Rachid Hanna: Balance strategic research with development initiatives

Hanna inspects banana plant
Hanna inspects banana

Rachid Hanna is an entomologist by training with a diverse academic background (BSc in Horticulture, MSc in Plant Protection and Pest Management, PhD in Entomology). He joined IITA-Bénin in 1998 to lead the cassava green mite (CGM) biological control program. In Bénin, he initiated several other programs on biocontrol and IPM of other crop pests. He recently relocated to IITA-Cameroon and has been entrusted in helping to rebuild the research program with a new focus.

What were the differences in research priorities when you first started working for IITA and now?
When I joined IITA, there were several ongoing or recently concluded and highly successful biocontrol programs. We now need to give more attention to developing biological control options for insect vectors of the causal agents of serious crop diseases. There is still considerable appreciation within IITA and among our partners for the potential for biological control to solve many pest problems in agriculture, with numerous invasive pests lurking outside African borders. We need to maintain the capacity to provide a rapid response to these alien species. Biological control is often the only viable and sustainable solution.

IITA went through a period when scientists were pulled more toward the development side as core funding declined. It seems we now have a good balance in the R4D continuum. At present there is increased emphasis on biotechnology—molecular biology in particular—but natural resources management has suffered. IITA has also put greater emphasis on the commercialization of agricultural products as a means of reducing farmers’ risks and increasing farm income. It has also given increasing attention to food safety and human health.

What are your current projects?
We have spent a lot of time and resources figuring out how CGM biocontrol works through predators and acaropathogens, and determining its socioeconomic impact. I have also been involved in classical biological control of the coconut mite, which is present in the Americas, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent.

IITA and icipe have been collaborating for the last 3 years on a BMZ-funded project to develop IPM for several mango pests. At the core of this project is biological control of the invasive fruit fly, Bactrocera invadens, or Sri Lanka fly that is now present in at least 34 countries in Africa where it has caused huge losses in fruit production. With icipe we have explored natural enemies of this pest in Sri Lanka, its putative origin, and imported from Hawaii, tested, and initiated field releases of Fopius arisanus, a parasitoid known to be an excellent biocontrol agent of several fruit fly species closely related to the Sri Lanka fly. We have already released nearly 95,000 individuals of F. arisanus in Bénin and Togo, with encouraging recovery rates.

More recently, I began research on the banana aphid, also an exotic pest in SSA, and the only known vector of banana bunchy top virus that causes a very serious disease of banana and plantain. This disease is presently found in 12 countries in Africa and continues to move to others. IITA, in collaboration with partners, has initiated efforts to develop integrated options to control the banana aphid with emphasis on biological control.

For some years, I have been developing with several partners IPM for the African root and tuber scale, a pest of cassava in Central Africa. This pest is indigenous to Central Africa where it has evolved on native hosts in association with an indigenous ant on which it depends for its survival and dispersal. We figured out how to deal with the scale using ‘less scale-suitable’ varieties, cultural practices that reduce the frequency of hosts that serve as a reservoir for the scale, and ecofriendly baits to kill the ants. To complicate matters even further, we recently discovered—using molecular biology tools—that the scale is a complex of species and not one species as has been suggested based on morphology. This work is part of a larger IFAD-supported project to develop integrated management approaches to high-profile cassava pests and diseases in SSA. Swiss funding is supporting a PhD student to elucidate the ecological factors that promote ant abundance and the nature of ant/scale interactions.

What is unique about biocontrol research?
We seek to develop sustainable solutions to major pest problems that limit agricultural productivity. Nearly all this research has unique scientific aspects. Biological control is not really new. It is a useful approach, but the process of discovery of natural enemies, understanding how they work, and promoting their abundance and persistence has many innovative and unique aspects.

What are your challenges at work? What are the rewards?
There are many challenges. One is farmers’ acceptance of the technologies. Farmers like simple solutions to their problems. With biological control, the natural enemies work on their own, mostly without the farmers’ intervention. In contrast, the success of a crop-variety pest control approach will largely depend on the farmers’ acceptance of the varieties.

The breadth of our geographic coverage is also challenging and at times daunting. There is considerable restriction now on the exchange of biological materials and it is becoming increasingly difficult to export, import, and test natural enemies.

