Dave Watson: Steering the MAIZE CGIAR Research Program

Dave Watson grew up on small family farm in northeast England. He has over 30 years of commercial farming experience. He has a BSc in Agricultural Botany from the University of Reading, UK, and an MSc and PhD in food system development from the University of Hull, UK. Throughout the 1990s, he taught courses on Sustainable Agriculture and Environment at the University of Hull. During the past 10 years, Dave has managed research-for-development partnerships in sub-Saharan Africa, first as program leader for innovative partnerships in the Innovation Systems Programme of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and more recently as Director for Project Development and Management at IITA. Major achievements include the adoption of innovation systems and value chain approaches in IITA. Key aims of his professional career include ensuring that agricultural research is demand driven and leads to significant development outcomes and impact.

The CGIAR Research Program on Maize (MAIZE) is a multi-center, multi-million dollar, multi-partner, and multidisciplinary program. Please describe your job as director of this program.
My responsibilities are to ensure the successful implementation of the program under the guidance of the MAIZE Management Committee and in coordination with partner institutions; contribute actively to developing effective research and development teams from diverse partner institutions; coordinate the development of impact-oriented, realistic workplans among project members and partners, and support their effective implementation, aligned with available resources and priorities; develop communication, M&E, and knowledge management strategies and facilitate their implementation in collaboration with other personnel; and coordinate partners’ assessment of research priorities to support resource allocation decisions and the development of effective research teams. I also ensure timely reporting required by the CGIAR Consortium and FUND Council; coordinate meetings; and execute agreements with major R&D partners and investors.

In which area do you see MAIZE making its biggest contribution?
I see MAIZE making its biggest contribution in three main areas:
Harnessing the comparative strengths of CIMMYT and IITA in the quest to ensure that MAIZE contributes as efficiently and effectively to human food security, nutrition and health, and the sustainable intensification of maize-based systems in target geographies across the developing world. This is the first attempt to create lasting synergies between CIMMYT and IITA across all areas of R4D.

Increasing collaboration between MAIZE and other key CGIAR Research Programs to ensure that investments in international agricultural R4D (IAR4D) are much better aligned and work collaboratively to address the needs of poor producers and consumers. This entails working more effectively in the same production geographies and value chains. Aside from the Challenge Programs (which were not as successful as envisaged), this is the first real attempt to foster synergies and reduce duplication of efforts across CGIAR. The key partnership that MAIZE is trying to forge is with the CGIAR Research Programs on Integrated Systems for the Humid Tropics (Humidtropics). Much discussion is under way to better align systems work under both programs.

Building partnerships between MAIZE and other partners to ensure that IAR4D directly meets the needs of beneficiaries, and to better align program outputs and strategies to achieve intermediate development outcomes (IDOs) through co-development of and facilitation of robust impact pathways.

This program involves more than 350 partners from the public and private sector. What would make the partnerships more effective?
About 85% of MAIZE is constituted by bilateral projects. These projects have their own partners who manage these partnerships to achieve project goals. Most of the 350 partners are involved in one or more of these bilateral projects.

Only 15% of funds are allocated through Windows 1&2 funding. These funds are being used to foster new and more strategic partnerships under MAIZE. Examples of strategic partnerships include work with (a) Royal Tropical Institute and Wageningen University on better harnessing Agricultural Innovation Systems thinking and improving performance of innovation platforms under MAIZE; (b) CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH) on aflatoxin mitigation in Asia; (c) University of Barcelona and Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences on developing low-cost phenotyping systems for developing country partners; (d) International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI) to develop decision support tools for maize cropping systems; and (e) small and medium enterprise seed companies to commercialize maize varieties produced by MAIZE.

To make partnerships more effective, it is important to develop shared goals and approaches to achieve these goals. This should be possible through the elaboration of impact pathways and the co-facilitation of IDOs. The second round of CGIAR Research Program proposals will necessitate the development of robust partnerships around achievement of IDOs.

What are your plans for disseminating and promoting knowledge generated through the program and ensuring the adoption of research results?MAIZE co-funds a senior knowledge management expert and a small team of knowledge management specialists in CIMMYT. I hope to work with the knowledge management specialists in CIMMYT and IITA to develop a knowledge management strategy and implementation plan. This strategy/plan will focus on innovative approaches to co-develop, disseminate, and promote knowledge. Greater adoption of research results will be achieved through the development of more robust impact pathways and associated theories of change and through more strategic partnerships.

What are some of the opportunities that MAIZE faces?
Opportunities include (a) Greater opportunities for creating synergies between CGIAR Research Programs and CGIAR centers; (b) Less duplication and uncoordinated overlap of efforts between CGIAR centers; (c) Greater opportunities for alignment of CGIAR center R4D objectives with those of national partners (public and private) in developing countries and with advanced research institutions; (d) Strengthening the relationship between CIMMYT and IITA; (e) Support for farming-systems focused innovation platforms; (f) Improved coordination of maize breeding efforts (including breeding for heat tolerance and doubled haploid technology); (g) Institutionalization of gender-sensitive approaches to maize R4D and more gender transformative research; (h) Enhanced capacity for rapid responses. For example the recent response to Maize Lethal Necrotic Virus in Eastern Africa facilitated with Windows 1&2 funds; (i) The MAIZE Management Committee (MMC) functions reasonably well; (j) The MAIZE Stakeholder Advisory Committee is established; (k) project administrators of MAIZE and WHEAT (CGIAR Research Program on wheat) are fully operational; (l) Competitive Partner Grant process & standard subgrant agreements (for all MAIZE partners); (m) Close to getting a timely program overview: Reporting 2012 templates & Traffic Light Progress Overview developed, Research Management System in CIMMYT is starting to work.

