Emilia Tjernström

Emilia Tjernström

Lecturer (Assistant professor)

School of Economics, University of Sydney


I’m a Lecturer (Assistant professor) at the University of Sydney’s School of Economics. Before moving to Australia, I worked at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

My research draws on insights from behavioral economics and employs econometrics, field-, and lab-in-the-field experiments to examine a variety of topics in development economics.

I also think a lot about heterogeneity: how it shapes the success and optimal design of public policy, and how heterogeneous returns affect individual decision-making.

  • Development economics
  • Behavioral economics
  • Experimental economics
  • PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics, 2015

    University of California, Davis

  • BA in Economics, 2006

    Colby College

Good news

Things that I am grateful for

Our paper “Learning by (Virtually) Doing: Experimentation and Belief Updating in Smallholder Agriculture” is accepted at JEBO!

The Australian’s 2020 Special Report on Research listed me as Field Leader in Development Economics! 😊

My co-authored paper “Money Matters: the Role of Income and Yields in Agricultural Technology Adoption” received the 2020 Outstanding AJAE article award!

NSF and PEDL have recently funded my joint project (with Laura Schechter and Maya Duru) “Market-Level Effects of Competition in Agricultural Input Markets: Prices, Quality, and Mechanisms”


If you can’t access a paywalled article, feel free to email me. I can almost always share a pre-print version.

Working papers ⤵️

Working papers

Work in progress ⤵️

Learning by (Virtually) Doing: Experimentation and Belief Updating in Smallholder Agriculture
with Travis Lybbert, Rachel Hernández Frattarola, and Juan Sebastian Correa
(Accepted at JEBO)

Abstract In much of sub-Saharan Africa, soil quality heterogeneity hampers farmer learning about the returns to different inputs. This can partly explain why we observe limited adoption of improved inputs in the region. We study how Kenyan farmers respond to an interactive app that enables them to discover agricultural input returns on a virtual plot that is calibrated to resemble their own. Farmers update both their beliefs and behaviors after engaging with the virtual learning app. Additionally, farmers revise their beliefs upwards after using the app. In an incentive-compatible experiment, farmers receive an input budget from the research team, which they can allocate across farm inputs. After they play several virtual seasons on the app, they have the opportunity to update these allocations. Farmers revise their input allocations along several dimensions after the virtual learning experience. As evidence that these adjustments emerge from real learning, we show that farmers with the highest predicted returns to lime-- -an unfamiliar input in this region--increase their lime orders more than others. Our results suggest that engagement with a personalized virtual platform can induce real learning and enhance farmers' beliefs and technology choices.

Can Smallholder Extension Transform African Agriculture?
with Joshua Deutschmann, Maya Duru and Kim Siegal
NBER Working Paper No. 26054
Submitted 🤞

Abstract Agricultural productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa lags behind all other regions of the world. Decades of investment in agricultural research and extension have yielded more evidence on what fails than on what works---especially for the small-scale producers who dominate the sector. We study a program that targets multiple constraints to productivity at once, similar to anti-poverty "graduation" interventions. Analyzing a randomized controlled trial in western Kenya, we find that participation causes statistically and economically significant gains in output, yields, and profits. In our preferred specification, the program increases maize production by 26% and profits by 16%. The program increases yields uniformly across the sample, while treatment effects on total output and profit impacts are slightly attenuated at the top end of the distribution.

Filling a Niche: the Maize Productivity Impacts of Adaptive Breeding by a Local Seed Company in Kenya
with Samuel Bird, Michael Carter, Travis Lybbert, Mary Mathenge and Tim Njagi
Submitted 🤞

Abstract This paper explores the idea that competitive seed systems may underserve farmers in small agro-ecological niches, leaving those farmers less productive and poorer than they need be. We develop a theoretical model of the confluence of demand and supply factors that can result in such an equilibrium. We then empirically study the disruption of the maize seed market in Western Kenya that took place when public sector foundation breeding and social impact investment capital together allowed a local seed company to expand and target the area with adaptively-bred maize varieties. A three-year RCT reveals that these seed varieties increased farmer yields and revenues, both for better-resourced farmers (who used non-adapted hybrids and fertilizer prior to the intervention) as well less well-resourced farmers (who did not). This theoretical and empirical evidence suggests news ways for thinking about seeds systems in areas typified by high levels of agro-ecological heterogeneity.