The rewards are equally many. Chief among these is the satisfaction of getting farmers to adopt a new practice and so achieving a noticeable impact in our work. The satisfaction of discovering a new natural enemy and figuring out how it goes about its business of consuming and suppressing its prey is immense.

Discovering and describing a new species is equally satisfying. So are seeing students successfully complete their training and becoming full-fledged members of the scientific community, and farmers’ glowing and wide eyes when they see through a hand-held magnifying lens the little mites that cause the damage to their crop, or the equally small predator that kills those pests and protects their crop.

We also get rewards through the recognition we receive from our employer and peers.

What is the impact of your work on African farmers, producers, and consumers?
The return on investment from biocontrol can be very high and the results are permanent. Except on rare occasions, farmers need not intervene at all.

All the work we are doing on biological control is important for agriculture. Take for example the work on cassava mealybug and CGM biocontrol. These pests devastated cassava production across the cassava belt in SSA. Their control has resulted in preventing billions of dollars worth of losses to African agriculture and translates to more food security and income. The cassava mealybug has already invaded Thailand, and its farmers stand to reap the benefits from our work. The same is true for the other pests for which we trying to develop sustainable solutions. This underscores the fact that biocontrol benefits can be obtained independent of the location where it was developed.

We are now trying to do the same with disseminating control measures for the African root and tuber scale in the Congo basin, coconut mite in Bénin, Tanzania, and Sri Lanka, the highly destructive Sri Lanka fly, and the banana aphid. Each of these achievements will have considerable positive impact on the productivity of targeted crops, in turn enhancing food security and people’s livelihoods.

Who are your collaborators?
We have an excellent network of collaborators both in Africa and abroad, and a cadre of superb students and support staff. My main collaborators on strategic research have been IITA scientists and those from universities and government institutions in Europe, United States, Brazil, and Kenya. In Africa, I have worked closely with icipe and more than 14 NARS—government and university—partners in adaptive research and technology transfer. While not all collaborations were equally successful, the best were those when all partners had ownership, trusted one another, had common interests, and were fully engaged.

Any insights for colleagues or partners?
Keep an open mind. Strive to be a scientist in search of new knowledge that can be translated to ways of improving people’s livelihoods. For crop protection specialists, give biological control a chance. It is permanent, the safest, and most ecologically—and in most cases most economically—sound means of pest control.

Start thinking of the next project (or phase) or research topic as soon as you start one. Think big and act with humility.

Hanna interacts with farmers and extension agents
Hanna interacts with farmers and extension agents

To our partners: IITA is with you. Let’s keep working together for we can achieve a great deal more together than alone.

How could IITA be more effective?
IITA is a very effective R4D organization; this is largely due to an appropriate balance between strategic research and development activities at present. However, we may be presently too spread out. Expansion often happens at the expense of existing posts. Some posts that have been very effective in R4D should be strengthened. Plant health and crop improvement research have led to huge impact; let’s continue to give them priority and support.

Biodiversity should be everyone’s business. We are well placed to work on biodiversity and conservation while enhancing crop productivity and livelihoods. We need to recruit topnotch scientists and keep them. We should promote a healthy work environment. We should also reestablish and restore the student training program to its previous prominence; the large majority of our NARS collaborators were trained through this program. Many are now older or retired. IITA has recently increased investment in specialized training of its entire staff. This is a good move.

Ranajit Bandyopadhyay: Ending aflatoxin contamination in Africa

Developing countries lose billions of dollars in trade annually to aflatoxin contamination in foods. Worst still, the contamination endangers the health of millions of people in the region. But the good news is that IITA has developed a biocontrol product (aflasafe) to tackle this problem. Ranajit Bandyophadhay speaks to Godwin Atser on the journey that led to the development of aflasafe and other issues.

Ranajit (left) explains to partners how aflasafe works
Ranajit (left) explains to partners how aflasafe works

Tell us about your work at IITA
I am a plant pathologist, and one of my main responsibilities is how to manage plant disease. The other is to ensure food safety.

What about your work on biocontrol?
This is one the most exciting projects that I have ever had. The work on biocontrol is on a toxin found on maize and peanuts called aflatoxins. The toxin causes a lot of harm to people’s health and also makes farmers sell their products at lower prices. So, the losses are both in terms of health and trade. What I am trying to do is to manage the aflatoxins using a holistic approach, such as using resistant varieties, better crop management practices, and also the biological control method.