What are some of the challenges in coordinating and managing MAIZE?
Challenges include (a) lack of strong Strategic Initiative leadership; (b) lack of structured info/data/methods exchange across projects (Research Management System); (c) limited information on real time progress and insufficient time available to keep up with projects on the ground; (d) inadequate understanding of how MAIZE technologies lead to outcomes and impact; (e) communication and interaction downstream, among strategic initiatives, disciplines, and with partners; (f) MAIZE communication efforts are slow to get off the ground; (g) the MAIZE Partner Priority Survey has received only 30 responses to date; (h) how to involve partners earlier (program strategy review, strategic fundraising); (i) MAIZE is the 6th lowest funded program of 15. Investments need to be made to increase Windows 1&2 funding for MAIZE. Program Reporting template for 2012 (and 2013) only agreed with donors in March 2013; (k) communication of MMC members via Skype and e-mail is not always working and efficient.

What makes MAIZE different from the other CGIAR Research Programs dealing with commodities?
In many respects, MAIZE is very similar to the other CGIAR Research Programs that have a strong commodity focus. Indeed, to a large extent, building on these similarities was the purpose of the CGIAR reform. While recently working together in Cali, Columbia, many CGIAR Research Programs recognized resounding similarities between the IDOs that each program had worked on in relative isolation. Indeed, 15 programs were able to agree on 10 common IDOs. There is even greater scope for further collaboration between all CGIAR Research Programs.

Any advice to our scientists and specialists working on maize improvement and development?
Yes, we have some great scientists working on maize-based systems from both CIMMYT and IITA. We can achieve so much more working together than we can ever hope to achieve working independently.

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.

Hartmann: Social science is crucial

DG Hartmann. Photo by IITA.
DG Hartmann. Photo by IITA.

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 we’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, “What did you do here?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “We tried to do this R4D thing in Australia and it was only at the level of the senior administrators,” 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 wouldn’t do anything differently. I would accelerate some things because we’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 “nice” 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.

IITA's biggest contribution is in the area of food productivity, according to Hartmann. Photo by IITA.
IITA's biggest contribution is in the area of food productivity, according to Hartmann. Photo by IITA.
In what area has IITA contributed the most?

I think IITA’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 together—dealing with biological threats and improving the productivity of crops—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 “What is IITA’s weakness?”
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 don’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 IITA’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 don’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 soybean—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 science… 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 don’t know…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 don’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 don’t go to work without my hat.

Jim Gockowski: Sustainable intensification of agriculture

Jim Gockowski
Jim Gockowski

Jim Gockowski is an agricultural economist with the Sustainable Tree Crops Program (STCP) based in IITA-Ghana.

About 15 years ago, the Rockefeller Science Foundation offered Jim the opportunity to work in any five of CGIAR centers. His wife’s passion for Africa and Cameroon in particular made the family to choose IITA. In this interview with Atser Godwin, Gockowski shares his experience as he works in Africa for Africa.

Tell us about your work.
When I first started with IITA in 1995, I was involved in the Alternative to Slash and Burn Program. This was a system-wide program looking at issues of deforestation along the forest margins and trying to come up with alternatives to extensive agriculture that uses the forest as an input in the production system. Also, beginning in 2000, we got involved with STCP, which is a public-private partnership between the global chocolate industry and USAID that is focused on the cocoa belt of West Africa and is working on sustainable improvement of livelihoods of cocoa- producing households.

What has been its impact?
We do lots of evaluation, and we try and do some policy work with our studies and findings.

The impact of the social sciences in the STCP and the Alternative to Slash and Burn Program has been on two levels: One is on policy levels that is providing information and evidence, and the impact of policies or in some cases the lack of policies on livelihoods, outcomes, and the environment.

The other impact is in helping to transfer developed products—basically knowledge on natural resources management—to farmers. We have done this through development of curriculums for farmers’ field schools. We are also involved with some of the climate negotiations around the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) initiative.

What have been the impacts of STCP?
We have trained over 120,000 farmers in five countries of West Africa. We have also worked with farmer organizations to strengthen their efforts through collective marketing with probably over 40,000 households being affected. These are probably two major impacts with the STCP. Farmers from the field school training have seen returns increased by between 40 and 43%.

What is REDD all about?
REDD is a means of reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere. It was a coalition of rainforest countries that got together in 2007 at the conference of the parties of the Kyoto protocol. They put their REDD agenda on the negotiating table in terms of the climate negotiation. The basic concept is that as developing countries, they need to provide jobs for their people and one way that is historical is to convert the rainforest into production agriculture or other forms of earning livelihoods.

