Prof Euan Phimister from the Stellenbosch Business School in Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences recently delivered his inaugural lecture titled “Making economic models useful in an interdisciplinary world".
Phimister spoke to the Corporate Communication and Marketing Division about how his work highlights the impact of a lack of access to credit on households, the effect of energy poverty on health and welfare, and the impact of investment in renewables on rural development.
Tell us more about your research and why you became interested in this field.
I am an applied economist and my research focuses on agriculture, natural resources, and the environment. This includes current work on farm households and rural development, access to energy, fuel poverty, and how to improve the control of invasive species.
My initial interest in agriculture was forged during my youth in Southern Scotland, where I often worked on my aunt and uncle's farm and spent many a springtime helping with the lambing season. This led to undergraduate studies in agriculture, during which my interest grew in the economic perspectives on the challenges facing agriculture.
My interest in economic models increased after I completed an MSc in agricultural economics and spent nine months as a research assistant at the Centre for World Food Studies in Amsterdam. There I was introduced to large economic models for the first time, being involved in the building of social accounting matrices for a general equilibrium model focussing on European agriculture. My PhD on saving and investment in Dutch farm households under the supervision of Prof Michiel Keyzer arose from this time and led to subsequent research interests in agriculture, natural resources, and the environment.
How would you describe the relevance of your work on economic models?
As I argued in my lecture, economic models remain very relevant today when applied in the right context. They help frame decisions and the challenges we face. For example, my work with Dr Yakubu Abdul-Salam from the University of Aberdeen shows how access to small amounts of electricity can make a difference to farmers' lives, but also how difficulties in access to credit can prevent adoption of simple technologies. This work emphasises how potential solutions help, but also the scale of the challenges faced in rural Africa.
The work I have done with researchers from the natural sciences and other social scientists convinces me that with the “right people in the room", a little bit of economic modelling can help thinking across natural sciences and social sciences. For example, it can help if the scientific implications of climate change for land degradation are presented in terms of its impact on the well-being of individuals and families. Or it can help ecologists present the argument of why and when controlling invasive species is a worthwhile investment for society.
How does your research help to address South African challenges regarding farm households, rural development, access to energy, and fuel poverty?
The questions and issues I have addressed in other contexts are equally relevant to South Africa and help underline their importance. For example, evaluating the impact of a lack of access to credit on households, how energy poverty may affect health and welfare, evaluating the impact of renewables investment on rural development, or characterising the dynamics of energy poverty, are all relevant questions in a South African context and elsewhere.
What aspects of your work do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy teaching and engagement with students. Also continuing to learn new things and applying these to my research, particularly when it comes from interactions with researchers from natural sciences and wider social sciences in the research projects that I am lucky enough to be involved in.
You have spent many years in the challenging environment of higher education. What keeps you motivated when things get tough?
The students I get to teach and supervise and their enthusiasm and commitment.
Tell us something exciting about yourself that people would not expect.
I can dance the rumba.
How do you spend your free time?
Eating, swimming, and dancing.