What is unique about your biocontrol work?
One thing that is unique is that we are using the natural resources from Nigeria to manage an economic and medical problem. We are making use of nontoxic fungi to eliminate the harmful fungi (aflatoxins).

Why are aflatoxins important?
Aflatoxins are harmful chemicals that are produced by a fungus called Aspergillus flavus.

The fungi produce toxins in maize, peanuts, and generally grains. When people eat them, it harms them and causes diseases such as liver cancer and kwashiorkor, among others. Worst still, farmers cannot sell their products at the premium price.

What makes you keen about biocontrol?
It is one of the strongest components of the holistic approach. If we can have the biocontrol approach adopted by farmers, most of the problems concerning aflatoxins which they face during postharvest will be greatly reduced.

Do you see IITA in the position to offer the biocontrol option to farmers?
Absolutely yes. The reason is that we actually started with good science and that science has given birth to a new product which the farmers are willing to use.

Happy farmer with aflasafe
Happy farmer with aflasafe

Tell us about this product
The product is “aflasafe”. We coined the name aflasafe; when farmers use the product on their farms, they would produce grains that are free from aflatoxins.

Did you face any challenge in developing the product?
The first challenge was developing the product itself. The fresh challenge now is how to get a large manufacturing firm to begin massive production, advocacy, and awareness so that it gets to the farmers.

Any interest so far?
We made a presentation to the Minister of Health, Prof. Babatunde Osotimehin, and he was so excited about the product. We also did a field deployment and the farmers were also very happy about it.

Who were your partners in this work?
Many organizations and people were involved in this work. They include the AATF, National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, farmers, United States Department of Agriculture, US Agency for International Development, Prof Peter Cotty, Dr Joseph Atehnkeng, and several others.

How were you able to handle these partners?
Every partner is a unique entity but one thing important is to build trust. Once that is done, the partnership gets smooth.

Research wise, what are you future plans?
My future plan is to get this product used on at least one million hectares. I intend to put all my efforts to see that this product is used for the benefit of the farmers in general and women and children who are more vulnerable to aflatoxins.

Related website

Aflatoxin management website – www.aflasafe.com

Manuele Tamò: Biocontrol should be the first option

Manuele Tamo inspects plant
Manuele Tamo inspects plant. Photo by IITA

Dr Manuele Tamò is the Officer-in-Charge of IITA-Bénin. In this interview, he talks about the outlook regarding invasive pests in Africa and the role of biocontrol.

Africa seems to be witnessing a lot of invasive pests. What are the factors responsible for this?
That observation may be a bit of an exaggeration at the moment. However, we have been experiencing some invasive species in the past years and, unfortunately, that might increase in the future. This is mainly due to the increase in people’s travels—people travel but do not know that they are carrying pests in their suitcases. Trade is also another contributing factor to the spread of invasive pest species in Africa.

What control measures have governments put in place to check this trend?
We have Plant Quarantine officers all over Africa. They are doing their best but, unfortunately, in West Africa, for instance, the borders are porous so people can pass through from one country to the other without much control. Also some of the invasive species spread freely and once they land on the continent the quarantine officers have no control over them.

How does biocontrol help in this instance?
Biocontrol is a natural response to controlling invasive pest species. It simply means reuniting the invasive species and its natural enemies found it its area of origin. This is what is called classical biological control.

How has your work on biocontrol helped in the control of, for instance, cowpea pests?
Let me start with the project on flower thrips (Megalurothrips sjostedti) that may be the oldest one—we have found a new natural enemy and we are spreading it all over West Africa. We are monitoring the situation in Bénin, Ghana, and also in Nigeria where we made the releases.

For the cowpea pod borer (Maruca vitrata), we have just introduced a new natural enemy from Asia. Our aim is to release it and establish it on wild occurring host plants so that the M. vitrata population that is able to invade cowpea farms will be much reduced.

What is the damage caused by these pests on cowpea?
The damage can be devastating. If you take a susceptible variety in an uncontrolled situation, you might get about 80% yield loss, at least.

Some people worry that results from biocontrol never come early. What is your reaction to this statement?
Biocontrol is both a science and an art. As scientists, we know that experiments can take several years before results are achievable and thus conclusions are made. Just as it takes several years to develop a new crop variety, so it is for biocontrol.

