Leading Extension Efforts in Food Safety in Nepal: Ram Hari Timilsina
This post was written by Meeri Kim, a freelance writer with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety. The Innovation Lab for Food Safety is one of a network of 20 such labs led by U.S. universities under Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative led by USAID.
As someone who has spent time in both the public and private sectors, Ram Hari Timilsina understands that academia has much to learn from industry — and particularly the farmers themselves — when it comes to agricultural innovation.
He specializes in agricultural extension, which takes knowledge gained through research and brings it directly to farmers and local communities to improve their productivity, food security and livelihoods. Often, entities from the public sector, such as ministries and departments of agriculture or agricultural research centers, use extension to introduce farmers to new techniques and technologies, particularly in developing countries.
But based on Timilsina’s experience in his home country of Nepal, the farmers’ own connections to the private sector means many are ahead of the game.
“I have found that farmers are sometimes ahead of those of us in university systems because they have already explored innovations in the market,” says Timilsina, who currently serves as associate professor in the Department of Agricultural Extension and Rural Sociology at Agriculture and Forestry University (AFU) in Nepal. “With pure teaching mandates, academic institutions often worked in isolation — with very limited or no direct connection with the farmers and markets — but now research and outreach efforts anticipate enhancing the integration in agricultural institutions like AFU.”
After growing up in a village in central Nepal, he attended the nearby Institute of Agriculture and Animal Sciences (IAAS) at Tribhuvan University to obtain a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics. Upon graduating in 2003, he worked as a marketing executive for a pharmaceutical lab that produces veterinary medicines and poultry feed supplements. A few years later, he returned to IAAS for his master’s degree in agricultural extension.
In 2008, Timilsina became the program coordinator of the Seed Entrepreneurs Association of Nepal (SEAN), a nonprofit organization for companies engaged in the production, processing and marketing of Nepali seeds. SEAN formed in 1989 after expanding private sector participation in the seed sector led to the need for an official body representing private interests. His role involved policy lobbying and capacity building for the private sector, as well as planning and implementation of a seed sector development program.
He joined IAAS at Tribhuvan University as an assistant professor in 2010, bringing his unique background and perspective to an academic setting. His work experience in the production and marketing management of agricultural inputs now gives him an advantage when it comes to agricultural extension.
“I jumped into academia, but I’m still connected with the private sector,” he says. “My research tries to explore how the private sector can be better connected to the university system and how we can work together to improve extension approaches.”
Timilsina is currently serving as in-country co-lead of a project titled “Market-Led Food Safety in Nepal: Harnessing Production Incentives and Consumer Awareness,” funded by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety. Food safety is a relatively new concept in Nepal, with no strict policy regulations set by the government when it comes to food production. The prevalence of foodborne pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella remains a critical problem, particularly in fresh produce, frequently leading to illness in both adults and children.
“Our water supply system in Nepal is not reliable, so if we wash fresh vegetables with this unreliable water supply system, we are getting sick,” says Timilsina. “We don’t have a provision of checking E. coli and Salmonella content in irrigation water, or even in drinking water.”
At the same time, inadequate food consumption and low dietary diversity contribute to undernutrition in Nepali households. Increasing access to nutrient-dense foods, including salad vegetables typically consumed raw, can remedy this issue — but only if the high risk of foodborne illness is eliminated.
The two-year Food Safety Innovation Lab project aims to stimulate a rapid increase in access to nutritious produce in Nepal by identifying the factors that will drive the supply and demand of safer salad vegetables. The hope is that determining the current barriers to produce safety will serve as a foundation for strategic policies and investment to transform the vegetable value chain.
The research team — consisting of Timilsina and colleagues at Tennessee State University, Arizona State University and SAHAVAGI — has already completed the first year of the project. As part of his role, Timilsina surveyed growers about their current food safety practices and willingness to take on additional costs for a safer product.
Next, he plans to conduct food safety and health hazard reduction training on small- and medium-sized vegetable farms, specifically targeting youth and female entrepreneurs. Trainings will occur in five locations across Nepal. The project will culminate in a stakeholder workshop with government officials and private businesses on prioritizing food safety strategies and informed investment decisions.
“We are very much aware of gender-sensitive issues, because Nepalese agriculture has gradually become feminized as there has been an increase in out-migration of the men for their jobs,” he says. “Taking that into account, we are trying to find the best extension strategy to promote the adoption of food safety practices by the farmers as well as the consumers in Nepal.”
Timilsina and his colleagues recently published a study in Nepal Public Policy Review based on their initial findings. Primary survey data from 604 consumer households in five major metropolitan areas of Nepal revealed that basic food safety practices and the enforcement of regulations have been overlooked. In addition, the results underscore the potential roles women could play in enhancing safer fresh produce systems and safer food consumption. Timilsina notes that training programs should prioritize the participation of women.
Aside from research manuscripts, Timilsina enjoys writing articles for newspapers and other mass media in his spare time. He has written several popular articles on contemporary issues in agricultural education and research. Now, he aims to craft an op-ed for the national newspaper about the changes needed in food safety policy.
“Based on our findings, we want to make politicians and policymakers more aware of what is needed for safer food in Nepal,” he says. “The op-ed will target those who have the power and responsibility to amend the food safety policy or to draft new food safety policy to make change.”