Nteranya Sanginga: Science can solve agricultural problems

Nteranya Sanginga, the seventh DG of IITA, talks about his journey to becoming the top man of one of the biggest international agricultural research-for-development institutions in Africa, and some of Africa’s most pressing issues regarding agriculture and food security in this interview with Jeffrey Oliver of the Communication Office.

Who is Sanginga and what makes him tick?
Sanginga is an African of Congolese origin who comes from a very modest family. I studied science and then agriculture because I believed in it. Farming during my younger days made me realize that studying agriculture would help to contribute to solving problems in Africa, and everybody has “experimented” with the use of agriculture to address issues such as food security, health, or poverty. I strongly believe that science can help to alleviate some of these problems.

What motivated you to become DG?
The motivation comes from my passage through IITA. I was a student in IITA. I did my PhD here. I was very much encouraged and impressed with the diversity of our scientists from all over the world—Asia, America, Africa. I saw them working on diversity, and I felt that I could contribute to that. I led a team which was composed of scientists from many places and we made a very good contribution. From there I started to develop my quality of leadership, and I was hoping (and also dreading) that one day I could lead this institution. So here we are.

You started as a student at IITA and now you are the DG. How would you describe your journey?
I think it has been an exciting journey with a lot of challenges and opportunities as well. As a student, my biggest challenge was language, since I came from a Francophone country. When I arrived for my PhD at IITA, I could not speak a word of English. My first contact with a scientist here was with a microbiologist, Dr Ayanaba, and this was very challenging because he could not speak French and I could not speak English. But after 6 months, I gave my first seminar in English in the Conference Center in the presence of the DG. I distinctly remember the day that I got a scholarship because of the work that I had presented.

After finishing my PhD, I went to work at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. At that time I didn’t think that I would ever come back to IITA. On IITA’s twenty-fifth anniversary, I won an award which I came to collect and I delivered a paper in the presence of the Board of Trustees and IITA’s scientists. Then DG Dr Stifel convinced me that I should come back. So I came back to IITA as a scientist for 14 years where I led the Savanna program. When Hartmann, my predecessor as DG, came, I helped him set up his strategy. In 2002, I got the position of TSBF director. I thought that was the end of my association with IITA. But after 8 years as director, dealing with the same problems, I thought I was qualified to take on the leadership of IITA when the DG position was announced. Hence, here I am.

Dr N. Sanginga interacting with facilities management staff of IITA. Photo by IITA.
Dr N. Sanginga interacting with facilities management staff of IITA. Photo by IITA.
As DG, what are your priority thrusts and why?
My first priority is to bring back research (to make new contributions to agricultural development, environmental protection, and food security). Having seen how our research moved toward development for almost 2 decades, and for good reason, because of the position of donors to push for the use of technology and products, I want to make sure that research is backed by strong science in the areas of crop improvement, plant health, and natural resources management (NRM); to make sure we are thinking about the next 20 years, instead of talking about what is happening now. I see the role of IITA as being very proactive in solving the problems of the future―those that would come in the next 20 years. The second priority is capacity building. This is a neglected area and I want to bring it back. Hence, one of my first decisions was to create a directorate of partnership and capacity building.

We are a research-for-development institution. How should IITA balance these two elements (research and development)?
We have to put research in a position that alleviates constraints to development, so the research we are doing has to be relevant and must address development needs, not just research done for the sake of research. We need to strengthen our linkages with partners who can translate our research outputs to outcomes for alleviating poverty, NRM, degradation, food security, and malnutrition in Africa.

Let us talk about the new CGIAR research programs (CRP). How is IITA positioned with regard to these new CRPs?
We are the first center to align all our research programs to these new CRPs. IITA was created to be an institution that addresses integrated agricultural systems in the humid tropics. We are therefore happy that IITA is leading the CRP on Humidtropics. This CRP is an umbrella for all other CRPs which are components of the systems, including be commodity programs, such as maize, cassava, banana, which could provide the institutional framework for socioeconomic studies, markets, policies, and NRM. So our programs are naturally and very much aligned to the CRPs; I believe that IITA will make a major impact on reaching the system-level outcomes in the new CRP.

Climate change has emerged as a major challenge to food security. How is IITA positioning itself to address this issue?
IITA’s work for the past 30 years or so on crop improvement and breeding for resistance to biotic and abiotic constraints, such as drought or water-logging, for example, all address the climate change issue. IITA was the first center that worked on farming systems in terms of adaptation to mitigate the effects of climate change. We are a part of the CRP on climate change where we will continue to contribute to aspects of adaptation and mitigation. IITA also has a lot to offer, especially in the future, in dealing with the problems from diseases and pests due to climate change. These are known to be very severe in Africa. IITA is probably among the better equipped CGIAR centers in terms of human resources to tackle that problem; we are proud to have the strongest biocontrol group in the system. Mitigation of climate change effect is integral to all our programs.

Dr N. Sanginga inspecting an experiment in IITA, Ibadan. Photo by L. Kumar.
Dr N. Sanginga inspecting an experiment in IITA, Ibadan. Photo by L. Kumar.
What is your take on the food security situation in Africa in the light of changing climate and increasing population? What do you see as IITA’s role in securing food especially for the poor?
Africa has a huge expanse of arable land but the key to success is to intensify all the cropping systems in Africa. That is basically the framework that IITA is using to solve most of the problems of food security—using the intensification of cropping systems and building the capacity to scale up some of our successful technologies and products.

What should governments in Africa consider when investing in science and technology, especially in agricultural research? What is IITA’s role in strengthening this?
IITA should have a very strong relationship with the host country, not only Nigeria but all the other countries where we work in Africa, especially in Tanzania, DRC, and Zambia. The major problems in most countries are low yields of major crops and poor capacity because of the low investment in agriculture. I advise countries to implement the Maputo declaration and invest more than 10% of the GDP in agriculture to overcome these problems. Countries should put high priority on investing in people at all levels, strengthening scientists, extension agencies, and farmers. I believe the government should back policies that allow private sector involvement in agriculture. Of course, countries need strong leadership to introduce changes in implementing agricultural development programs.

This year IITA celebrates its 45th anniversary and you are in a unique position to take IITA to its golden jubilee, 50 years. What is your general vision for the Institute?
IITA is the center of excellence for agricultural development in Africa. It will continue to play this role and I anticipate that it will become the global center for R4D in the humid tropics. I would like to see IITA leading efforts in the intensification of agriculture in the next 20 years. I would like IITA to be at the helm of the agriculture revolution in Africa, just as CIMMYT has been to Latin America and IRRI to Asia for the last 2–3 decades. I want IITA to lead this effort and enable other centers to achieve that goal. I would like IITA to double its resources financially and in terms of human resources to achieve this goal.

What will be the main challenges in realizing that vision?
The main challenge will be changing the mindsets of people not only in Africa but in IITA as well. People in IITA should believe that it is possible. If that mindset changes to one of people fighting hunger through research and everybody is motivated, I think this will be achieved. My challenge is to convince people that all together in 10 years we will be able to do that.

What is your message to IITA staff?
Please believe in what you are doing. Believe that you are doing unique research, that in this continent, everybody is counting on you to deliver science to help agricultural intensification to happen. And when that happens, the food increase in this continent is really possible. Believe that you can make this possible and that will be a major contribution.