The cassava mealybug biocontrol project gave results already after 2 to 3 years. This has raised stakeholders’ expectations. Now, every time we embark on a biocontrol project, farmers and also politicians expect us to have the same level of success within 2 to 3 years.

In certain cases, results are obtained quite rapidly, but at other times, it might take 5 to 10 years. Results vary because we work on various types of insects that live in different environments.

On the other hand, biocontrol is an art because sometimes you need luck to get quick results.

Why biocontrol and not pesticides?
I am not against pesticides if they are used correctly to save crops from pest attacks. But biocontrol is an option that controls pests by reestablishing the natural balance (in nature) and should be considered first, particularly in the case of alien invasive species.

What are your future plans?
Continue the work on flower thrips and Maruca vitrata and measure the impact. I am also working on a feasibility study on cotton. Cotton is the biggest consumer of insecticides in the whole of West Africa, and a source of concern with regard to environmental and human health.

We also want to start a new project investigating insects attacking cashew. The project is important because cashew nuts exported to Europe and the United States must be pesticide free.

How do you work with the government in achieving your results?
We collaborate with the government, starting with the Plant Protection Services. For instance, we need to comply with country quarantine regulations for the introduction of new biocontrol agents. Plant protection officers are with us in the field—from experimental releases of natural enemies to measuring establishment and impact. We also work with the NARS, which include research institutes and universities, by offering training to students and collaborators.

Steffen Abele: Juggling science and research management

abele
Steffen Abele. Photo by IITA

Steffen Abele is a Director of Research whose job is to facilitate the scientists’ research in terms of managing regional activities, and in IITA’s programs, such as in Banana and Plantain systems, Opportunities and Threats, and Agriculture and Health. He is a socioeconomist based in IITA-Tanzania, the East and Southern African hub, which became operational early this year. He joined IITA as a postdoctoral fellow in 2002, became the Program Leader of Social Sciences in 2005, and named Director in 2008.

How has it been like working for IITA?
This is one of the best jobs a scientist can think of: conducting interesting research and at the same time finding solutions to help people in Africa overcome hunger and poverty. And all of that in the most interesting place in the world: Africa.

As an economist, how do you measure the impact of IITA’s R4D on, for example, banana and plantain?
We are only at the beginning of measuring the impact of research, ours and our partners. Banana and plantain are some of the most important food and cash crops in Africa, and our studies already show that the impact we are having from our research brings hundreds of millions of dollars annually into peoples’ hands, in particular in East and Central Africa.

abele_juggling_banana
Steffen Abele Juggling Bananas at IITA-HQ, photo by IITA

As head of the Banana and Plantain Systems Program, what are your plans in the medium term? In the long term?
We—I am not at all working as a lonely “head of program”, but in a very dynamic and enthusiastic team—are trying to raise the profile of banana and plantain and their potential for food and cash. A good step forward was the Banana Conference in Mombasa in 2008.

Where do you see banana and plantain improvement heading?
In the coming years, we will spend a lot of effort identifying and managing present and emerging diseases. This will be done through conventional breeding and genetic modification of germplasm, but also through new disease management practices, and work on healthy planting material, for example, through micro- and macropropagation, also through planting material sanitation. Beyond that, we are also learning a lot in the field of agronomics at the moment, and we hope to have a lot of good recommendations for crop management soon, which will raise yields further.

How could banana and plantain be commercialized in Africa? What are some of the problems in commercializing the crop in SSA?
Banana and plantain are already an important cash crop in Africa. Yet farmers suffer from problems that affect these crops more than any other crop. The crop is perishable and therefore difficult to transport and market. African banana are not competitive in the global market. We will tackle these problems through a multitude of measures: optimizing crop management according to market needs, providing market information, and producing clean planting material—which is a market in itself.

What is the most memorable part of working for IITA?
That would be the external program and management review (EPMR) in 2007. Being a part of management, I certainly wanted nothing more than for IITA to excel in this EPMR. Which we did. The great experience was to move around with the EPMR team and the IITA scientists in Uganda and Tanzania, and see how colleagues worked so hard as teams to present IITA and its achievements. Such moments of team spirit are really impressing, and one actually soars on these spirits for a long time.

How would you encourage colleagues at work?
Keep going, even if it’s tough! You will succeed!

