Sunday Ekesi: Partnership is about respect

Sunday Ekesi of icipe
Sunday Ekesi of icipe. Photo from icipe

Sunday Ekesi is a research entomologist from Nigeria working at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe). He is currently leading a continent-wide initiative on the African fruit flies that threaten the production and export of fruits and vegetables. Its aim is to develop a cost-effective and sustainable technology for controlling the pest.

What are your research interests and focus?
I have a lot of curiosity for all aspects of reducing damage to crops by arthropod pests to raise productivity, increase income, and improve the livelihood of smallholder growers across Africa. I am interested in integrated pest management (IPM), the development and application of entomopathogens and baiting techniques for managing arthropod pests and their integration into habitat management and other IPM approaches.

The goal is to develop effective, economical, and environmentally sound approaches for managing arthropod pests and to reduce dependence on chemical pesticides.

My research center on the development of an IPM package that encompasses baiting techniques, classical biological control, application of augmentorium, entomopathogens, and postharvest treatment for quarantine fruit flies.

Tell us about the project on fruit flies
icipe and IITA are the pioneering institutions that address the fruit fly menace in Africa. The project, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), involves developing and implementing an IPM program for three major mango pests—tephritid fruit flies (e.g., Bactrocera invadens and Ceratitis cosyra), mango seed weevil (Sternochetus mangiferae), and mealybugs (Rastrococcus iceryoides). These tree pests ravage mango, causing losses ranging from 30 to 80%, depending on locality, variety, and season. Fruit flies and mango seed weevil are also quarantine pests and quarantine restrictions limit the export of fruits to lucrative markets abroad.

In the project, icipe, IITA, and the University of Bremen, together with national agricultural research system (NARS) and advanced research institute (ARI) partners in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the USA are developing and implementing IPM programs in Kenya, Tanzania, and Bénin. The project aims to minimize the use of pesticides that lead to unwanted residues, and so to facilitate compliance with the standards required for domestic urban and export markets.

Any insights about partnership?
Partnership is about having common and complementary interests. Capacity and expertise can be strengthened only through partnerships and shared commitments. Partners have to believe that their work will make a difference. The scale and scope of work are usually amplified by the collaboration and it is in the interest of all scientists and centers to work with one another to solve pertinent problems to benefit the growers.

Above all, partnership is about respect for opinion and one another, affection, trust, and generosity. There is a lot that icipe and IITA can do together—projects that take a holistic approach to crop problems in which IPM is only one component.

Sunday Ekesi and a PhD student discuss fruit fly control methods with a mango grower
Sunday Ekesi and a PhD student discuss fruit fly control methods with a mango grower

Who are your other collaborators?
We work with the World Vegetable Center largely on managing red spider mite; also with the International Atomic Energy Agency in developing attractants for fruit fly management and rearing methods in support of the sterile insect technique and with the SP-IPM and other CGIAR centers that are interested in applying IPM for pest suppression.

I work with farmers with established orchards and involve them in formulating any research agenda from day one. Our national partners in all the target countries are the key to identifying farmers and farmer groups. They work with us from project planning to implementation and are vital to the success of the project.

What are your challenges?
I work mostly with alien invasive species where the first choice of management is classical biological control. This involves exploration for natural enemies in their aboriginal home. There are enormous challenges arising from the movement of biological control agents because of restrictions related to the Convention on Biological Diversity. No country is willing to allow any living organism to be taken from their environment for use in another country. Classical biological control is all about international public good yet it is becoming increasingly difficult to take natural enemies from one place to help in another country facing a devastating pest problem. We have not been able to bring in parasitoids of B. invadens to Africa from its putative aboriginal home of Sri Lanka. Similarly, it has been extremely difficult to obtain parasitoids of R. iceryoides from India for managing the pest in Kenya and Tanzania.

Another challenge is working on three complex insect pests at the same time. None of these pests is easy to deal with but by prioritizing the activities, sharing the tasks among partners, and ensuring that the milestones are achievable, we have been able to address the challenges. Coordination has been challenging but the partnership has been wonderful.

There are rewards as well. Being able to find affordable solutions to pest problems and seeing farmers apply the technologies—those make me happy. For example, in one of our project benchmark sites in Kenya, farmers previously could not sell mangoes to urban markets or export to lucrative markets in the Middle East because of the B. invadens problems. They are now able to do so by adopting technologies from the project. This is motivating and rewarding!