48 years full of ideas
30.06.2023 Retiring professors Dominique Guenat and Christoph Studer have worked at BFH-HAFL for so long you could say they’re “part of the furniture”. Here they discuss their career highlights, achievements and future plans, plus their hopes for HAFL.
This text was published in infoHAFL, issue 1/2023.
Change is a double-edged sword. It can inspire people to flourish or cause them frustration. Dr Dominique Guenat, Co-Head of the International Agriculture group and Head of the HAFL Hugo P. Cecchini Institute, and Dr Christoph Studer, Professor of Natural Resources Management, have seen many changes during their combined 48 years at HAFL.
“At the very beginning the school was much, much smaller,” Dominique said. “We were a group of about 30 lecturers, and total staff was way below 100, so we knew everyone. But this sounds like I’m calling them ‘the good old days’. Many things have improved over time, too!”
“It was really like a family 20 years ago,” Christoph added. “And things were different. In front of each classroom there was an ashtray, and we were smoking between classes!” Maybe that’s one of the good changes? “Oh no, I really enjoyed that,” Christoph laughed. “We always had intense exchanges in the breaks!”
Traveled to over 30 countries
2023 marks their retirements. Dominique, who started in September 1997 when HAFL was known as the Swiss College of Agriculture, has his last official day on 31 May, and Christoph, who joined in January 2001, took early retirement at the end of March.
They have each travelled professionally to more than 30 countries and have a swag of pre-HAFL and HAFL work memories that range from funny to not so funny. Dominique remembered his five years living in Bhutan, the overwhelming heat of West Africa, the stress of arriving with an invalid visa in Mongolia, the successful school curriculum he helped develop in Laos, the beauty and hospitality in Madagascar, Vietnam, Chad and more, and the shock of having his nose broken when he was mugged in Kyrgyzstan.
Christoph fondly recalled living in Niger and Syria, his eight trips to North Korea, being impressed with projects in Chad and Somaliland but not with the state of their roads, the old planes in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, friendships made in Africa and Central Asia, suffering a malaria attack in the mountains of Afghanistan, and his involvement in the RISE and IAASTD projects. “All my grey hair comes from the times when I was leading RISE,” he joked.
"A true center of competence"
Despite being part of HAFL’s International Agriculture group for so many years and being in several countries at the same time – Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, North Korea and possibly more – the duo never worked together on an external project. But they knew they had each other’s backs.
“That’s one of the advantages that we have in the International Agriculture group – we have almost everyone we need,” Christoph said. “When we were studying agricultural sciences, our professors told us we would be generalists and then if we needed something special to go to the specialists. We are the specialists now. I’m more the water and agriculture guy and Dominique’s more the economics guy. It’s nice that we can get hold of someone in our group (to help) when we get stuck. It’s a centre of competence here, and I don’t think we have anything similar in Switzerland.”
Internal projects they did collaborate on closely include the switch from a classic teaching timetable to a modular system in 2000, the introduction of problem-based learning in 2008, and the development of HAFL’s master's programme in 2009. But teaching wasn’t always Christoph’s favourite part of the job; that took a little bit of time.
“When applying for my position, I was fascinated by the research and projects,” Christoph said. “In my job interview, the vice director at the time was responsible for teaching and asked, ‘And what about teaching?’ and I said, ‘I never wanted to become a teacher but if it has to be, I will do that as well!’ (laughs) But I quickly started liking teaching, and being with the students is one of the things I will miss the most. It’s the combination of project work in the field and teaching that makes this job so exciting, and the lectures particularly interesting for the students.”
While they both have mixed feelings about leaving, there are several immediate things they’re excited about.
“Sleeping in in the morning!” shouted Christoph. “But my wife has a long list of things for me to do … probably a full-time job for the next two years! We have an old house and garden (1 ha) and I still haven’t unpacked all the boxes since moving there in 2009, so there is a lot to do at home. I’m also supervising a student who I will visit in May in Africa, but then during summertime I’ll probably not work a lot, Inshallah. Then I’ll be back for some teaching in the fall semester.”
“I certainly won’t miss the commute from my place (in Vaud),” said Dominique, who plans to spend more time working at his agricultural consultancy company based in Geneva. “But I’m also going to continue some activities at HAFL on a part-time basis. At home, I have plenty of plans: the garden, the chickens, the heating system, the greenhouse … plenty to do!”
Dominique will lecture at HAFL until November and will continue the handover to Dr Zenebe Uraguchi, who will be the new Head of the HAFL Hugo P. Cecchini Institute from 1 June. Nancy Bourgeois Luethi becomes the sole Head of International Agriculture group.
Since 2020, Dominique’s involvement in establishing and running the Institute has been all-consuming. “I hope the Institute will continue to be successful in contributing to improving the situation in low- and middle-income countries, thus positioning the Institute as a relevant player in a network of partnerships. That’s why partnerships are important, and I hope what we have started will develop further. I’m confident that Zenebe and his team will do that.”
Improving the north-south dialogue
Even though their time at HAFL is coming to an end, they are still invested in its future. They’re wary of sounding like ‘grumpy old men’, but speak with passion.
“I’m not sure that becoming bigger should be an objective,” said Dominique. “Strengthening HAFL’s unique selling proposition is key, showing how we can contribute to addressing today’s main challenges which are biodiversity loss, climate change, inequalities, and overconsumption of resources.”
Both believe that internal and external collaborations are the key to future success. “I hope people start collaborating more and come ‘out of the silos’,” said Christoph, “to work with new external partners, thus diversifying our funding sources, and within the school. For example, I’ve now had several projects with Nestlé, Caritas, and the SOR4D proposal, where the agriculture division worked closely with Forest Science and SüD (transdisciplinary subjects). I think this is very enriching. You learn a lot and can actually do better work like this.”
Dominique hopes that the Institute will contribute to making HAFL more inclusive and open to addressing issues such as decolonisation and other discrimination. “Relationships between the north and south are evolving fast; the world order is changing, not only for the better. I think the answer is to have better interactions, which means we need people from here who are well prepared for a new kind of partnership. For that, I think our students are good ambassadors. It’s been our task, and is the task of our successors, to prepare them to play a role in that north-south dialogue, which is crucial for the future, I think.”