Maria Ayodele: Invest in people

ayodele
Maria Ayodele. Photo by IITA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ayodele-checks-yam-plants
Maria Ayodele checking yam plants. Photo by IITA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian A. Fatokun: The guardian of biosafety

Fatokun
Christian Fatokun. Photo by IITA

Christian Fatokun is a plant breeder/molecular geneticist in charge of biosafety at IITA. He attended the University of Ibadan where he obtained BSc and PhD degrees in agriculture and plant breeding, respectively. He was a lecturer in plant breeding and genetics at his alma mater before joining IITA as a scientist in September 1993. He was also a postdoctoral research fellow in IITA’s farming systems program between 1976 and 1977. According to him, his active working career will end at IITA when he retires this year.

Tell R4D Review about your work.
I work on cowpea improvement. In Nigeria, we eat a lot of cowpea, a cheap source of protein. Before joining IITA I had worked on exploring the genetic potentials of wild cowpea relatives and on the genomics of cowpea. I continued research in both areas when I joined IITA. Now my research is on improving cowpea for enhanced levels of drought tolerance. Compared with many other crops, cowpea is drought tolerant. Our efforts are geared towards increasing the level of tolerance in existing improved and farmers’ varieties. The new varieties would be better adapted to drought stressed environments.

What are some of the highlights of IITA’s work on cowpea?

IITA has a global mandate to study cowpea. It has conducted research, including agronomy, pathology (bacteriology, virology, nematology, Striga and Alectra biology), entomology, physiology, microbiology, socioeconomics, technology transfer, seed storage of germplasm lines, breeding and genetics, and attempts to genetically modify the crop.

Making wide crosses, studying the genome structure, identification of markers with effects on traits of importance, and evaluating germplasm lines for their drought tolerance are all aimed at genetic improvement of cowpea.

We are now developing varieties with enhanced drought tolerance, resistance to Striga and Maruca vitrata, and possessing consumer-preferred traits, such as higher nutritional levels and easier processing. The Bacillus thuringiensis gene which was recently introduced, through bioengineering, into cowpea in Australia can be transferred, using conventional breeding techniques, to lines that are popular with farmers and consumers if the gene is found to be effective in controlling Maruca. I foresee increased research on the contribution of cowpea consumption to human health.

What impact does IITA’s work on cowpea research have on producers and consumers in Africa?
The average cowpea grain yield for Africa up to the 1990s was around 300 kg/ha. According to FAO, average cowpea grain yield for West Africa in 2006 increased from 240 kg/ha to 470 kg/ha. For Nigeria, the world’s number one producer and consumer, grain yield increased from about 470 kg/ha to 670 kg/ha. IITA research on cowpea contributed to these increases.

cowpea-plants
Cowpea. Photo by IITA

There are now new varieties that mature within 60 days from planting. These varieties suffer less damage from drought and pests than traditional varieties that remain much longer in the field before flowering and setting pods. Some improved breeding lines with resistance to field pests such as aphids and flower thrips and the parasitic weeds, Striga gesnerioides and Alectra vogelii are also available. Farmers who adopt these new improved varieties apply insecticides less often. These have reduced production cost, less damage to the environment, and provide less exposure to chemicals. Improved production practices have also increased yield. Improved dual-purpose varieties are particularly beneficial to farmers in the dry savanna regions because the haulms are a very good source of quality fodder for livestock.

What is your work philosophy?
It is to do my very best and leave the rest for others along the chain of workers. The primary school that I attended has as its motto: ”what is worth doing is worth doing well”. We were made to repeat this statement regularly.

In addition, I am convinced that the most benefit can be derived from one’s income only when one always has put in one’s best efforts. Essentially, the nature of the harvest accruing to an individual cannot be different from what has been sown.

How did you get involved in biosafety work?
I participated in the preparation of the Nigeria Biosafety Guidelines that IITA initiated in 1993 and published in 1994. Later, I was invited by the Federal Ministry of Environment to participate in preparing the National Biosafety Framework.

IITA has a biosafety containment facility built next to the biotechnology laboratory. It is at a biosafety level (BL2-P standard), which is appropriate for growing bioengineered crops. We also have a confined field trial site on campus at Ibadan that has not been used since it was constructed. IITA is therefore committed to ensuring compliance with international standards in biosafety.

