In the spotlight: Kelvin Mashisia Shikuku

6 minutes read
Kelvin Mashisia Shikuku, WorldFish scientist.

WorldFish scientist Kelvin Mashisia Shikuku sits down for a Q&A to discuss his research on scaling and disseminating aquaculture innovations to rural fish farmers. 

WorldFish and the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems (FISH) are global leaders in aquatic food systems research and innovation for healthy people and planet, and science and partnerships are the foundation of our work. Our team delivers robust evidence to policymakers and technological innovations to producers, value chain actors and consumers in order to transform food systems. In this series, we profile our accomplished scientists in the spotlight.

Kelvin Mashisia Shikuku, an agricultural and development economist, is the innovation and scaling scientist at WorldFish. He holds an MSc in Agricultural and Applied Economics and a PhD in Development Economics. His research evaluates the diverse approaches to the diffusion and scaling of agricultural and aquaculture innovations, with a special interest in fish seed systems. He also studies consumer demand for food safety in developing countries, and he works to understand the incentives for value chain actors to improve product quality. He enjoys using economic framed experiments, randomized control trials, interactive games and quasi-experimental approaches to understand economic phenomena and human behavior.

What are you currently working on for WorldFish?

I work to support aquatic food-based livelihoods through rigorous research focused on the performance of fish seed systems in Asia and Africa. Fish seed systems produce and disseminate quality fingerlings (young juvenile fish) to farmers and are necessary to transform aquaculture from subsistence-oriented to viable commercial production. I’m currently developing frameworks and methodologies to evaluate the dissemination and improve access to quality seed and aquaculture best management practices (BMPs) to small-scale farmers. I aim to identify and promote suitable interventions that facilitate the timely, inclusive and sustainable delivery of high-quality fish seed to farmers and increase adoption of BMPs.

I am currently collaborating with my WorldFish colleagues in Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Timor Leste to develop dissemination and scaling strategies for genetically improved fish strains. To determine their efficacy, I’m also working to implement baseline surveys that can provide adequate benchmarking data against which impacts of innovations will be assessed now and in the future.

As part of the Impacts Assessment Team, my colleagues and I have identified novel opportunities for the dissemination and scaling of Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia (GIFT) and are developing a robust methodology to assess its long-term impacts in Bangladesh.

What’s the most exciting thing about your research area?

As an agricultural and development economist, I am fascinated by the ways research can transform people’s livelihoods. Innovation is crucial for achieving sustainable development, but innovations must first reach the intended beneficiaries in a meaningful way. My research area is exciting because it utilizes both the art and the science of scaling innovations to ensure optimal positive impacts while evaluating synergies and trade-offs.

Which recent technical innovations have greatly influenced your field?

Some recent game-changing innovations include the development of genetically improved carp and tilapia strains; new tools for the rapid detection of fish diseases; and the in-pond raceway system to rear fish more efficiently. These innovations help support the sustainable development of aquatic systems under increasingly volatile environments, which are shifting due to climate change, fish disease outbreaks and population growth.

In addition, one of the greatest challenges we face is being able to accurately measure the impacts of genetically improved fish seed. Genetically improved fish seed may not be visually distinguishable from non-improved fish strains, which often leads to statistical errors due to the misclassification or misreporting of fish type. Although still not widely applied, technological advancement in genetics, akin to DNA fingerprinting in the case of agricultural crops, has enhanced our ability to identify fish strains. WorldFish has applied this genetic tool fairly recently to identify the strains that hatcheries were selling to farmers.

Your research focuses on data-driven agriculture. How can data be used to support rural fish farmers?

Big data brings fragmented data, resources and service providers together to support a farmer’s ecosystem. A digital farmer profile can capture comprehensive data on a single farm to facilitate real-time data flows between farmers, stakeholders and buyers.

Farmers often need to make decisions in critical moments; the aggregation of information from farmer profiles, remote sensing data and satellites enables farmers to make difficult decisions instantly and respond to disease outbreaks. Data-driven agriculture ultimately helps rural fish farmers to allocate their scarce resources optimally and sustain their livelihoods.

How do improvedfish seed systems strengthen food and economic security?

Well-functioning seed systems ensure farmers have timely access to affordable and quality seed. This facilitates the increased adoption of genetically improved fish seed, with proven productivity and profitability gains for farmers and seed producers.

In Bangladesh, for example, a recent study with co-authors showed that the genetically improved farmed tilapia (GIFT) strain grew 27% and 36% faster than non-GIFT strains under farmers’ management practices in monoculture and polyculture systems, respectively. Farmers growing the GIFT strain obtained higher yields and profits than those farming non-GIFT. Furthermore, GIFT reached smallholders more than non-GIFT. 

These results indicate that well-functioning seed systems both increase income and promote inclusivity. They are therefore crucial for boosting the purchasing power for diverse and nutritious diets, while increasing the availability of animal-sourced food in rural and food insecure communities.

Which piece of your scientific research are you the most proud of?

I would like to highlight two recent open access papers with my co-authors. The first one is a paper published in Agricultural Systemsevaluating the seed system for the genetically improved fish strains in Bangladesh. This work identifies constraints to aquaculture production and how they interact: the incomplete enforcement of regulatory frameworks; limited knowledge about broodstock management, quality seed production and disease management; weak adaptive capacity to absorb shocks; and limited access to credit. Furthermore, the research identifies important entry points to addressing the constraints and strengthening the seed system.

The second piece of scientific research is published in Aquaculture and involves the assessment of on-farm performance of GIFT and non-GIFT strains in Bangladesh. The exciting element is that the assessment focuses on performance of the strains under farmers’ own management practices as opposed to controlled environments. The research documents clear evidence that GIFT has superior performance than non-GIFT in terms of productivity and profitability both under monoculture and polyculture. This evidence is crucial to demonstrate clear incentives for farmers and GIFT seed producers, as well as to donors and development practitioners, for increased investment in genetic improvements to support aquaculture production.

What do you hope your research ultimately achieves?

I hope my research helps to sustainably transform aquatic food systems by facilitating evidence-based decision making. I aim to scale innovations that can make an impact in the lives of marginalized fisheries actors.

In many developing countries, the adoption of new technologies and practices is disappointingly low. The reasons for this low adoption may include mixed benefits and trade-offs, reflecting variety in farming conditions and contexts, so adoption may be unprofitable or culturally inappropriate for some smallholder farmers.

Through my research, which studies the factors driving or hindering the diffusion of such innovations, I hope to increase farmer productivity in order to foster resilient and sustainable fish-based livelihoods.

Kelvin Shikuku is a co-lead of the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems (FISH) and his projects contribute to the goals of the Flagship Program on Sustainable Aquaculture.

Kate McMahon

Junior Consultant, Digital Journalism