By Valeria Mendoza

Purushottam (Puru) Dhungana, a graduate student in agribusiness at Tennessee State University, (TSU) brings a rich academic background to his work with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety project in Nepal. In this interview, we delve into Puru’s journey from Pokhara, Nepal to TSU, his unique insights into the field of agricultural marketing, and the potential impact of his research on food safety practices.

What is your focus within agribusiness?

My current research interests primarily revolve around agricultural marketing and experimental economics. My thesis is centered on agricultural marketing, with the title ‘Choice of Marketing Channel Constraints and Financial Implications on Smallholder Farmers in Tennessee.’ Additionally, I have an interest in international economics, particularly in the areas of international trade, development, and monetary economics. However, at present, my research predominantly encompasses agriculture, marketing, experimental economics, and regional economics.

What inspired you to study economics and get involved in the food safety project in Nepal?

My interest in agriculture, economics, and finance began during my undergraduate studies at Agriculture and Forestry University in Nepal. It all blossomed with my introduction to agricultural economics. I realized that there was room for improvement in the economics of developing countries, particularly Nepal, specifically concerning their marketing practices. In Nepal, the marketing infrastructure isn’t as advanced as it could be, and I felt a strong desire to contribute to its enhancement.

Currently, my advisor is involved in the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety project in Nepal, which also aligns with my passion. This project focuses on improving food safety practices among both consumers and producers, with the goal of minimizing microbial and chemical contamination in raw food items like salad vegetables. I find this area of study highly engaging because it involves the application of mathematics, which is another field I’m passionate about. In essence, I’m drawn to this field because of its potential for meaningful impact and the opportunity to combine my interests in agriculture, economics, and mathematics.

Could you share some of the trends and challenges in your research, and how you envision your research addressing these challenges?

At present, my thesis research revolves around the selection of marketing channels and their potential impact on smallholder farmers. This research carries significant potential benefits for smallholder farmers in Tennessee. We anticipate that our findings will offer valuable insights that policymakers can review and utilize to enhance their policies, thereby directly improving the financial well-being of smallholder farmers in Tennessee.

As for my research with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety, Dr. Khanal and the team are currently leading a project that focuses on research conducted in Nepal. Specifically, we’ve conducted a comprehensive food safety survey in Nepal, which captures both the producer and consumer perspectives. This survey aims to gauge their food safety awareness and their willingness to invest in food safety practices. We’ve received a substantial number of responses, and our primary objective is to understand their readiness to adopt food safety practices.

How do you envision the research conducted by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for influencing and benefiting Nepal?

In Nepal, a prevalent practice is the sale of raw vegetables and fruits without conducting tests for microbial and chemical pesticide residue. The outcomes of our survey hold significant implications for various stakeholders, including potential entrepreneurs and government officials. These findings can offer insights into the consumer’s willingness to pay for safer food . Ultimately, this data will inform decision-makers about whether consumers are ready to bear higher prices for safer food options.

What is your hypothesis regarding consumer behavior? Do you believe consumers will be willing to pay a premium for food safety assurance?

In major cities like Kathmandu and Pokhara in Nepal, I believe consumers are more inclined to pay a premium for food safety. This is because there are frequent incidents of food safety issues, including cases of food-borne illnesses.  Given the health risks associated with unsafe food, I think many people in these cities would be willing to invest a few extra bucks each month for the peace of mind that comes with consuming safe vegetables and produce.

Where do you see yourself after graduation?

At present, I would like to pursue a Ph.D. I am interested in the fields of applied economics and international development. While my master’s degree provides a broad foundation, I aspire to specialize further and engage in more targeted research.

Valeria Mendoza is a program assistant with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety and is pursuing a degree in Food Science at Purdue University.