What are some of the biggest constraints to the adoption of biotechnological tools or products in Africa?
The use of these relatively new tools in research in Africa is in its infancy. There is great promise in the new technology. However, the capacity to carry out research using these new tools is very limited in most African countries. The critical mass of scientists in the field is nonexistent in several African countries. In addition, the needed infrastructure is also lacking. A few countries, such as South Africa and Egypt, have been exemplary in developing scientific capacity and providing resources to support research in this field. Their farmers, both commercial and small-scale, have seen some of the benefits that the technology has to offer. Burkina Faso has recently joined these countries to commercialize a genetically modified crop. Kenya has likewise given approval for the growing of a bioengineered crop in the country.

Biosafety regulatory regimes would be needed for the technology to prosper in Africa.

Fatokun shows off cowpea plants in the screenhouse. Photo by O. Adebayo
Fatokun shows off cowpea plants in the screenhouse. Photo by IITA

What could be done to take advantage of opportunities that current agricultural technologies provide and harness them for the development of African agriculture or the improvement of food security in SSA?
Governments in Africa need to show more commitment to agriculture by addressing the problems that limit productivity. For example, crop production is mostly rainfed and this exposes crops to terminal drought, especially in the savanna region where there is large potential farmland. There are very limited irrigation facilities where year-round farming could be practiced.

Inadequate fertilizer supply to farmers is a major problem. Many of the newly developed crop varieties are responsive to good soil fertility. They cannot attain their optimum yield where soil fertility is low. There should be commitment on the part of governments to ensure availability of this important input. The private sector should be encouraged to get more involved with production, importation, and distribution of agricultural inputs.

In a nutshell, expansion of irrigation facilities, better supply of fertilizers and other needed inputs, such as improved seeds, etc., and the construction of motorable roads to ensure easy transportation of farm produce would, among others, enable farmers to take advantage of available technologies. If these and other identified problems faced by farmers could be addressed, agricultural productivity would be increased and food security ensured. When farmers come across good technologies, they embrace them.

Any lessons or insights that you want to share with colleagues?
We should see ourselves as members of a community of scientists working to solve problems of food security and poverty in Africa. There is a great need for harmoniously working together since we are all working toward the same objectives of increased food production, ensuring food security, and regeneration of income for our clientele. The Yoruba people in Southwestern Nigeria have a saying. When translated, it means that if hunger is eliminated from among the problems associated with poverty, then the burden of poverty is remarkably reduced. As IITA staff, we should always remember that our little individual contributions add up and could make a difference to many people.

Thomas Dubois: Young scientist on the rise

Thomas Dubois, IITA
Thomas Dubois, IITA

Thomas Dubois joined IITA in 2003 to manage the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)-funded regional biocontrol project for banana, based in Uganda. This project has now made significant progress: banana infected with certain strains of endophytic fungi grow more vigorously and are better protected against pests and diseases. The development of this novel “bioprotection” is an exciting research theme that has the potential to revolutionize current thinking on biocontrol. Current focus of this project is to optimize inoculation techniques and scale up activities with commercial producers of tissue-cultured (TC) plants as part of a recently funded Eastern African Programme and Research Network for Biotechnology, Biosafety and Biotechnology Policy Development (BIO-EARN) project in Kenya and Uganda.

In 2006, Thomas received the prestigious CGIAR Young Scientist Award. At present he is heading a BMZ project on improving market pathways for TC banana centered on commercial TC producers and nursery distribution centers. He is also spearheading the 2008 International Banana Conference in Mombasa, Kenya, as Chair of the Organizing Committee.

How did you come to IITA?
I studied bio-engineering first and then some foreign exchanges spurred my international ambitions. After my studies, in 1998, I was placed with IITA in Onne, southeast Nigeria. I absolutely fell in love with the then cowboy attitudes: nothing beats eating goat head, listening to Afropop in between oilrigs and blown up tankers! I liked the applied work, screening banana plants for nematode resistance, working under the supervision of Abdou Tenkouano and the late Paul Speijer. While I was at Onne, I was accepted at Cornell University to do my PhD studies in Insect Pathology. As I told Lukas Brader, the DG at that time, “I will be back.” After my PhD studies I was quickly involved in a fairly high-profile project with the United States Department of Agriculture, combating a devastating invasive insect species in the northern US; I traveled to China every year for prolonged periods of time. I toyed with the idea of entering Business School and tried to get into private industry. I settled with management consulting firms, using the Ivy League degree as leverage. I tried to get back into the CGIAR system and landed an 8-month stint with IITA in Uganda in 2003. This was a short project related to the use of endophytes, with no job security but ideal to get my foot in the door. I have been at IITA ever since.

