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Improving lives through agriculture
  1. Holly Hufnagel


Curiosity and luck led Holly Hufnagel to work in the development sector, where she supports international and multicultural teams

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I NEVER imagined that I would end up working in the development sector not having worked a single day as a vet in practice. My career path has been a mixture of curiosity and luck, but also passion and determination.

It started with curiosity. At Cambridge vet school we intercalate in our third year, and I chose to study geography. I expected I would spend the rest of my life working in science, so why not do something a bit different for a year? I loved the course and the modules on Africa sparked my interest, in particular in pastoralism as a method for livestock herding, but also a culture and way of life.

In my fourth year I organised to do some of my EMS in Ethiopia and this is where the determination and luck kicked in. I had e-mailed countless people and organisations and got a positive answer from Save the Children (thanks to a fourth degree contact of my supervisor at university). I spent two months with the charity, evaluating a community-based animal health system. The logic was that to have healthy children we need milk, so we need healthy cows, so we needed to set up a community-based animal health system, ie, to train people within the pastoralist communities on basic animal health so that they could serve their communities as they were too remote and far away from any official veterinary services. I found the experience fascinating and it changed my mindset about what type of career a vet could have – until then I hadn't realised vets could build a career in the development sector.

‘By focusing on agriculture we can improve people's nutrition, boost incomes and reduce poverty’

Interviewing a sheep farmer in northern Afghanistan

When I graduated in 2011, I moved to Italy to join my then boyfriend (now my husband) who was working in Rome. I didn't speak any Italian and thought I needed to do some work experience to learn the language before I could get a job. At this point I was still expecting that I would end up working in practice. However, I also knew that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations was based in Rome – and that it offered paid internships. I applied and got a position in its East Africa Division, which was organising a response to a severe drought in East Africa.

The focus was on preserving pastoralists' and farmers' assets by providing veterinary care to weakened livestock, restocking herds, improving access to water points and so on. I loved my internship and found it fascinating, such that when it came to the end of the six months, I was delighted when I got the opportunity to stay on as a consultant. I then had the opportunity to travel to Djibouti, where I conducted an evaluation of the veterinary services and prepared a programme to strengthen them and conduct a brucellosis monitoring campaign. Finally, I understood the relevance of my veterinary public health courses at university.

A year later I moved to Germany to work for AFC (Agriculture and Finance Consultants) and started a distance-learning MSc in agricultural economics with the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. AFC is a consultancy company that works in the rural development sector, focusing on agriculture/agribusiness and developing financial services.

We conduct studies and manage projects funded by donors such as the EU and World Bank, which focus on boosting farmers' incomes – not just through improved productivity, but also by creating added value to products (for example, turning milk into cheese), and improving marketing methods (contract farming, group marketing, etc). I have had the opportunity to undertake a wide array of tasks.

Highlights include travelling through rural Afghanistan evaluating the impact of a project focusing on boosting women's livelihoods through the promotion of livestock value chains (poultry, dairy and wool production); travelling to West Africa to develop a proposal on how to improve the marketing of agricultural products in Benin; participating in workshops in Mali to develop strategies for strengthening the mango value chain; organising and accompanying study tours in Germany for African potato farmers.

My job isn't just exciting travel, it involves writing long and complex project proposals, managing the budgets of our projects, negotiating with donors and project partners, managing in-country teams in our projects, writing reports and so on. It is far removed from what many think being a vet means.

The main skill I use on a day-to-day basis that I learned in my vet degree is problem solving. We look at a problem (eg, mango farmers have low incomes), analyse it and identify possible causes (production losses due to fruit fly, weak bargaining power as the mango orchard is not certified by global standards so cannot access export market, etc) and come up with a plan to tackle it (training on fruit fly prevention, support certification of mango orchards and participation at agricultural fairs in order to strengthen market ties).

I love my job for numerous reasons; I enjoy working with an international and multicultural team; I find travelling to remote parts of the world, which I would never get to see otherwise, fascinating. Furthermore, I enjoy the opportunity to continuously learn and develop new skills and, most importantly, I believe in the content of our work – that by focusing on agriculture we can improve people's nutrition, boost incomes and reduce poverty.

My top tips for getting into the development sector

▪ Languages: spoken French, Spanish or Arabic (or any other language) is definitely a bonus as it widens the number of countries you can work in. Organising some of your EMS or elective abroad can give you the chance to develop/practice language skills.

▪ Work experience/internships: they help you learn and discover more about a particular field of work, and help you to build a network (don't forget to apply for a BVA travel grant if you plan to do work experience abroad).

▪ Build a network: volunteer, attend talks, speak to as many people as you can. Don't be scared of reaching out to people you don't know (to get my first bit of work experience I wrote to loads of people including some I had no link to; for example, I had read a paper they'd written and found their career path interesting). If you are interested and passionate about a topic people enjoy talking with you and can be willing to help.

▪ Further study: once I started working in this sector I enrolled in a part-time MSc in Agricultural Economics. While studying and working concurrently can be a challenge, it has been really valuable in developing my skillset and strengthening my CV.

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