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Professor Etienne Nel has dedicated his career to issues of global poverty, particularly focusing on his native southern Africa.

Professor Etienne Nel (Geography) has an abiding interest in research that helps reduce global poverty. Much of the research focuses on two countries he knows well: Zambia and South Africa.

Nel was born in Zambia, the former British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia: his mother was a teacher and his father a railway worker. He grew up in neighbouring Zimbabwe, attended Rhodes University in South Africa and then taught at Rhodes and at the University of Transkei, before joining the staff at Otago in 2008.

He explains that his research mainly looks at community responses to dire economic circumstances. He has authored, co-authored or edited 10 books, and has written nearly 30 book chapters and more than 100 articles, primarily on economic development in Africa.

His particular interest is in development in South Africa; he did his PhD on regional and local economic development there, using the Eastern Cape as a case study.

From an undergraduate, I have had an interest in issues of urban development related to housing, urban planning, coping strategies and dealing with issues of inequality, Nel says.

“At the time I was a student, apartheid was still on, so politically it was difficult – even downright dangerous – to research these issues, so I focused on historical planning of cities. When apartheid finished, it was much easier to move into the terrain of economic development and how you deal with socio-economic disparities.”

Nel worked closely with the first post-apartheid government under Nelson Mandela, elected in 1994, in policy formation and helping to set up a provincial government ministry while continuing his academic career.

He says that addressing poverty remains one of the key challenges facing the post-apartheid government in South Africa, something he has continued to research while based at Otago.

“It's very much an interface between applied research, particularly at the local level in terms of job creation and appropriate economic policies to address issues of poverty; translating that into national and local policy frameworks; and then monitoring what transformations are taking place and whether local authorities are able to follow through with the new policy prescriptions.”

Nel also specialises in researching local development and urban agriculture in his birth country of Zambia.

“In the developing world, in particular, because of very low income levels – the fact that over a billion people live in slums, with inadequate shelter and food – people have had to become more self-reliant,” Nel notes.

“In many cities in the developing world, people farm within urban areas, either immediately around the housing unit – and that tends to be a more vegetable-garden-type of approach – or, if people have access to more land, it can be quite extensive farming. The averages for much of Africa suggest that anything between 20 to 80 per cent of urban residents depend to some degree on this practice.”

His ongoing research work on urban farming in Zambia, carried out with his departmental colleague, Professor Tony Binns, and a PhD student, Jessie Smart, has been particularly insightful.

They have focused on the country's Copperbelt Province, where urban agriculture has played an especially significant role since the severe economic downturn in copper mining from the late 1980s.

“You had large cities that were suddenly de-industrialised and lost a large percentage of their employment, and so we see incidence rates of up to 80 per cent of households resorting to farming in, or immediately adjacent to, urban areas simply to survive.

“Numbers have eased in the last few years as the economic situation has partially improved but, nonetheless, this is a stark survival reality.”

Nel says that local authorities in places they have worked have been very interested in their research results. In one city, Ndola, the capital of the Copperbelt Province, they have helped facilitate a network aimed at improving urban farming techniques. This network was established to link key stakeholders practising and supporting urban agriculture, and to encourage links between the local council and an NGO that trains community members in urban agriculture.

A good crop

Through his research on poverty in Zambia and South Africa, Professor Etienne Nel has become involved in international organisations concerned with global poverty.

Between 2004 and 2012, he chaired the International Geographic Union's Research Commission on Marginalisation, Globalisation and Local and Regional Responses.

This led to his involvement in Comparative Research On Poverty (CROP), a UNESCO-supported International Social Science Council programme based in Bergen in Norway; the programme promotes research aimed at preventing and eradicating global poverty.

“I am involved with oversight of the research and helping to extract research findings, which are then turned into policy communications that are circulated to the major global bodies involved with issues of poverty relief,” Nel says.

“Monitoring of responses to issues such as child poverty and malnutrition in South America, and assessing poverty relief programmes in Africa and South America, have been very high on the agenda.”


  • New Zealand Aid Programme
  • University of Johannesburg
  • University of the Free State
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