The REDD idea is the concept of economic compensation to countries with tropical rainforests for their foregone opportunities of not deforesting the rainforest.

IITA-STCP works with partners to improve the livelihoods of households in cocoa-based production systems in West Africa. Photo by S. David, IITA.
IITA-STCP works with partners to improve the livelihoods of households in cocoa-based production systems in West Africa. Photo by S. David, IITA.

What is the IITA project called Fertilizers-for-Forest (F4F)?
What we know in West and Central Africa is that agriculture is the principal driving force for deforestation and in particular the practice of slash and burn. When this happens, you get wood ash that is loaded with potassium and some trace amounts of nitrogen. The wood ash improves the soil but it is not a sustainable practice.

The idea of Fertilizers-for-Forest is really about sustainable intensification led by policy changes that would offer farmers an alternative to cutting down the forest and burning to get wood ash. The alternative is that instead of cutting the forest to get the biomass, let’s use fertilizers.

We believe that this type of intensification is necessary for preserving what is being left of the West African forest which is 18% of what it used to be. It is also one way that we can conserve the Congo basin rainforest.

How do you see IITA playing a role in mitigating the effects of climate change?
There are two ways that we can play a role. One is to support policy-led intensification projects by working with NARES partners and better soil fertility management options. This will take away pressure on the rainforest and help in reducing global warming. This is on the mitigation side. Again, we know that climate is getting warmer, with predictions that in the next 70 years, temperatures could rise by more than three degrees. We also know that agricultural productivity doesn’t respond positively to warmer temperatures hence there will be a reduction in yields. So we need to be focused on the climate response of our major production systems as it proceeds. It will be a gradual thing but we need to be strategic about it. We need to strategize.

On the adaptation side, we need to be working on drought-tolerant crops. We need to do adaptive research that would allow the African smallholder farmers to deal with a change in climate.

Another area is that of institutions. We have problems with our credit markets, crop insurance, and input markets. We need to strengthen these institutions and a government policy that favors the private sector approach that doesn’t distort markets.

What are some of the positive changes that you are seeing in Africa?
From a rural perspective, I have seen a lot of self-empowerment. I think this is happening because democracy is playing its role by giving the rural majority a voice and that voice is starting to be heard. Again, I don’t think it will be business as usual because the population is growing quite fast and we need to feed these teeming millions. We need to modernize agriculture and African farmers are beginning to demand those from their public servants.

What makes your work successful?
If I have made any success, it is due to diligence. If you work hard, I guess good things result. We have a wonderful institute with a lot of good scientists and all that I can say is that I have been fortunate to work with very good scientists.

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.

Victor Manyong: Strengthen socioscience capacity

Victor Manyong, R4D director. Photo by IITA.
Victor Manyong, R4D director. Photo by IITA.

Victor Manyong, IITA’s director for eastern and central Africa, talks about his 17-year experience with the institute as an agricultural economist and his vision for the institute’s socioscience research.

Can you give us a brief outline of your career at IITA?
I joined IITA in 1992 as a postdoc fellow based at Ibadan, Nigeria. I was recruited to head a project covering 11 countries in West and Central Africa on the GIS-based macro-characterization of agricultural systems. It was a challenging 2-year research but I had a 1-year extension during which the institute’s agricultural economist left. I applied and was offered the position. Then, I became a scientist and was first posted to the moist savanna project within the Resource and Crop Management Division.

As CG centers moved to a project-based approach, I was asked to lead and coordinate the project on social science research. When the DG, Hartmann, came on board, he introduced the Research for Development Council (RDC) to help him in strategic issues. I became a member of the first interim council. A year later, I was elected to serve as a council member, so I had to step down as a coordinator of social science research.

After serving a 2-year term, I left RDC and became an ordinary agricultural economist until 2005 when I was relocated to Tanzania. Here, I occupied the new position of agricultural economist for East and Southern Africa. I was also appointed the Officer in Charge of the station in 2006.

What challenges did you encounter in your move from West to East Africa?
It was a challenge to establish myself in a new environment, to establish a new research agenda for the institute, define my research priorities that fit in with the institute’s priorities, and to fit in with the existing team. It also was a challenge to build and strengthen a new network of partners.

What can you say about the status of social science research at IITA?
IITA is a commodity and natural resources management center in the CG system. Hence, social science is embedded in its research agenda. The strength of social science research at IITA is that we are working with the biophysical scientists, such as breeders, plant pathologists, and so on to create a very strong multidisciplinary team where members benefit from one another.

One problem is that we cannot have all the disciplines of social science research we need because of resource limitation. IITA’s social science has been dominated by agricultural economics while areas such as anthropology, rural sociology, political economy, and market economy have not been well addressed.

However, the institute is making efforts to remedy the situation. Currently we are recruiting a market economist. We also aim to have an anthropologist.

