IITA has a new Director General: Dr Nteranya E. Sanginga.
Dr Bryan Harvey, chair of IITAâ€™s Board of Trustees, said, â€œDr 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.â€
â€œWe 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,â€ 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.
Coffee and banana yields in the East African highlands are often only 10 to 30% of those achieved in commercial farms in Latin America and Asia. This is the result of a mixture of biotic stresses on the crops such as pests, diseases, and weeds, and abiotic constraints such as poor soil quality and drought.
Poor crop management practices that do not sufficiently address these constraints prevent farmers from reaping maximum benefits from their efforts.
However, the importance of these yield-limiting factors differs from region to region. The natural resources management (NRM) approach therefore starts with identifying the gap between the actual, attainable, and potential yields for each location.
Diagnostic surveys and analytical tools such as the boundary line analysis are used to rank and quantify the causes of low yields. This then guides the development of tailor-made measures and actions for farmers.
Smart use of mineral fertilizer and organic matter
Poor soils are one major cause of low yields in the East African highlands. Much of Africaâ€™s soils are old and poor, situated on very old continental plates. Only a few places have soils that still have substantial nutrient stocks, such as those derived from young volcanic material and metamorphic rocks.
Years and years of soil erosion and poor farming methods that mine minerals have worsened the situation.
IITA is working with farmers to combine organic manure and mineral fertilizer to replenish soil nutrients to meet the needs of banana and coffee.
Piet van Asten, IITA systems agronomist based in Uganda, says the approach stresses the judicious use of mineral fertilizer that is moderate in quantity, applied at the right time and in the right way, and combined with locally available organic matter.
â€œThe combination of fertilizers and organic matter provides much-needed additional nutrients that are efficiently used up by the crops. The organic matter helps to retain mineral fertilizers applied in the topsoil and reduces losses from leaching,â€ he says. â€œIt also improves the soil physical properties which help to retain soil humidity and control the temperature. Plants thrive in such humid and temperate environments as the roots are better able to take up nutrients.â€
Sources of local organic matter are mulch, urine, manure, and compost.
Research has shown that adding mineral fertilizers and mulch to both coffee and banana nearly doubles their yields. However, the fertilizer type and dose have to supply the nutrients that are lacking.
Through mapping soil and plant nutrient status, IITA identified the missing nutrients in each region. Subsequently, it developed region-specific recommendations for using fertilizer and organic mulch in parts of Uganda.
Training materials were also developed to teach farmers how to identify nutrient deficiencies in their own farms by observing plant leaves. This should ultimately help them to localize their fertilizer needs down to the farm level.
Halting and preventing soil erosion by placing contour bunds stabilized by forage/mulch grasses and leguminous plants are also important to conserve and improve soil quality.
Smart intercropping systems
IITA has been working on promoting the intercropping of banana/plantain and coffee as research has clearly shown that intercropping works better than monocropping either crop.
Coffee, a shade-loving plant, performs well when grown under banana/plantain. Research findings showed that creating space for the banana/plantain does not reduce the yield of coffee but instead, the farmer gets bonus income from the banana.
Such intercropping systems, says van Asten, spread the socioeconomic risks of farmers as they become less vulnerable to the price fluctuations of a single crop.
â€œThe two intercrops provide farmers with permanent piecemeal harvests from banana and annual or biannual cash booms from coffee,â€ he said.
Intercropping has other benefits. It leads to sharing of inputs, such as fertilizers purchased through the cash crop system, such as coffee farmersâ€™ cooperatives. It also improves fertilizer-use efficiency, as fertilizer applied to the cash crop also benefits the food crop.
Intercropping improves the biophysical efficiency of the systems by providing better and more permanent canopy and soil cover that reduce erosion. It improves soil organic carbon stocks (carbon sequestration) through the biomass produced.
Another benefit, says van Asten, is that intercropping can sometimes increase the quality of some crops. For instance, under suboptimal growing conditions, shade-grown coffee is often of better quality and thus could fetch more money on the market.
Linking to input and output markets
In a study of the factors that limit farmersâ€™ usage of mineral fertilizers for their banana plants, Uganda farmers cited lack of access as one constraint. Moreover, they said it was not available in smaller packaging and more affordable sizes. IITA is working to encourage farmer cooperatives that are organized around postharvest handling, sorting, and bulking to organize the supply of inputs such as fertilizer for their members.
According to van Asten, cooperatives have better access to input/output markets and improved powers of negotiation. They have improved access to market information, bulking and storage facilities, savings and credit schemes through collaboration, and agreements with input/output dealers. They can also facilitate the exploration of niche markets through the certification of products in terms of quality, production, and techniques.
Smart extension services
To meet the information needs of farmers, IITA and partners are exploring options to make location-specific information accessible. This includes the use of extension publications, videos, and mobile phone services.