What are some of your memorable experiences in research in the field or in the lab?
I like the applied and hands-on work. You can get much more done with a large dedicated team of staff, sometimes with less access to good infrastructure and facilities. I had to play farm manager for more than a year, doing activities from supplying water, fuel, and satellite dishes to keep the station running, to chasing away cows from encroaching the research fields in my spare time.

What are your realizations on the job?
I have come to appreciate several important realizations. First of all comes focus. It is easy to be carried away and drift into the development aspect of things. We are first and foremost scientists, on the applied side of science, publishing our work through peer-reviewed journals. It should be up to partner organizations to feed high-tech science upstream or to implement the work downstream. So choosing the right partners is essential. Secondly, teamwork is important. I started to fully appreciate this fairly late. Competition is natural in low quantities but, by definition, has no place in an institution that aims to do Research to nourish Africa. By working synergistically as a team and sometimes reaching out to other “competitor” organizations you would be surprised at what can be achieved in a short time and how the relationship can be swiftly turned into fruitful collaboration. Thirdly, at IITA, the sky seems to be the limit but sometimes you have to let go. One person simply cannot run two large international projects, write some more, fly to DR Congo to help with restructuring the agricultural sector, correct PhD theses, be a webmaster, and run a massive conference at the same time. My workload is insane but it is partly my fault.

What are your future plans?
In the immediate future, I would focus on my project on improving market pathways for TC banana centered on commercial TC producers and nursery distribution centers. Also, commercialization of the technology with private enterprises—this is what the BIO-EARN project is trying to do. At some point later, I hope to leave science and secure a managerial position with more job security as well. Deep down I know I am not a scientist “pure sang”. Moving on to the bigger scheme of things can be anything, ranging from research management, policy, advocacy, consultancy to donor relations.

Dubois examining a banana plant. Photo by IITA
Dubois examining a banana plant. Photo by IITA

Any advice for colleagues?
I am among the youngest at IITA so I should be receiving advice from others! A strong focus has been on mentoring students and I would hope that some colleagues would train more students. I have been supervising over 25 students in the last 5 years, both those from within Africa and European-based MSc students who do their research at IITA-Uganda. Benefits are manifold for them and IITA. Secondly, I think IITA folk could benefit if they “sell” themselves a bit more, through radio, TV, websites, and the popular press. Benefits include changing donor conceptions and misconceptions, putting science in the forefront, and ultimately benefiting farmers. Thirdly, it has helped me to think a lot out of the box and be a generalist. I came as an entomologist with a title of “biocontrol specialist”. Now I am running a socioeconomic project entirely focused on market pathways for banana seed systems. One could look out of the box for good private sector players or partners. This is essential, in my opinion, for long-term sustainability.

What is your dream for Africa?
I hope Africa will, at some point, be weaned off the many donor agencies, volunteering organizations, and NGOs that seem to be becoming a sustainable big-bucket business rather than a means to an end. A conducive climate for private sector development, together with good governance, is what I wish for sub-Saharan Africa.

Leena Tripathi: Looking after the welfare of smallholder banana growers

Leena Tripathi was born and grew up in India. She gained a PhD in Plant Molecular Biology from the National Botanical Institute, Lucknow, after completing an MSc in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar, India.

She joined IITA in 2000 and worked first in Nigeria and currently in Uganda where her primary research focuses on the development of transgenic Musa spp. with disease and pest resistance. She has established strong links with national and regional partners, and advanced labs. She is also Guest Faculty at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) for biosafety courses.

Please describe your research work.
Since 2000, I have been developing transgenic banana and plantain resistant to pests and diseases. Currently, I am leading projects on producing bananas resistant to Xanthomonas wilt using the transgenic approach. I am also involved in capacity building in biotechnology and biosafety. I have trained several African scientists in genetic transformation and tissue culture. I have assisted in building capacity on genetically modified organism (GMO) detection and biosafety in East Africa by training students and national scientists on banana transformation and molecular biology. And I would like to acknowledge the strong financial support from donors such as Gatsby Charitable Foundation, African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), US Agency for International Development, and the UK Department for International Development (DFID); and IITA of course.