What does the agricultural economist at IITA do?
We work with other scientists in designing new technologies by looking at their economic profitability and social acceptability. A technology may be good but if it is not profitable or if it is rejected by the intended users, then it will not work. We contribute to studies related to the institute’s priority setting. The agricultural economists also monitor the adoption of improved technologies, measure the benefit to the end users, determine the difference the technologies make, influence policies, and are involved in the capacity building of young professionals.

Currently you are a director for R4D. What does this entail?
I am a member of the R4D directorate handling the eastern and central African region covering about 11 countries. I oversee our stations in Cameroon, DRC, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. As a member of the R4D Directorate, I work under the DDG-R4D to provide leadership on all R4D-related issues at IITA.

What challenges have you encountered in the transition from a scientist to an administrator?
Before I became the director, I was the OIC in Tanzania and a scientist. After the appointment, I now have to handle three functions: that of a scientist, OIC, and director. There obviously is the additional workload. I therefore needed to get organized to manage all the tasks.

I am also now managing more human resources, looking at relationships with government and other officials, and am the institute’s representative to the public. I needed managerial skills and to cope, I put in a lot of extra time. Currently my tasks are lighter because my duties have been reduced to those of the director and the country representative for Tanzania.

What are some of the highlights of your stay at IITA?
I have many but one of them was in 2005 when I published my first book that focused on agriculture in Nigeria. For a researcher this was an important milestone. The other highlight is contributing to the development of IITA’s regional hub for East and Central Africa in Tanzania. I am also lucky to have greatly contributed to mentoring young professionals at IITA and training of many in social science in Africa. Some of them are working as colleagues in international organizations or as professors in universities.

What changes have you noted at IITA over the years?
I have noticed many changes, all positive. The institute has really grown, becoming more stable. Financially, we have moved from an annual budget of $35 million to the current $50 million. And IITA rates well in research and quality of science among the CG centers. I have also witnessed the decentralization of our research activities. When I first joined, everything was done from Ibadan. The decentralization has brought the scientists closer to the fields of operation outside West Africa. For many years, IITA was considered an institute for West and Central Africa. This is no longer the case.

How can the institute sustain its growth and progress?
We need to consolidate our research in the decentralized mode of operations to strengthen the regional hubs but not at the expense of West Africa. We also should not ignore the reforms taking place in the CG. We need to see how the institute can evolve in the new consortium of CG centers.

What would you like social science at IITA to look like, say in five years time?
I would like to see a more diversified group of social scientists. We need to strengthen the areas of qualitative social science research and on markets. The current thinking is that one economist can do all research related to social science. I disagree. For example, can one breeder breed all crops? At IITA we have breeders of maize, cassava, cowpea, and yam, etc. So, when it comes to social research, we need a diversified group of social scientists.

Socioscience is also wanting at the NARS where the social scientists are always lured away by better-paying NGOs. We build their capacity but when they are ready they move on and we have to start again when they recruit new members. One solution is to link up with universities where we have more permanent social scientists.

What has contributed to your success?
I attribute my success (if any) to the support I receive from the management. They have always made me feel that my work is important and that it is valued. I also would like to acknowledge the support and collaboration with partners and colleagues within and outside the institution.
On research management, I am part of a great team where members support one another. We have good leadership and good support from management. I have also been lucky to work in my area of expertise.

What would you have been if not an agricultural economist?
Well, I resisted a lot of pressure from my family to study medicine and become a medical doctor. I have always liked agriculture. I moved 2,000 km from my home town in Lubumbashi (DRC) to study agriculture at the then unique country Faculty of Agriculture in Kisangani. The person who stoked my interest in agricultural economics was Prof Eric Tollens, currently at KU Leuven (Belgium) and a former IITA Board member. When I joined the Faculty of Agriculture in Kisangani, he was then a professor and chair of the Department of Agricultural Economics. I listened to his talk, and I knew what I wanted to be.

Ousmane Boukar: Cowpea improvement for food security and poverty alleviation

Ousmane Boukar, IITA cowpea breeder, Kano, Nigeria. Photo by IITA.
Ousmane Boukar, IITA cowpea breeder, Kano, Nigeria. Photo by IITA.

Ousmane Boukar is IITA’s cowpea breeder and the Station Representative in Kano, Nigeria. He has been with IITA since 2007. As a breeder, his aim is to mine IITA’s germplasm collection of cowpea to identify important additional sources of gene(s) of interest for resistance to both biotic and abiotic stresses, sources of consumers and producers’ preferred traits, etc. This will broaden cowpea’s genetic diversity to contribute efficiently and significantly to cowpea genetic improvement.

Please describe your work.
My work in IITA is exciting and very challenging. IITA offers a lot of opportunities to contribute to the livelihood of millions of people mainly in sub-Saharan Africa through the improvement of the agriculture sector. I believe that playing a role in cowpea improvement means participating in enhancing food security and poverty alleviation of millions of people in Africa.

What are the current thrusts and initiatives on cowpea breeding?
The cowpea breeding program is focused on identifying additional sources of resistance to pests and diseases, combating parasitic weeds, improving drought tolerance and adaptation to low soil fertility. Our strategy is to consolidate the progress so far achieved and to establish a very strong foundation for further genetic improvement. The aim is to increase production in terms of both fodder and grain yields, and those plant and grain characteristics preferred by consumers and producers. Efforts would also be made to enhance the level of micronutrients and protein in cowpea grains. African rural and sub-urban communities will be able to produce more high quality products for human and animal consumption, to improve their health by providing a balanced diet, and their income by providing enough for home consumption and supply to markets.