Media and Motivation: the Effect of Performance Pay on Writers and Content
with Ivan Balbuzanov and Jared Gars

Abstract We study how incentives for journalists affect the quantity, quality, and composition of online media content. We report results from a field experiment within an online news firm in Kenya. Writers were randomly allocated to earn a piece-rate per article published or to a pay-per-view (PPV) contract. The PPV contract induced writers to produce more "popular" articles, but writers chose to submit fewer articles. Specifically, the PPV contract resulted in a 120% increase in total pageviews, a 180% increase in pageviews per article, and a 40% reduction in the number of articles produced. In line with our theoretical predictions, the effect on article quantity is concentrated among risk averse writers. Further, when given a choice, risk-averse writers tend to select out of the output-based contract. We also document changes along multiple non-incentivized dimensions of news production: writers shift away from producing local news towards national-level news. We see limited changes in article quality or in the prevalence of clickbait. Our study suggests that output-based incentive contracts have substantial implications for journalists' effort and content choices, and more broadly for selection into risky "gig work."

A Group Random Coefficient Approach to Modeling Heterogeneity in Technology Adoption
with Oscar Barriga Cabanillas, Dalia Ghanem, Travis Lybbert, Jeffrey D. Michler, and Aleksander Michuda

Abstract Our paper revisits the econometric model that Suri (2011) (S2011) used in her study of heterogeneous returns to agricultural technology adoption. We propose an alternative group random coefficient (GRC) estimation strategy and revisit the empirical puzzle of why relatively few sub-Saharan farmers adopt modern technologies. Drawing on recent developments in the nonparametric panel identification literature, we start with an unrestricted GRC model that nonparametrically identifies the returns to adoption under time homogeneity. We show that the parameters of the S2011 correlated random coefficient model (CRC) can be identified from a restricted version of the GRC method. Specifically, the model in S2011 implies a key restriction that we call linearity in comparative advantage (LCA). Our unrestricted GRC model can be used to detect identification concerns for key structural parameters from the CRC model. We illustrate our method using the same data set as the original study and nd that the motivating empirical puzzle remains unsolved.

Learning from Others in Heterogeneous Environments
(being revised)

Seeds of Uncertainty: Information, Subjective Expectations, and Technology Adoption
with Jared Gars

Work in progress

  • Market-Level Effects of Competition in Agricultural Input Markets: Prices, Quality, and Mechanisms
    with Maya Duru and Laura Schechter

  • When Intentions Matter—Identifying the Prevalence and Source of Poor-quality Inputs in Kenya
    with Jose Clavijo and Travis Lybbert

  • Nonlinear Pricing Complexity and Consumer Behavior with Joshua Deutschmann and Jeff Michler

  • Arrested Development: the Inefficiencies of Electoral Cycles in Infrastructure Projects with Evan Morier

  • The Dirt on Dirt: Soil Characteristics and Variable Fertilizer Returns in Kenyan Maize Systems with Michael Carter and Travis Lybbert

  • Income Volatility and Technology Choice with Rachel Hernández Frattarola

  • Selection and Heterogeneity in the Returns to Migration with Eduardo Cenci and Marieke Kleemans


Sometimes I am bad at email…
Please feel free to nudge me if I have not replied within a week
(and sooner if it is important!)

  • emilia.tjernstrom@sydney.edu.au
  • School of Economics, Room 531, Social Sciences Building (A02), University of Sydney, NSW 2006
  • Enter the building and take the elevator to the 5th floor; there are signs showing which hallway to go through
  • Twitter