New Director General

IITA has a new Director General: Dr Nteranya E. Sanginga.

Director General Nteranya Sanginga. Photo by IITA.
Director General Nteranya Sanginga. Photo by IITA.

Dr Bryan Harvey, chair of IITA’s Board of Trustees, said, “Dr Sanginga was selected from an outstanding group. His achievements in reinvigorating the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute (TSBF) of the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT), and tropical experience make him an ideal choice to take on the much broader task of guiding IITA into the next decade.”

“We are confident that under his administration IITA will continue its outstanding work in improving the lives of the tropical people in Africa and throughout the world,” he added.

Having served as the Director of the Nairobi-based CIAT-TSBF, Dr Sanginga has more than 21 years of experience with the University of Zimbabwe, IITA, International Atomic Energy Agency in Austria, and CIAT-TSBF, in agricultural research and development, particularly in the fields of applied microbial ecology, plant nutrition, and integrated natural resources management in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia.

Dr Sanginga is from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He did most of his postgraduate training at IITA and his PhD in Agronomy/Soil Microbiology under a joint program between IITA and the Institut Facultaire des Sciences Agronomiques, Yangambi, DRC.

He has extensive skills in research management, developing partnerships and institutional linkages, and institution building. Under his leadership, the CIAT-TSBF portfolio rose from $1.2 million in 2003 to over $14.5 million in 2010. Its research-for-development agenda expanded from focusing on western Kenya to covering the major agroecosystems of east, central, and southern Africa.

He has also played a major role in the creation of the Consortium for Improving Agriculture-based Livelihood in Central Africa (CIALCA) that includes three international research centers (IITA, CIAT-TSBF, and Bioversity), university partners in Belgium, national research and development partners in DRC, Burundi, and Rwanda.

During his career he has also focused on building the capacity of young scientists in Africa. He has trained more than 30 PhD candidates at the National University of Congo, School of Agriculture and the University of Zimbabwe, who now hold leadership positions in their countries.

Dr Sanginga had spent 14 years in IITA in various capacities, including principal scientist and head of the soil microbiology unit; project coordinator; and leader of a multidisciplinary program, collaborating with many scientists in national and international institutions.

Dr Sanginga succeeds Dr Hartmann effective November 2011.

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.

Ticket out of poverty

Market in Nigeria. Photo by IITA
A market in Nigeria. photo by IITA

The world’s food supply has for the last few decades worked well but now new dynamics, as reflected by the recent food crisis, call for change. The current system, based on large-scale production in the developed world, is efficient and responsive to market dictates though distorted by subsidies. It could be stabilized when complemented with a more significant system from the developing world. Such a two-tiered system would also protect poor regions of the world from extreme food scenarios.

Today’s world food situation has been well aired in the media. But what is not fully appreciated is the opportunity it also brings for Africa. As the most food-deprived region of the world, Africa needs a more robust agricultural growth. This food crisis, albeit temporary, could be used to trigger an agricultural turn-around. African countries are food importers and thus affected by international prices of traded food commodities, but have untapped assets to exploit for the immediate and longer term.

The African food basket is, in many countries, complex and its commodities are affected differently by international food prices. For example, while maize prices in Tanzania were dragged up with the world prices, the effect on sorghum, cassava, and plantain was much less. This allows some immediate substitution and underscores the need for focusing on local production, helps reduce foreign currency needs that limit a country’s purchasing power, and stimulates rural economies to benefit both the rural and urban poor.1

Food commodities also allow for substitution in agroprocessing. If rice is used to produce starch, it can be replaced with other crops such as millet/sorghum or roots and tubers. Bread does not have to be 100% wheat. Tef, banana, sweetpotato, millet, sorghum, and a mix can be used that includes cassava, and yam. This richness needs to be more appreciated and encouraged.2

For the less immediate term Africa just needs to produce more (see Figure 1). Its food output is extremely low. But its diversity of ecologies, altitudes, and cultures, is a powerful asset. Africa can produce more food by expanding acreage, unlike Asia. But other things need to happen before the potential of ample arable lands can be realized. Immediate needs would be rural feeder roads, access to credit and inputs, and a stimulated processing sector. The latter is increasingly important as the growing urban migration means more consumers are far from production zones and food shelf-life and convenience are major concerns.

Figure 1. Index of total agricultural output per capita by region (index 1961-2005). Adapted from FAOSTAT 2006. Source: Hazel and Woods.
Figure 1. Index of total agricultural output per capita by region (index 1961-2005). Adapted from FAOSTAT 2006. Source: Hazel and Woods.

For the medium term, Africa has to increase yields. For most food crops of sub-Saharan Africa3 yields can be increased by 150-300% immediately, because varieties already exist with this potential4.

To benefit more from what it grows, Africa also needs a parallel effort to reduce huge (postharvest) losses, ranging from 18 to 40% depending on the crop. Investments in food processing and transformation, energy, and roads are needed.

This processing and transformation capacity is also critical to address the rural-to-urban migration, which is itself a major challenge. Not long ago, 80-90% of Africans were rural; today most are urban. Wars have accelerated rural-to-urban migration. Africa must increase production even more, because it is not one to one in feeding the urban versus the rural poor. As production systems function today there is tremendous waste at all levels, rural and urban.

A holistic approach to the sector is essential and includes the now well-rehearsed list of needs and problems—infrastructure, finance, taxation, corruption, communication, soils, inputs, productivity, and numerous postharvest technologies and processes. As these elements are developed and constraints cleared away, the approach has to adjust. Underinvestment in infrastructure is costly in many ways. Transport difficulties, for example, give Malawi’s (2007/8) maize surpluses few outlets so that farmers do not fully gain from favorable global prices.

Family eating banana
Family eating banana

It is not uncommon to have food shortages in one part of a country, when another has food surpluses. Poor information and transport systems, plus the short shelf-life of many commodities prevent Africa from benefiting fully from its harvest. In Ethiopia, widespread drought (2003) in some parts of the country put at risk over 12 million people, while in other parts, prices collapsed due to a bumper crop of cereals (Borlaug and Natios). Zambians (2004) were suffering from a shortage of cassava, when Nigeria had abundant surpluses.

Small producers are one group that needs special attention. While they are the key to Africa’s food self-sufficiency, it is hard for them to respond effectively to increased food needs on their own. One way to support them is to encourage the movement of their produce into alternative uses within the food chain.1 Again, this means investments in the agroprocessing sectors and a slew of processed food products. Farmers take all the risks but rarely benefit long from any gains.

Conclusion: The full use of Africa’s assets—arable land, different ecologies, altitudes, cultural differences, and eating habits—gives Africa resources more powerful than oil. Emphasizing and then benefiting from the agricultural sector has positive repercussions that reach far into all segments of an economy, in particular in increasing employment at all levels and with it, purchasing power.

1 Hartmann. 2004. An Approach to Hunger and Poverty. IITA.
2 Cereal imports in the last couple of years have increased by a factor of three to five times.
3 Rice is the exception where the yield gap is around 67%.
4 For example, IITA varieties of these crops already have this potential built into their genetic codes.