, yet “Where it's most needed, ag residue is used for other things and it’s not returning to soil.” Lisa said. “Growers will keep applying N and P, but without the structure, the soil can’t hold the additions, and returns are minimal.” Lisa and her team prepared single-page handouts to help inform farmers of their findings. “Many farmers don't have livestock for the minimal input they might provide. Resources are extremely limited and so they really have to make the most of them.”  

 Lisa was also invited to India by Doug Buhler and  Karim Maredia  where she visited a Godavari Biorefineries, Ltd, a bioenergy plant “that is very green –using local sugar cane to feed itself and selling energy back to grid.” Lisa also spent a bit of time at Somaiya Vidyavihar University (where she is an adjunct professor), picked up two new graduate students, and participated in a listening tour among local sugarcane growers. “The climate has changed drastically in just 5-10 years,” Lisa said, “the farmers say it’s affecting growing cycles a lot.”  

View this seminar online: 

Follow up questions: 

What initially motivated you to start working in developing countries?  

I was initially motivated by the science question I was trying to address. I wanted to understand how previous land use history impacts current soil and soil microbiome characteristics and current land use. The location I selected to begin my work in developing countries was in Uganda, in and around a national park and forest reserve that had never been cultivated. Here there was an interesting story of land use that would have big impacts on soil carbon and microbial communities. What I found was not just a place to address an interesting science question, but people that needed the science on a very basic level. People who were welcoming and kind and living under primitive conditions that I knew existed, but just didn’t truly understand. I found a place where I could make a difference in the world, even if it was helping a relatively small proportion of the billions of small-holder farmers in developing countries world-wide.      

In your 9th visit to the region, what new things did you learn this time?  

I am continually amazed by the kindness and positivity I find among these farmers that are living what we would consider the lowest levels of poverty here in the U.S. No matter how many times I go and how many farmers I have already talked ti and interviewed, each time I always learn a lot. These farmers are very knowledgeable and have a deep understanding of and connection to their land and soils. For example, they have noticed the small year to year changes in climate, particularly precipitation patterns, before they heard anything about global climate change. These changes in climate have forced them to make tough decisions about which crops and when to plant them and overall, their whole system of farming. They used to have two growing seasons, a long season for maize and a short season for beans and other vegetables. With climate change, and different rainfall patterns, they no longer have time to plant and harvest a second crop in the short season. This is a huge loss of food and income for many communities.   

How can you best describe your lasting impacts in this type of outreach effort, vs. your substantial scientific publishing?  

I always describe my research platform as divided into 2 parts. On one side is my basic and fundamental research, which focuses on understanding the environmental drivers and metabolic mechanisms controlling microbial contributions to soil organic matter formation and nitrogen cycling. The other side is my work in developing countries with small holder farmers which is much more applied and developmental research. On this side I work to connect directly with small-holder farmers to understand their major soil and agronomic problems and help design solutions for them or connect directly with policy makers to help them understand the problems and need for policy based solutions. On the basic research side, the scientific publications are really important, but on the applied and developmental side I assess my success by how many farmers have I helped. It is hard to quantify this for the purposes of say promotion and tenure, but for me it is too important and satisfying to me as a human being to ever worry about that. If I spend a lot of my time working on these kinds of research, development and outreach activities, I have to hope I can quantify the value of these efforts, even if they don’t result in big high impact publications. So far, I have found that these efforts are appreciated and valued within CANR and MSU, and I feel fortunate to be at a university that has been so supportive.   

You mentioned “1.5 billion in soil health action fund support by globes’ biggest donors” Do you have any part in that? Are you advising or are they using your data…?  


In preparation for the African Fertilizer and Soil Health Summit (5-7 Nov 2023, Nairobi)  I helped prepare technical documents for policy makers. I was also a co-author on the summit declaration and action plan, which was based on the technical documents (basically a compilation of current data and info available regarding soil health and fertilizer use in Africa. Currently, I am working with African colleagues as an advisor and resource as they pull together a coalition of African institutions that will hopefully be one of the primary recipients of some of these funds. I think it is important that African scientists and policy makers have ownership over the work and outcomes in order for implementation of new policies and efforts to be successful. There are many outside entities that want to take control and tell African leaders what they should be doing, but this approach has rarely been successful. I am hopeful that the African coalition, of which the Alliance for African Partnerships and therefore MSU is a part of, will be successful in their discussion with donors on how the fund should be managed and distributed. I don’t expect any funding from this myself – I just want to help make sure it gets to my African colleagues who are best positioned to use the funds to drive real change and forward movement.      

Follow these links for more information about Dr Tiemann’s work abroad:  



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