Completing a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) part-time can be hectic and time-consuming. Despite this, Dr Viliamu Iese admits that during those five years, he encountered many life-changing memories whilst studying and working at The University of the South Pacific (USP).
Dr Vili is a Senior Lecturer in Disaster Risk Management at the Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development (PACE-SD) at USP.
He teaches disaster risk reduction for resilience, disaster response and recovery, food security, and climate change, and has published extensively in the fields of risk resilience in agriculture, food security, climate change loss and damage, and evaluation of adaptations and risk reduction actions in Pacific Island countries.
Dr Vili is also the chairperson for the research pillar of the Pacific Soil Partnership and is a Samoan by birth, Tuvaluan by citizenship and currently a resident of Fiji.
He completed his doctorate at PaCE-SD and his PhD thesis was titled “How can we rise above the normal? Transforming agriculture in the Pacific to increase resilience under a changing climate”.
“It is a thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, and the concept comes from how a village raises a child and juxtaposed that with the contribution of his parents,” he said.
“It is true, it takes a village to raise a child in Samoa and this thesis was possible through the great contribution of my parents in moulding, empowering, and educating me in the knowledge of food security,” Dr Vili added.
Dr Vili said his thesis paper sought to address the struggles of Pacific Island countries whose agricultural livelihoods suffered because of climate impacts leaving farmers in a near-constant recovery mode.
He highlighted that over time, many agricultural adaptations in the Pacific, implemented at the community and national level, were not sufficient to address the short- and long-term impacts of climate change.
“My research seeks to explore how sweet potato, a super-crop in the Pacific Islands, has played a critical role in agricultural strategies to improve food security, sustain cultures and provide resilience in the past and present,” he explained.
As part of his research, Dr Vili conducted a field experiment in Tonga to document the current-day growth and development of three sweet potato varieties in three different planting cycles, using traditional farm management practices and real weather conditions.
The results of the multi-seasonal research showed that sweet potatoes could be grown outside of the single winter-to-summer growing season, and the yellow-fleshed variety performed better than Hawaii and Petelo in drought conditions and a summer-to-summer growing cycle. Finally, the number of branches was positively correlated with solar radiation during winter-summer and summer-summer growing cycles.
“This research is now benefiting farmers across the Pacific as they have learned the different varieties of sweet potatoes and can identify which ones are climate resilient and those that thrive under different weather conditions annually,” Dr Vili said.
He added the research now enabled farmers in the region to anticipate climate change risks and support the development of effective adaptation strategies, improve the ability of Pacific farmers to anticipate the increasing capacity for proactive risk management and allow for better planning and prioritisation of relevant actions to reduce risks and impacts.
“Farmers can be empowered with the ability to use weather forecasts and climate change impact projections to make decisions on what to plant when to plant and how – thus transforming agriculture systems to increase resilience to face the challenges delivered by our fast and increasingly changing climate,” he said.
Dr Vili acknowledged that the thesis was written and compiled with his parents, and grandparents in his mind and heart.
He said, “It comprises the values and knowledge of my parents with hope for resilience for my children. This thesis is a way of saying, thank you very much and your knowledge, values, morals, wisdom and a’oaiga lives on”