Maria Ayodele: Invest in people

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Maria Ayodele. Photo by IITA

Dr Maria Ayodele is from Cameroon. She set up and has been in charge of IITA’s Germplasm Health Unit (GHU) since 1998. IITA recognizes that germplasm health is a very important concern, and is proactive about ensuring the production of good quality and healthy plants by guarding against the introduction of exotic seed-borne pests, and preventing their spread to collaborating countries and partners. The GHU has thus adopted strict phytosanitary measures and has facilitated the movement of thousands of items of germplasm materials for its mandate crops every year.

Dr Ayodele obtained her first degree in the Netherlands on tropical agriculture, MSc in plant bacteriology from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and PhD in plant pathology, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She also has a Diploma in Bible Studies and a Certificate in Discipleship, and is an Assistant Pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God. Dr Ayodele is a mother of six and several other children in the Lord; she specializes in mothering and welfarism.

Please tell R4D Review about yourself.
I am a plant pathologist by training, specializing in bacteriology and mycology (fungi), but also in seed pathology, phytosanitary regulations, and capacity building. I take care of plant health testing and diagnostics, and liaise with breeders and other scientists for test results, and with national partners for phytosanitary requirements and plant quarantine.

Please describe your work. What is your main research interest?
As a research support scientist, I help IITA in testing seeds for import or for sending to partners by making sure that they are disease-free to prevent the spread of exotic pests and diseases. I do plant health testing and grow seeds or other plant parts, such as leaves, stems, or tubers, in a containment facility; I inspect the plants in the field or in the genebank; take care of the bacteriology and mycology screening; send the materials to the Virology Unit for viral testing; compile all the test results and send them to the scientists; and make sure that all the proper documentation in terms of phytosanitary permits or requirements are provided for each crop and for each cooperating country.

I liaise with the plant protection and quarantine service organizations of partner countries where IITA sends or imports seeds or other plant materials for use in research. With FAO, I provide technical backstopping in plant health and phytosanitary regulation, and also capacity building for SSA partner countries, including Nigeria, Bénin, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Togo, Cote’Ivoire, Niger, and Senegal. For example, since some partners do not have the capacity for plant health diagnosis, IITA works with the Plant Quarantine Service (PQS) or the national plant protection organizations in doing the testing, with the PQS doing their own inspection. Otherwise, I travel to where the test plants are and inspect them.

Last year, I was part of a team that conducted training on pest risk analysis and the safe movement of germplasm for partners in the national programs of Tanzania, Zanzibar, Uganda, Kenya, and Zambia, Burundi, Malawi, and DR Congo.

I also do some research, specifically in the areas of classification and characterization of anthracnose for yam, morphological characterization of gray leaf spot in maize, and the establishment of pest-free areas for multiplying germplasm materials.

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Maria Ayodele checking yam plants. Photo by IITA

What are some of the highlights of your career at IITA?
I have enjoyed the capacity building part—coordinating training and sharing my knowledge with partner-participants and investing in people. I maintain links with participants who start as students and later become colleagues, and keep communication lines open. They can always come back to me with questions. My relationship with them is based on honesty and mutual respect. This approach has helped such that I have never had any difficulty when asking for plant quarantine documentation.

What is your work philosophy?
I believe that people should be happy with what they are doing, or not do it at all. I like my job, I like what I am doing, and I am happy transferring knowledge and building the capacity of partners in plant health testing and diagnostics.

It is important to me that the type of job that I do motivates me. That way, I get complete satisfaction. I want to see that the client is happy, so it is important to work together with clients—work with people, work with results; in short, be self-motivated. Getting good results makes people happy, and I make sure that I deliver on those results.

I am most happy when I am in the field—I see the challenges there—and they make me think and look for solutions to problems; for example, why are this year’s plants different from those of last year? Was it the climate?

What lessons or insights do you want to share with colleagues?
I work a lot with partners in the national programs and this is very challenging because of differences in capacities. When I work with my “students”, I usually break down information and bring it to their level. This means simplifying language to make science, even common concepts, understandable. I provide hands-on exercises so participants are exposed to the practical side; for example, I bring them to the field to do actual disease diagnosis.

I am now working on a practical manual on field diagnosis for each IITA crop. This is intended for students of agriculture, universities and colleges, extension workers, farmers, and partners. Our scientists should be encouraged to produce simple monographs on their research breakthroughs, documents that are easily affordable and accessible to our clients. At the moment, our scientists write mainly for academic journals. Of course, we know that many of our clients have no capacity to pick up information in those journals.

When I approach work, I do not look only at the problems. Yes, I find out what the weaknesses are, but I focus on the strengths and think of solutions. I use this approach for everything. Not everything can be bad. Negativity is a wrong thing in life, so it is best to find the positive aspects in people or situations. Once you get a working system, look at what needs to be changed. Oh, and do not criticize—be constructive.

Lastly, we should also be resourceful and show our initiative at work.

You would be retiring from IITA soon. What would you want colleagues (or partners) to remember you by?
I want colleagues or partners to remember me as a good teacher and effective communicator—a colleague who is results-oriented, or who works until she gets results. But you should be asking my colleagues about this, not me!

What do you wish for Africa?
My wish is for Africa to have the phytosanitary structures in place where feasible, to prevent the introduction of exotic pests and diseases that are dangerous to African crops, and to assist and sustain agricultural development for food security and the prevention of genetic erosion. We can sustain agriculture in Africa if we protect it by preventing the introduction of pests accompanying plant imports—unintentionally introduced—and avoiding the spread and establishment on alternativee hosts.

Would you like to share some personal details?
Although I am an extrovert, I am a very private person. So, take what you see, and whatever you don’t see, don’t bother to look for it.

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