Major projects associated with cowpea improvement include Tropical Legumes I and II, Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage, Development and promotion of Alectra-resistant cowpea cultivars, the Application of marker-assisted selection for Striga resistance in cowpea, Improving drought tolerance phenotyping in cowpea, Appropriate Variety of Early maturing Cowpea for Burkina Faso (AVEC-BF), and Development of parasitic weed control methods for world food security.

Cowpea field experiments, IITA. Photo by C. Ono-Raphael, IITA.
Cowpea field experiments, IITA. Photo by C. Ono-Raphael, IITA.

What are the major challenges in cowpea improvement?
Cowpea production is limited by numerous factors both biotic and abiotic which could be addressed using the tools from genetic improvement. Several diseases, insect pests, nematodes, and parasitic weeds cause significant cowpea yield loss. Abiotic constraints include drought and heat which also cause significant yield reduction during the seedling and/or reproductive stages of the crop. Another major production constraint is low soil fertility from organic matter and low phosphorus availability, particularly in the soils of the savannas.

The range of production environments and cropping systems and the diverse preferences among consumers and producers for grain, leaves, pods, and fodder, make cowpea breeding very challenging. There is a clear need to develop a range of varieties that meet the diverse requirements combining high yield potential and resistance to the major production constraints.

How do you decide which challenges to address?
Identification of areas of research involves all stakeholders along the cowpea value chain. We consider both the current and long-term needs of our stakeholders. The current needs are determined from observations in our research fields, farmers’ fields, the attitudes of consumers, and in our interactions with farmers, NARS colleagues, NGOs, traditional and political leaders through farmers’ field days, farmers’ participatory varietal selection, and participation in meetings. The long-term needs are based on our own experiences and those of colleagues. This approach guarantees the continued relevance of our research activities. The various projects enable me to have a good interaction with all the stakeholders.

Who are IITA’s partners in cowpea improvement research?
NARES, advanced research institutions (ARI), NGOs, farmers, traditional and political leaders. Our activities on drought tolerance, for example, involve national and international partners (Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Mozambique, Tanzania, Burkina, and Senegal; and University of California, Riverside). Our Striga and Alectra research activities involve both NARS (Burkina, Senegal, Niger, Mali, and Cameroon for Striga and Malawi and Tanzania for Alectra) and ARIs (University of Virginia for Striga and Natural Resources Institute for Alectra). Our partners are involved right from the initial stages of the projects.

Why is cowpea underexploited and underutilized?
The main reason is that cowpea is a crop grown by poor people for consumption and commercial value in the local regions. This makes the crop unattractive to commercial breeding and seed companies and ensures a lower priority for developed countries.

Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 70% of the world cowpea production. What could be done to ensure that cowpea receives research attention?
Almost all African governments consider agriculture as the main basis of their economic development. Very good strategies are being developed but unfortunately these strategies are not followed through always! Funding for cowpea research will enable the research institutes and universities to compete for external funding. Very few governments are supporting their research institutions by facilitating contacts or lobbying through major donors.

What new tools are being used to hasten cowpea improvement work?
With the rapid advances in plant genomics and molecular biology, new tools are being developed. Also, the use of molecular breeding combined with conventional breeding is becoming possible in cowpea improvement. A few steps are already being applied in cowpea improvement through marker-assisted selection and genetic modification. With the development of the recent well-saturated consensus genetic map, cowpea improvement is ready to benefit from an increased efficiency of selection resulting from the application of molecular breeding. Tropical Legume I phase II will soon give us an opportunity to test the efficiency and effectiveness of molecular breeding in cowpea.

What are the recent developments and breakthroughs in cowpea breeding that farmers and producers, including processors, could look forward to?
Our intensive activities through the Tropical Legumes II project have led to the identification and release of some drought-tolerant breeding lines. For example, in 2008, IT97K-499-35 was released in Nigeria. The performance of this variety has impressed farmers in Mali who named it jiffigui which means “hope”. Additional adaptation trials are being conducted in Mali and Niger for the release of this line.

Another example is IT00K-1263. This has shown good performance in Mozambique and Tanzania and is being considered for release soon in these countries. Additional sources of improved P-use and resistance to aphids, bacterial blight, multiple virus, Striga, and drought have been identified and segregating populations have been developed. New breeding lines with drought tolerance and multiple disease, and insect and Striga resistance will be available in the near future.

Farmers' participatory varietal selection, northern Nigeria. Photo by IITA.
Farmers' participatory varietal selection, northern Nigeria. Photo by IITA.

How do you involve farmers and producers in your work?
Through farmers’ participatory variety selection (FPVS). This consists of bringing groups of farmers to the field where they can select 2 to 3 varieties that they prefer out of about 20−30 lines. Varieties developed through this approach have showed a higher rate of adoption by the farmers. In addition, farmers’ field days and baseline studies enable us to learn from farmers about their main production constraints and their preferences in terms of plant type, maturity type, and grain and fodder quality. All the information collected is being incorporated in our breeding objectives.

