David Chikoye: Think of the big picture

David Chikoye
David Chikoye

David Chikoye is the IITA Director for R4D responsible for managing the southern African hub and two programs—the Cereals and Legumes (CLP), and the Horticulture and Tree Crops Programs.

Why did IITA choose Zambia as the hub for the southern African region?
From a historical perspective, IITA has been operating in southern Africa for over 25 years. In fact, we operated in 12 out of 13 countries in southern Africa. We were looking at each country in terms of the contribution to agriculture vis-à-vis policies, the ease of doing work, i.e., the social amenities, and (more importantly), the availability of partners. Zambia was centrally located, and the Government’s policies over time have been pro-agriculture. In Zambia, there is easy access to private farms and also to the NARES.

How crucial is southern Africa to IITA’s mandate?
IITA serves the needs of sub-Saharan Africa. In West Africa, we have made significant progress, especially in Nigeria where the headquarters is located. For instance, in soybean, when we started, Nigeria was not near the countries that were high producers of the crop but now, it is the highest producer in Africa, with about 600,000 ha planted to the crop. What this means is that it is now important for us to start transferring some of the knowledge from the west to the other parts of Africa. The southern African region has challenges similar to those in West Africa, therefore the successes we have made in the west can be transferred to the south with little modification. This has been our strategy.

What is going on in the hub?
Our strategy has been to collect and also interact with our colleagues in southern Africa and use the knowledge which has been generated over time to start testing in southern Africa. Some of the things we have been doing include testing varieties, management and agronomic and postharvest practices, as well as cross-cutting activities such as the training of NARES partners.

Do you see any radical change in the way IITA does its work because of the CG reforms?
In the short run, nothing will radically change. What has happened is that the CG reforms have split some of our programs. For instance, the CLP has been split into two—maize goes into the maize consortium research program (CRP) and legumes go to the legume component of the CRP. Also some of our programs have been consolidated. For example, roots and tubers have been consolidated with banana and plantain, making the program bigger. The Opportunities and Threats program fits very well with the Markets CRP. These to me are minor modifications in the short run. So when you look at the way we manage our programs at IITA, I don’t think anything significant will change although in the long run we might need to make some adjustments. The CG reforms will entail that we do full cost recovery. That means that the way we do business has to change. In summary, the CG reforms have their advantages and disadvantages but generally, they are for the good of the institute.

What would you consider the most significant achievement of the CLP?
The CLP has really made a lot of progress in terms of developing high- yielding varieties together with crop management practices. We have also developed several postharvest technologies. In addition, there has been a wide adoption of these technologies and to me, those are significant developments.

For instance, Striga is a major problem for cereals—maize, rice, sorghum, etc. It has been estimated that Striga alone causes annual losses of about US$7 billion. That negatively affects more than 100 million people. We have been able to develop Striga-resistant or tolerant maize varieties. In cowpea, we have been able to develop varieties that are tolerant of pests and diseases. Significant achievements have been made in this program.

Cowpea market in Nigeria. Photo by IIA.
Cowpea market in Nigeria. Photo by IIA.

What makes it difficult for cowpea to attract the private sector?
Let us look at it this way: cowpea is an African crop compared with maize and soybean that came from other continents. Those crops, by their nature, have attracted a lot of commercial interest. For instance, in maize, the commercial sector is very much interested in marketing seeds—hybrids—but not for cowpea. For soybean, there is a lot of commercial interest in the poultry sector.

Cowpea is a traditional crop—grow it, harvest it, and eat it. It offers a lot of benefits, of which we may not be sufficiently aware. For us to move the crop forward, we need to go into serious advocacy. Again if you look at most programs, they have biases for cereal crops. If you look at maize in most countries, there is some subsidy in terms of input supplies, fertilizer, etc. Nothing like this exists for cowpea but cowpea is relatively easier to grow.

What role can cowpea play in southern Africa?
Over the last 10−15 years, we have had this problem of drought, so I see cowpea diversifying the maize-based system, especially in years when drought will become more pronounced. Southern Africa is again hit by HIV and AIDS. Those people that are affected need nutritious foods. Cowpea, being a protein food, can help to provide some of the nutritional needs. Lastly, livestock production in the region is also significant. Therefore the dual-purpose cowpea will have a significant role to play by providing fodder for livestock. Looking at the bigger picture, cowpea can have a big role to play in solving poverty in Africa.

How can IITA work better with partners?
IITA can contribute to solving poverty but our efforts alone are not enough. We need to look at our comparative advantage; that is in upstream and strategic research. Where we don’t have the comparative advantage, we should look for partners. Traditionally, we work with the NARES but now with the CG reforms, we need to tap into and strengthen our linkages with the private sector. Let’s take advantage of the skills the private sector has, especially in marketing technologies. These guys are good in marketing and they have existing channels which they use in promoting their technologies.

How can scientists become better communicators?
Scientists are good communicators especially in communicating among peers, e.g., in seminars and conferences and publishing in scientific journals. This is so because they all speak the same language. But this is only one component. We need to talk to donors, policymakers, and other people. The question is: can these groups understand our jargon? The answer is usually, no, they can’t. Most scientists need to be retrained on communicating their science to the layperson. This is one of the issues about which IITA’s Director General Hartmann had been reminding scientists—if you work in the lab, think of the big picture. We need to work with the Communication Office and the media to train scientists in communicating effectively to end users.

Any words of wisdom for colleagues?
I don’t think I am qualified to pass words of wisdom. What I want to reemphasize is that the challenges in Africa are many: poverty, malnutrition, etc. IITA is a means that we can use to resolve some of these problems. So as we work for IITA, let’s not forget the big picture—let’s think about the end users.

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