People of PCHES: Edouard Mensah

In the heart of rural Benin, Africa, amidst rich agricultural landscapes, Edouard Mensah, found his passion for agriculture ignited on trips to faraway places with his uncle, who was a livestock scientist. Edouard accompanied him on missions that required studying the behavior of wildlife animals in forests or zoos, as well as engaging with people whose lives depended on these animals. These experiences established in him a strong sense in the value of the land connection, which led to his interest in agriculture and fieldwork, such as surveying farmers’ households.

Edouard is now a postdoc in Penn State’s Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education. His research lies at the intersection of environmental economics and rural development work, employing mostly quantitative methods but also qualitative methods whenever needed to provide mixed or nuanced understandings of the research evidence. He is particularly interested in the interplay of social and economic elements, aiming to integrate human behavior and concerns into research to inform policy solutions that address societal needs, particularly those with financial implications. Building on his continued interest in environmental economics developed during his PhD at the University of Georgia, Edouard is currently investigating the microeconomic aspects of human responses to natural disasters. In a recent PCHES study he examined the dynamics in purchasing behavior in response to hurricanes. Contrary to initial assumptions, the data demonstrate that individuals with prior hurricane exposure participate in continuous stockpiling, keeping adequate supplies even when warnings are issued. This behavior minimizes the need for last-minute frantic overbuying when compared to those newly exposed to hurricanes, helping to effectively distribute goods in disaster-affected areas and optimize disaster management. The findings highlight the importance of storm warnings in enhancing preparedness, developing adaptive capacity, and reducing vulnerability to future disasters.

Aside from PCHES, Edouard is also collaborating on several projects exploring resilience to environmental shocks, as well as relationships between new tree plantings and human well-being in sub-Saharan Africa. Some of the projects include analyzing price gouging related to Hurricane Harvey in Texas, and a global-scale study of how people engage in private finance or savings in anticipation of or response to incoming storms. Another initiative is utilizing machine learning techniques to identify households that are resilient to poverty despite encountering environmental or other shocks, aiming to provide the World Bank, FAO, and World Food Program with indicators for implementing better targeting in social protection interventions.

Through his agricultural career, Edouard has coordinated fieldwork in several African countries, such as Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Morocco, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DCR), and Kenya, where he conducted impact evaluations for rural development projects. He discovered that the success of the project depended heavily on demonstrating sincere intents to assist the community and having meaningful conversations, including policy gatherings with key stakeholders. By showing respect for local knowledge and a willingness to learn from the community, he won the support of people who were first hesitant to collaborate. Passionate about promoting gender equality in agriculture, Edouard draws motivation from his mother’s journey and advocates for better education and farming opportunities for women in rural African communities. He carried out social experiments as a member of the World Bank’s Gender Innovation Lab to solve obstacles that women encounter, like access to fertile land and lack of agricultural inputs. In close collaboration with local governments, the program implemented interventions in control and experimental areas, with the goal of identifying roadblocks and gauging the project’s viability and scalability while considering both internal and external constraints, such as human behavior, financial incentives, and policies.

Edouard’s scholarly interests were inspired by his previous work on international initiatives with the Word Bank before entering academia. Through exposure to diverse agricultural environments and life scenarios, he had developed a deeper awareness of poverty and living conditions, which continues to drive his research ideas. The extensive experience with conducting agricultural household surveys across Western African countries has led Edouard to research into biases in agricultural data collection and survey applicability for certain inquiries. This necessitates developing questions to reduce bias in survey responses, identify which respondents were more likely to deliver correct information, and challenging assumptions about gender roles in household decision-making, which varies greatly across African household types and cultures. Edouard’s research has shown that this refined approach is critical for avoiding misinterpretations in policy decisions.

Apart from his research pursuits, Edouard’s passion is cooking, which is well-appreciated within his family. He particularly likes using the ingredients at hand to experiment imaginatively and create dishes for large gatherings that blend African and Mediterranean flavors. He also cherishes moments spent with his family watching movies and immersing himself in literature.