What motivated you to go into international research?
I have to go far to answer that question. I grew up in a very, very poor home where my parents had to worry about how to feed us tomorrow. I think that had something to do with it. So when I was at the University of Florida as a professor, I was teaching development economics. But this was simply about theoretical models. The challenge for us to do something real solid on the ground was really itching in my head. When the opportunities came, I always went for them. I worked in Cuba, Panama, Nicaragua, Cameroon, and Malawi, among other places. And then I not only found enjoyment doing what I was doing but also a lot of satisfaction from doing the real things that I was teaching in theory. It also helped fulfill a hidden desire to help those who were as I used to be.
How has it been working for IITA this past 10 years?
To put it very simply, it has been the best job of my life. I always try to transform myself, so I never want to stay on one job forever. I have had several jobs, but this one has been the best. I could not have designed a more fulfilling job.
What has been your experience at IITA?
I came to IITA and I never knew about the CGIAR systems in institutions of this kind. It was a fantastic surprise to find the kind of people I found in IITA. Looking back, I would say that the biggest, most beautiful surprise since I got to IITA is the dedication of staff here; I have never seen people so dedicated. Staff give almost their all. They put in a lot of long hours; we work most weekends with staff and they are not paid overtime. So, I think they just believe in what they are doing, and this is the most beautiful thing that any administration could ever want. Three years ago, we did a survey of the scientists. All of them said they enjoyed working for IITA because it gives meaning to their lives. I found that the most satisfying input. When you have that kind of people, everything is possible.
What are some of the major changes that you have made in IITA?
Well, I was quite lucky, I think, because unlike some places where a Director General leaves and a new one comes to demolish things and rebuild things in a different way, I was lucky and appreciative that my predecessor had done a good job, and so I did not have to demolish much, actually, anything. I had to build on what he left. So that was very productive.
One thing that I hope that weâ€™ve achieved is to put IITA on a most stable footing. The second thing is, and this is to credit most of the scientists and the administrators and people like DDG-R4D Paula Bramel, the R4D focus that we brought. Now all the scientists think that way. We had an external review last year and when the head of that review was leaving, he called me aside and asked, â€œWhat did you do here?â€ I said, â€œWhat do you mean?â€ He said, â€œWe tried to do this R4D thing in Australia and it was only at the level of the senior administrators,â€ but the way he had found it here, it permeated all levels, whether it is in the official questions or the unofficial questions scientists talked about. For this success I credit the R4D group. That is very important because it really shapes how the institute behaves and how it focuses; it never takes its eye off the poor.
If you were given the opportunity to start over, what would you do differently?
I wouldnâ€™t do anything differently. I would accelerate some things because weâ€™d predicted in 2002 the changing environment we are now in but what I did not predict was the speed with which the CGIAR would change. And so I would do some things faster. I would move to constructing the hubs more quickly. I would consolidate staff much faster than we have been doing. We tried to do it in a way that would not disrupt the â€œniceâ€ pace, but the CGIAR changed abruptly in a very different way. So, I would not change the strategies we put in place in 2002 but I would accelerate the speed at which we worked.
I think IITAâ€™s biggest contribution has been in the area of food productivity, the combination of helping farmers produce more with better varieties, like the soybean story. Many countries are now producing much better than they did before.
Nobody else has the capacity to deal with biological threats because it requires being able to work across borders. National systems, no matter how good they are, cannot work across borders. It is harder for them. IITA can do that easily.
So we really have powerful and helpful capacity. If you bring these two togetherâ€”dealing with biological threats and improving the productivity of cropsâ€”I think that is what IITA has been able to contribute.
What needs to be done to strengthen those areas where you feel IITA is not as strong as it should be?
You are being very diplomatic. You should have asked â€œWhat is IITAâ€™s weakness?â€
No matter how good you are in your profession you always look for ways to improve and must even be your own hardest critic. In IITA, there are very clear areas where we are weak and we need to strengthen them. In the old days, the CGIAR groups of donors funded us 100%. Now they only fund about one-third, so IITA must find the other two-thirds. The intelligence of knowing where donors are going is weak; the ability is weak to respond to donors when they need something; we donâ€™t have good capacity in making bidding proposals and enough success in winning proposals and that is an area where we really need to work. We need people to be sensitive in each country about how our donors are thinking, changing; where they are going; and then we need a capacity to put this together into winning proposals. The competition is cut-throat and we would not be given any project or funding just because we say we are good. We have to produce good proposals. While we have good people, we can produce the good science. The ability to put it all together in a cohesive competitive proposal is still inadequate in IITA.
This issue of R4D Review is focused on social science and IITAâ€™s impact. How do you see the performance of the social science group in IITA?
The social science group in IITA is crucial, because it is really the broom that brings things together and makes them work to the benefit of the people you want to help.
When IITA started, the emphasis was mostly on the breeding program, which was fine at that time. We were expected simply to produce better plants but more and more the poor and donors were getting frustrated; they wanted to see impact on the ground and you cannot get impact if you donâ€™t understand how things work. For example, when we introduced soybean in Nigeria, IITA was a laughing stock. Nobody expected that Nigerians would be consuming so much soybean, but the IITA staff, being very sensitive, worked on the social dimensions of soybeanâ€”not on producing new varieties alone. They looked at what Nigerians ate, how they cooked their food, etc. Today those doubting people are not laughing at IITA any longer and Nigeria has become the largest producer of soybean in Africa. This is social scienceâ€¦ so social science is a vital dimension to our biological science.
Most times you wear a hat. Is there a special reason?
(Laughs) I was once interviewed here by the BBC and they asked me if I always wear a hat and I said, yes, even in the shower. I donâ€™t knowâ€¦when I came to Nigeria my daughter looked at different albums from her grandparents and collected pictures of me from my youth and made a collage. As we were putting it in the house, we noticed, to our surprise, that I had been putting on a hat since I was a kid. I donâ€™t know what brought it about but it seems to be a habit; I was just not aware of it at the time.
Some people like to wear certain clothes or suits or ties, or some guys will never go to work without a tie. I donâ€™t go to work without my hat.