Steffen Abele: Juggling science and research management

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.

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!

East and Southern Africa hub

IITA launched its new East and Southern Africa (ESA) hub this year to give priority attention to research in banana, plantain, and cassava, and to provide better services to scientists in those two regions. Based in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, it will also carry out research on other IITA mandate crops, such as yam, maize, and soybean.

The hub, according to IITA Director Steffen Abele, will look at the diversification of banana breeding programs from the more highland-oriented sites to coastal regions, where there is a huge diversity of banana that can be exploited. Attention on banana and cassava is expected to go a long way in improving the livelihoods of resource-poor farmers and in alleviating poverty.

The ESA hub focuses on Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, The Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, DR Congo, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Lesotho, Angola, and Botswana.