Agricultural consultant who developed a system for rapidly assessing the quality of crops that could be used to warn experts of impending food crises
Ian Robinson, who has died aged 72, helped to improve the lives of millions of people across the world with his work on monitoring crops and livestock in developing countries and conflict zones. In particular he developed a scoring system for rapidly assessing the quality and quantity of crops and farm animals, which could then be used to alert UN experts and aid organisations to impending food crises.
Apart from the creation of such pioneering systems, Ian’s life as an agricultural consultant included work on finding tactical solutions to food security in the wartorn Horn of Africa, helping with the development of agricultural colleges and training centres in the Philippines and Syria, and improving food production in post-conflict territories such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Rwanda and Somaliland.
The work was often physically demanding and sometimes extremely dangerous – in 1989 he saw colleagues blown up in the next Land Rover in his UN convoy on the Eritrea-Sudan border. But unlike the well-funded officers of what he considered the international development circus, Ian chose to live in and alongside local communities, thereby better understanding their hardships and needs. In so doing he turned his hand to mending machinery, building small dams, producing graphical aids for illiterate farmers, devising training methods to improve numeracy and a great deal more.
Ian’s special knowledge of the agriculture of arid and semi-arid zones led him to become a leading expert on crop assessment and to devise increasingly sophisticated ways to record crop yields and livestock body conditions, first on paper in ring-backed binders, but ultimately on apps for mobile devices. These “pictorial evaluation tools”, or PETs, allow field workers to look at crops and livestock and then to compare them to a selection of photographs, choosing the images most similar to the evidence in front of them.
This allows quick estimates of crop yield and livestock body condition to be made, which can then help the UN and its agencies, other international organisations and donors, and national ministries, to target food aid, including the launching of emergency supplies to vulnerable populations.
Often Ian became directly involved at village level in offering farmers advice on seeds, storage, marketing and all the other challenges facing local agriculture. In the mid-1980s in the highlands of Eritrea, which at the time was fighting a war of independence from Ethiopia and was governed by the brutal regime of the Derg, he taught groups of people to rear chickens and grow foodstuff in ways that were difficult to be spotted by warplanes. In this and other diverse ways, for almost 50 years, in 70 or so different countries, and by conducting several hundred development missions, Ian’s working life was committed to transforming the food security of those most in need.
Ian was born in Wokingham, Berkshire, the oldest of three boys of Barbara (nee Bradley), a second world war land girl, and Bill Robinson, an engineer. His interest in agriculture was evident early on, when he worked as a part-time farmhand from the age of 11. At Windsor grammar school he became head boy, and afterwards he went to Wye College in Kent, a constituent part of London University specialising in agricultural sciences. There he met Faith Shirley, when they both performed in Shakespearean drama and folk singing. They married in 1967.
After leaving Wye, Ian and Faith moved to Wales, where Ian researched a PhD on Welsh mountain ewes. His post-doctoral training included a stint as a member of a British technical assistance team establishing the first agricultural research centre in Saudi Arabia. In 1973 he joined the newly created Welsh Agricultural College in Aberystwyth, before breaking free to become a freelance agricultural consultant. In 1985 he moved to the innovative Centre for Arid Zone Studies at the University of Wales, Bangor, where he was director between 1993 and 2005. During all these years he was involved in a relentless series of overseas missions for a wide range of organisations – international, national, and non-governmental.
Always more comfortable working in organisations and teams that he had himself established and could run, in 2005 he set up his own company in Aberystwyth, AA International, and a not-for-profit community interest company, AgriTechTalk International. He continued to carry out overseas missions – approximately another 70 during this time, latterly focusing on Uganda, South Sudan, Somaliland, and Ethiopia.
Ian acquired outstanding in-depth knowledge of rural life across Africa, the Middle East, parts of southern Europe, and central, south, and south-east Asia. Extensive periods away from home also gave him abundant opportunity to contemplate the condition of the world: his faith in empowering people in general never wavered, but he sometimes despaired of the iniquitous global political economy, greedy agri-businesses, deceitful politicians and jet-setting elites.
It was in Uganda this summer that he showed the first signs of acute myeloid leukaemia.
He is survived by Faith, their children, Jason, Stefan, Shaun, Ben and Tess, and six grandchildren.
• William Ian Robinson, agricultural consultant and development specialist, born 3 February 1945; died 7 September 2017