Together with the Grameen Foundation, IITA is exploring how information can be tailored to the location of the farmer through a (decision-tree) series of questions. The more information a farmer can provide, the more precise the recommendations will be.
The NRM work on coffee and banana shows that there are practical, readily available measures that farmers can use to increase yield and contribute towards the fight against poverty and hunger. However, they have to be region- and crop-specific for maximum impact.
â€œFor all these measures to be successful, they must start with using clean and resistant planting materials. Investing in fertilizers for use on diseased plants is a futile exercise,â€ concludes van Asten.
In the past, natural resources management covered approximately half of all activities and funds of IITA and similar institutes in the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Most often, it did not include the conservation of wild biodiversity. The other half of funds and personnel were allotted to crop plant biodiversity, mainly the varieties available worldwide in genebanks. Increasingly, however, farmersâ€™ varieties and wild relatives of crop plants became important and the biodiversity of pathogens and witchweed were investigated in view of their use for resistance breeding.
Thanks to new technologies, breeding barriers between species could be overcome and foreign genetic material was incorporated into so-called â€œgenetically modified organismsâ€ (GMOs). These are being tested at a relatively small scale in some African countries. They are the source of real worries and polemical distortions, while countries such as the USA, China, Argentina, Brazil, and India have chosen to grow some GMOs on vast areas. Today, GMOs are at the center of a heated debate in an unnecessarily antagonistic manner, pitting the ideals of biodiversity conservation against the need to feed the world.
Since the end of the 1980s, the importance of biodiversity in general for a sustainable future of Planet Earth has been increasingly publicized. At the Rio Conference in 1990, global warming and the loss of biodiversity were singled out as the two most important issues facing mankind. The climate conference in Copenhagen last year was supposed to reach goals on halting and mitigating climate change. The conference is generally considered to have been a failure; nevertheless, great efforts to avoid a climatic disaster are being taken by many governments, even without the wished-for strict regulations.
And here we are in 2010, the “International Year of Biodiversityâ€. International nongovernmental organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), BirdLife International, and many others are highly active in conservation and their efforts are showing successes. Most countries have subscribed to their ethics, signed the international treaties, and established focal points for the Convention of Biodiversity. For the CGIAR, though, biodiversity conservation mostly remains germplasm conservation. It is the world leader in the conservation of genetic material of crop plants and their wild relatives (for instance, yam and cowpea, of particular interest in West Africa). It is instrumental in the development of rules and regulations about the ownership of germplasm under the umbrella of the Food and Agriculture Organization.
IITA is also co-developing best practices and tool kits for collecting germplasm and houses important pathogen collections. Generally though, conservation of other forms of biodiversity is treated rather timidly. The general antagonism between agriculture and nature conservation thus persists. Yet, it probably need not be so: In 2001, IUCN and Future Harvest came together to publish a policy paper outlining â€˜The common ground and common future, how eco-agriculture can help feed the world and save wild biodiversityâ€™. While some of the claims might be overwrought, enough is known to allow progress towards the twin goals of saving the bulk of biodiversity while feeding the human population.
Many more natural enemies are out there in the wild, suppressing their hosts or their prey. Most concern agricultural pests, but increasingly, conservation biological control is becoming important to save natural habitats from invaders. IITA is participating in these international efforts through its biological control of floating water weeds across Africa.
To assess the elusive so-called â€œecosystem servicesâ€, sophisticated biodiversity studies are required. IITAâ€™s historic classical biological control projects were against cassava and mango mealybug and cassava green mite, three formidable agricultural pests. The first two were not even known to science before they appeared in new habitats. These examples from South America and India illustrate how the â€˜ecosystem servicesâ€™ provided by pests’ natural enemies in the home environments remain hidden until harmful insects and mites get dissociated from their predators. Important services are also provided by microbials and pollinators, but these become visible to farmers and policymakers only when their function is impaired. Examples are lack of conservation because of wanton destruction or by bad agricultural practices, such as those that lead to the depletion of nutrients in soils or the destruction of suppressive soils.
The contribution to sustainable agriculture and conservation that IITA can make is by improving the tools (GIS, sociological, etc.) and by significant advances in research and its application to real world needs. We can thus establish an intellectual agenda for discussion and change within IITA, collaborating organizations, and society at large. Comparing this claim for action with the actual situation at IITA, we find that traditional biodiversity conservation in the form of crop plant germplasm is rather well implemented; but the conservation of nonplant biodiversity is weakly institutionalized and would need better support. Natural resources management offers the intellectual platform to integrate the different disciplines in a sustainable manner. Unfortunately, the inclusion of all biodiversity activities in a holistic natural resources management remains a dream.