"It's a good time for studies like mine"

Growing cotton is a vital source of income for a number of Central Asian countries, yet it also creates many environmental problems. Doctoral student Aksana Zakirova wants to help farmers in Tajikistan grow the crops in a more environmentally-friendly manner and use them more diversely. Read in our portrait why the Kyrgyz economist came to Germany to pursue her research into sustainable agriculture.

Cotton is grown on huge plantations in Tajikistan and is a key export for this Central Asian country. However, the environment suffers from this monocultural approach, explains Aksana Zakirova, an agricultural economist from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. Growing the crop requires enormous quantities of water, and pesticides are left behind in the soil, she says, adding that the plantations cause soil quality to deteriorate over time.

Many of the problems could be avoided, however, reports Zakirova. She is currently working on her doctoral thesis at the University for Sustainable Development in Eberswalde. To this end, she is studying how farmers in southern Tajikistan could grow their cotton with the least environmental impact. Furthermore, Zakirova is exploring different ways to use the plants. Her work is embedded within the young research group "TRANSECT", which is being funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

Growing environmental awareness

Though Tajikistan differs to her home country of Kyrgyzstan in terms of its culture and history, Zakirova explains that the two neighbours are linked by similar problems and their former membership of the Soviet Union. "It's a good time for studies like mine", she says. Like everywhere around the world, there are growing concerns about the environment in this region, too.

Zakirova wants to take the expert knowledge in the field of sustainability that is the subject of international discussion and turn it into a form that allows farmers in Tajikistan to use it practically. In 2019 she conducted surveys at the local level and gathered empirical data.

Innovations in agriculture

It is already clear that many changes can be made to the way cotton is grown. As the scientist reports, irrigation systems that date back to the Soviet era should be improved, for example. The rest of the cotton plant can also be used in a variety of ways – such as for heating and cooking. Furthermore, oil can be produced from cotton seeds. Though advantage is already being taken of some of these options, there is still room for improvement.

Zakirova ended up working in the area of sustainable agriculture by a circuitous route. Originally, she did a degree in translation in Russia, her foreign languages being English and French. Subsequently, however, she switched to economics, completing a bachelor's degree at the State University of Osh in Kyrgyzstan.

She first came to Germany in 2014 to embark on a master's degree in agricultural economics at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart. After graduating, Zakirova returned to Kyrgyzstan, where she acquired practical experience working for the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank in the area of "agricultural development". In July 2019 she began her doctoral degree in Eberswalde.

Sustainability given high priority in Germany

Zakirova recalls that she immediately felt welcome at German universities despite being unable to speak German at first. She thinks it is wonderful that the German government gives such high priority to the subject of sustainability. She also stresses how positive it is that so much funding is available for sustainability projects – even projects in Central Asia.

Next year, the agricultural economist would like to travel to Tajikistan again, if circumstances permit, to continue her case study in situ. Her long-term plan after finishing her PhD is to take the specialist knowledge she has acquired in Germany back to the region she is from. "Basically, I feel it is my duty to do so", says Zakirova.