How could IITA make stakeholders pay more attention to cowpea?
For more than four decades, IITA scientists had been working on different aspects of cowpea improvement. By documenting the role of cowpea in the livelihood of people in sub-Saharan Africa, the importance of major cowpea production constraints, the progress so far achieved, and strategies for the future, and by maintaining the world’s collection of germplasm for this crop IITA will continue to make donors and other stakeholders more interested on cowpea.

Dominique Dumet: Safeguarding agrobiodiversity for the future

Dominique Dumet showing seeds, IITA genebank. Photo by J. Oliver.
Dominique Dumet showing seeds, IITA genebank. Photo by J. Oliver.

As the head of IITA’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC), Dominique Dumet says she is something between a curator and an administrator. She is involved in conservation (field bank, seed bank, and in vitro bank, which includes cryopreservation for clonal crops), checking inventory, improving processes and workflows, transferring technology, and computerizing the system. In addition, she is involved in recruiting staff and selecting students, germplasm distribution and acquisition, research in plant genetic resources, staff management, research project development and proposal writing, and communication to donors on special projects and about germplasm at IITA during scientific meetings.

She is primarily interested in ex situ conservation and particularly low temperature biology and its application to conservation systems (cryopreservation, sanitation). She has an overview of all domains of germplasm conservation and takes part in various research projects as a collaborator to “add value to the germplasm.” She no longer considers herself a researcher, since she spends most of her time administering the genebank and planning or writing proposal or reports. This International Year of Biodiversity, she explains what GRC plans in support of promoting biodiversity conservation.

Why is biodiversity conservation important? What are your priorities?
Our work is very important. We try to reduce the rate of irreversible loss in the biological diversity that is used in agriculture. All conservation aspects are important, but maybe the conservation sensu stricto comes first if we have to choose as we have a responsibility towards the international community and if we do not work well, all may suffer from our mistakes.

What do you like about working in Africa? In your field of specialization?
I am proud of my job. I hope I contribute to improving the well being of the poorest even if for one iota. I also like being in an environment very different to the one in which I grew up.

In vitro biology and cryopreservation in particular is my field of specialization. Cryopreservation fascinates me as I find it amazing that we can stop the life of a tissue and bring it back again whenever we want to do so. In the frozen stage, all biochemical or biological processes stop—that means that everything stops moving at one moment—and then the magic of life makes it start again so long as physical and chemical parameters are adequate (cooling and thawing temperature, osmotic pressure, light, growth regulators, etc.).

What are your challenges and constraints at work?
The challenges are to maintain the bank at international standards and to keep all the accessions alive. Some constraints include unforeseen requests which make us work under pressure as we still have our routine activities, and new concepts that make our system obsolete.

Collection recording with barcode inventory system, IITA genebank. Photo by O. Adebayo, IITA.
Collection recording with barcode inventory system, IITA genebank. Photo by O. Adebayo, IITA.

How do you make the many visitors to GRC understand and appreciate what you are doing?
I give information on the basic concepts of diversity, I explain why we need to conserve it ex situ (out of the natural environment) because of the genetic erosion taking place in the field. Then I explain how we maintain it via seeds or field and in vitro banks, depending on the crop. I also show some examples of diversity, e.g., cowpea seed collection and the variation observed at seed coat. I provide some background on the gaps in the collection based on GIS. And I generally conclude with the International Treaty and access to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA).

Please cite some concrete steps being taken by IITA in biodiversity conservation.
IITA was involved in collecting genetic resources as early as the 1970s so we do have a long history in investing in biodiversity conservation. Many collecting missions have been organized and germplasm has been also acquired from many national collections. The majority of the collections have now been described at agromorphological level, but we are still working on it for maize, for example. We have to characterize any new accessions coming into the bank.

Recently we organized a meeting and survey to develop the cowpea global conservation strategy (Trust-funded). We will have the same strategy developed for yam in 2010 (we are also organizing the Trust-funded expert meeting for this). We are developing more efficient conservation processes such as cryopreservation (this lowers costs but also limits genetic variation during storage). We are fingerprinting the collections of clonal crops to identify germplasm at accession level. This will further guide our collecting missions.

Do you think governments everywhere are serious about biodiversity conservation?
That depends on the country. The richer ones certainly take more serious action—but the poorest (or the less organized) do not have this ‘luxury’. I think all understand the value of biodiversity but as it is a long-term investment to store and as the return on investment is not guaranteed, countries either ignore it or do little about it.

What is the state of agrobiodiversity in Africa?
It is not too bad, compared to other continents—my view on this is that Africa has not yet undergone its Green Revolution (but this opinion may be controversial). However, things may change very quickly, especially now that Africa is seen as a big field where agriculture can take off. Somehow, if we are successful in producing high-yielding crops the adoption rate of such high potential crops may quickly wipe away natural diversity, including (but not only) the landraces (varieties developed by farmers over thousands of years). When the elite genotype replaces older varieties it makes the low performing one obsolete and it increases the rate of planting (as it can generate higher revenue). We have to be vigilant about this since we, as breeders of improved varieties, are partly responsible. There is a conflict of interest between agriculture intensification and conservation of biodiversity.