Why did you choose to work in Africa?
Africa has missed the Green Revolution but should not miss the Gene Revolution. For this it needs human capacity in biotechnology that will help to accomplish things that conventional plant breeding could never do. The public needs to be better informed about the importance of biotechnology in food production.

What is the importance of transgenic technologies in banana improvement?
Many pests and diseases significantly affect banana cultivation and cause crop losses worldwide. Development of disease-resistant banana by conventional breeding remains difficult for various technical reasons. Transgenic technologies are the most cost-effective approach. There are enormous potentials for genetic manipulation using appropriate transgenes from other plants to achieve objectives in a far shorter time. It may also be possible to incorporate other characteristics such as drought tolerance, thus extending the geographical spread of production.

How do you demystify or explain a concept like biotechnology to lay audiences?
People think that biotechnology is just genetic modification (GM) technology. Contrary to its name, biotechnology is not a single technology; it is a group of technologies that uses biological systems, living organisms, or their derivatives, to make or modify products or processes for specific use. This includes recombinant DNA technology, genetic engineering, GM foods, biopharmaceuticals, bioremediation, and more.

Biotechnology is not new; it has flourished since prehistoric times. When the first human beings realized that they could plant their own crops and breed their own animals, they learned to use biotechnology. The discovery that fruit juices fermented into wine, or that milk could be converted into cheese or yogurt, or that beer could be made by fermenting solutions of malt and hops, started the study of biotechnology. When the first bakers found that they could make soft, spongy bread rather than a firm, thin cracker, they were acting as fledgling biotechnologists.

“Modern” biotechnology derives from techniques discovered only in the last 20 years. These include the ability to cut and stitch DNA, to move DNA and genes from one organism to another, and to persuade the new gene in this new organism, that is to make new proteins. Genetic engineering technology is a branch of modern biotechnology and involves the transfer of gene(s) from one organism to another to create a new species of crops, animals, or microorganism. Modern biotechnology has offered opportunities to produce more nutritious and better tasting foods, higher crop yields, and plants that are naturally protected from disease and insects.

What have you learned on the job?
I joined IITA as a biotechnologist with plenty of experience in research but not in the field. Working at IITA has been overwhelmingly positive. I have gained experience in both research and administration. I have learned to appreciate the benefits of working in multidisciplinary and multicultural teams and of linking research to farmers in the field. I can now write successful project proposals, get funding, lead projects, and disseminate results to national partners and finally to farmers. Good communication skills are essential for successful research. One needs to be a good team worker and establish strong and successful partnerships as we are doing at IITA-Uganda. When I was relocated here, I realized the situation was very different. IITA in Ibadan has facilities but in Uganda, IITA facilities are based within a national partner, the National Agricultural Research Organization. I wanted to learn quickly from the experiences of others so I talked to colleagues about their work and successes and to national scientists about their expectations. I learned quickly.

Any advice for IITA colleagues?
IITA scientists should be committed to provide strong leadership in the key research areas to ensure scientific excellence and the quality of products. They should work applying “new science” to enhance food security and income generation for resource-poor farmers.

What are your future research plans?
I want to evaluate the disease resistance of banana varieties in the field, evaluate transgenic plants in the confined field for efficacy against Xanthomonas wilt disease, with the University of Leeds develop nematode-resistant plantains, and develop varieties with multiple disease resistance by integrating several genes with different targets or modes of action into the plant genome. I also want to train more national staff/students to build capacity in the region.

What is your formula for success?
The addition and sometimes multiplication of five key elements: vision, strategy, confidence, hard work, and learning. I am focused and have a clear vision for my research, based on project outputs. I frame strategy with clear goals. I follow the strategy with my group members and work hard to achieve the goals. At each step I identify problems and learn to solve or avoid them so that the group moves smoothly and fast to achieve the goals. I set the goals for my group at the start of each year. Everyone works extra hours to achieve group goals. I do not hesitate to seek advice and suggestions from experts, superiors, and collaborators to move things efficiently. Support is very important. I have benefited from support and encouragement from my superiors, higher IITA management, donors, collaborators, and from family. IITA nominated me for the CGIAR Young Scientist award in 2005 and gave me their Top Scientist award, based on my research achievements.