Do farmers understand the need to conserve seeds or genetic resources for future generations?
In general I would think they are the first one to know about biodiversity but they may not be aware of the amplitude of the “erosion” of species.

Some are already organized in community based genebanks and there are participatory conservation projects within the CGIAR but I do not know enough about the topic. This may be an important complementary approach, but participatory conservation may be difficult to sustain. Besides in community based conservation, the incentive is cultural preference. That means only materials of immediate interest for the farmers are kept.

Bambara groundnut seeds. Photo by J. Oliver, IITA.
Bambara groundnut seeds. Photo by J. Oliver, IITA.

What is the status of IITA’s seed shipment to Svalbard in Norway?
We had planned on sending more than 20,000 accessions of cowpea and its relatives, bambara groundnut, maize, and soybean in the next few years. Cowpea makes up the majority of the accessions that we are sending. There is a bit of deviation from the original plan but we are more or less on track.

Being the lead person in agrobiodiversity conservation in the Institute, how do you plan to mark the UN International Year of Biodiversity?
We plan to raise awareness about biodiversity among the youth, i.e., high school students and adults in the local community. We will organize quiz contests, tree planting activities, excursions to the IITA forest and to the genebank; produce information materials (videos, flyers, handouts) and set up roaming exhibits and posters.

We also plan to organize seminars and a field or biodiversity/community day for students, farmers, and residents in the local community. We will be coordinating with partners from the University of Ibadan, local schools, Alliance Française, and other organizations, such as the National Center for Genetic Resources and Biotechnology, Nigeria Institute of Horticulture, and University of Abeokuta.

What would be your message to colleagues about biodiversity conservation?
Don’t just conserve; educate as well.

Robert Asiedu: Advancing the development of Africa through science

Robert Asiedu. Photo by IITA.
Robert Asiedu. Photo by IITA.

Robert Asiedu is a plant breeder, whose main research interest is on tropical root and tuber crops, especially yam and cassava. From the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) he joined the Root and Tuber Improvement Program of IITA in 1989. His initial research was on cassava and its wild relatives but he spent most of his time on yam research. He has held various leadership or management roles in IITA since 1991. He is Director, Research for Development (R4D), West Africa, and Program Director, Agrobiodiversity and Root and Tuber Systems Programs. In this interview, he talks about research on root and tuber systems, and on agrobiodiversity initiatives.

What inspires you at work?
The potential to advance the development of Africa through agricultural research is a major inspiration for me. IITA offers an excellent platform for achieving this so it is a great pleasure and a privilege to work here.

What do you like about your work as director?
I enjoy the broader opportunities and challenges the position offers to contribute to the development of the subregion through science.

How do you feel about IITA’s work in West Africa and in those areas that you are in charge of as program director?
West Africa is the subregion in which the Institute has worked longest. It is fascinating to reflect on the changes in our modes of operation and interaction with partners in response to the changes in our environment. We have done well so far but there is still a
lot to do.

What is your work philosophy?
To do the best I can every time.

You talk about yam as being a “part of man”. What is so special about yam?
My thoughts on the links between man and yam are based on several fascinating articles by anthropologists and ethnobotanists that I have read on the subject. From West Africa through the Caribbean to the Pacific region, yam is respected and celebrated through major annual thanksgiving festivals in areas where it is cultivated as a staple.

How is progress on IITA’s R4D on roots and tubers/ Agrobiodiversity?
The R4D work on tropical root and tuber crops continues to focus on genetic improvement, crop and pest management, food science and technology, and agroenterprise development.

For yam, improved options for the mass production of affordable and healthy seeds are a major component of our agenda. We have been investigating nutrient use efficiency and the role of mycorrhizal fungi in yam mineral nutrition. The research on food science/technology is focused on understanding the functional properties required in yam tubers and products for household and industrial purposes, development of new competitive products from yam, and screening of germplasm for textural and nutritional attributes.

We continue to improve on our efficiency and effectiveness in conserving the germplasm of banana/plantain, cassava, cowpea, maize, soybean, and yam. Core collections and reference sets are being defined. These collections are characterized using molecular tools and several are being preserved in the form of DNA available for delivery to requestors. Documentation of information has been improved and are now available online. There has been a significant increase in the accessions of clonally propagated crops that are preserved in vitro, in addition to the field banks.

What are the challenges in working on roots and tubers? Agrobiodiversity?
The limited history of research on the tropical root and tuber crops, such as cassava and yam, has left huge gaps in the knowledge of their basic biology. This affects the pace of advancement in research, compared to that of other major staple crops. This is exacerbated by the limited pool of researchers on these crops worldwide. Research funding is very low compared with the importance of these crops in sub-Saharan Africa.

In Agrobiodiversity, the major challenges are the lack of clarity in the interpretation of various international conventions, increasing protectionism in the sharing of crop germplasm, and the apparent lack of international agreements governing the status of collections of nonplant taxa.

What can you advise colleagues?
We should constantly keep our focus on the status, needs, and expectations of those who will benefit from our work.

How could we make the partnership with national programs, donors and policymakers, the private sector, or the growers work better?
Successful partnerships are built on good foundations. Establishing partnerships involve the joint setting and common understanding of the objectives, sharing of responsibilities, and clarity of roles. Periodic and objective assessment of progress is necessary, followed by effective action on the findings. There should be mutual respect and trust in the relationship as well as regular, effective, and open communication. It is important to monitor the changing circumstances of the various partners, including institutional and policy environments, and the needs of some partners for capacity building to play their roles effectively. Good cooperation also depends on fairness in acknowledging the contributions of partners and equity in sharing results, credits, or benefits.

How would you assess IITA’s efforts in agrobiodiversity conservation?
IITA has played and continues to play a key role in conserving germplasm of staple crops, underutilized crop species, and nonplant taxa that are important to African agriculture. Most national programs in sub-Saharan Africa have difficulty in providing the facility and personnel required for long-term conservation of these materials, especially the clonally propagated crops. The duplication of national collections of selected crops in our genebank is a major contribution to the assurance of long-term security. IITA works with a range of partners to continually improve the methods of preservation and characterization of the conserved germplasm.

How can we promote agrobiodiversity conservation among our audiences?
We can increase information dissemination using the print and electronic media and stakeholder consultative workshops to highlight the benefits of sustaining diversity in the food and farming systems and hence in the genetic resources on which these depend. The long-term conservation of nonplant genetic resources, such as beneficial insects and bacteria, requires even more explanation. Taking advantage of our political neutrality and links with relevant international agencies, we can engage in more consultation with policymakers in Africa to allow more freedom in making new collections of germplasm and facilitating international exchange.

Peter Neuenschwander: How Africa can control invasive pests

P Neuenschwander
P Neuenschwander
The “father of biocontrol”, Peter Neuenschwander, joined IITA’s biocontrol project against the cassava mealybug in 1983. The project was later expanded to include biological control and integrated pest management of mango mealybug, spiraling whitefly, and floating water weeds. He retired in 2003. Last year, the International Organization for Biological Control recognized his life-long contributions to biological control by giving him Honorary Membership. In this interview with Godwin Atser, he bares his mind on the contribution of biocontrol and strategies on how Africa can check invasive pests.

Please explain the concept of biocontrol.
Biological control is a technique whereby we use natural enemies to combat pests. The pests can be insects, mites, pathogens, or even plants. Most times we apply biocontrol against invading pests. The beauty is that once something works, it spreads on its own and it carries on its business without difficulties.

Please give an overview of your work on biocontrol in Africa.
The cassava mealybug was actually one of the things that brought me to Africa. The mealybug was introduced in Africa in the 1970s. Eventually parasitoids were found in South America and transported here. With national partners, we made about 150 releases in most sub-Saharan African countries. From there we went on to other projects such as the mango mealybug, and water hyacinth control.

How can biocontrol check the spread of invasive pests in Africa?
Biocontrol is good; it slows the pests but it would have been best not to have introduced those exotic organisms in the first place. So, we need to strengthen and train the quarantine people.

We also need to tighten quarantine services in all African countries, not just on land borders but also the seaports and the airports so such invasions which cost so much can be reduced.

What has been the impact of biocontrol?
For the cassava mealybug alone, the project resulted in money directly going to the farmers with the entire cassava improvement project in Africa.

What are the challenges you faced in the biocontrol projects?
Our main challenge is the uptake or adoption by the countries. Countries are autonomous in their decisions to import or not to import.

So, we have to convince some 30 quarantine authorities that they should give us quarantine permits, that they should help us, and that they should allow the insect to come in, and so on.

The challenges also include unsatisfied expectations from colleagues from different disciplines who expect us to extinguish the pest. We don’t really extinguish anything.

What is the perception of people towards biocontrol?
The public in most cases is more afraid of biocontrol (insects) than the invasion itself. This is because they don’t understand how it works.

Does biocontrol break down?
In technical terms, yes, it can break down—when biocontrol is working and you forget about it and suddenly start spraying the field with pesticides. That is, you kill the natural enemies and the pest.

What is the future of biocontrol?
The demand for biocontrol is already there and there will always be invasive pests. We also have to maintain the human capital in biocontrol. Unfortunately, the capacity in biocontrol worldwide is declining, not only in IITA.

Your colleague referred to you as the father of biocontrol. Can you comment on this.
I am the last surviving biocontrol specialist at IITA. That was what was written about me when I retired 6 years ago. I am still helping out.

What were the most exciting moments in your work on biocontrol?
The excitement was going out in the field and also the fact that I had a “privileged” job. It also includes getting recognition. In the scientific world, the cassava mealybug project was seen as a success.

You have been retired for several years now. What’s next?
I have a request to go to Asia, because after 20–30 years, the cassava mealy bug turned up in Asia, and it is spreading. They want us to introduce biocontrol to curtail the spread.