Prof Felix Nweke: Staying true to the course

Prof Felix Nweke about himself: I was born in Eastern Nigeria as an Igbo man but I consider myself an African right now. My training background is agricultural economics. I am a professor by occupation, retired some years back. Just call me “Prof.”

How did you get into root and tuber crops research & development?
I like that question because yam and cassava are the rhythm of my life from the beginning; I was born growing and eating them. When I was born where I was born we woke up in the morning, ate cassava fufu, then went to the field. Later in the afternoon we ate yam and continued to work in the field until dusk. We went home and ate cassava again for dinner; we did this day in, day out and it was good at that time.

As I grew up and went to school I was attracted to agriculture by the then Government of Eastern Nigeria which offered scholarships. My interest was in mathematics but my parents could not pay my university education costs from growing yam and cassava. At the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, which is in the yam belt of the world, what was taught was not called yam and cassava but those crops were still part of everyday life.

When I completed the undergraduate program and after my Biafran experience, I went to Michigan State University (MSU) for postgraduate studies. There, I was spared working on and eating cassava and yam but on return to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, as a teacher I got immersed in the influence of those crops once again. The first research program I conducted was a project titled “Yam-Based Cropping System of Eastern Nigeria”; it was as if I had no choice but work on yam.

Can you explain the benefit and value of yam to you.
I envy my parent’s generation and rhythm of life for its routine and stable life pattern. That is the positive side. But there is a negative side to the life of that generation; I told you we ate cassava in the morning, yam in the afternoon, and cassava again at night. That story is true but yam was not always available, especially during the hungry season (after planting yam). During the hungry season we ate cassava morning, afternoon, and night. At the time, it meant nothing to me; but today if I have to worry about what my grandchildren would eat the next day, I would probably go what some people of the Caribbean describe as “separat”, i.e., mind and body going separate ways.

My parents worried about what we would eat the next day. Today, not everybody can afford even to eat cassava three times a day. I know families that live under leaking roofs, if you can call it a roof at all; I know families that cannot afford painkillers when a member is sick. When I walk in the streets I see beggars all the time. I do not give to them because private charity does not solve the social inequality problem. I pursue social justice by doing my work with honesty, courage, and commitment; in that way everybody can benefit from my work. If successful, my work on yam and cassava research will benefit everybody. That is what I got from my childhood experience of poverty and deprivation, which are still the experience of many people today.

What make yam and cassava so interesting?
Cassava and yam are interesting to me because they are rooted in my blood; if you cut me, I shall bleed cassava and yam. I could have migrated to the US and worked on wheat or corn but that will be a betrayal; by working on yam and cassava I am staying true to the course; I am giving back to what made me what I am and I feel good doing that.

Those crops are important to people of sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. There is a lot of value in these crops; we know that about cassava in Africa because that is a crop that is now well studied. It is clear that cassava has a lot of food and monetary values while its value as feed and industrial raw material remains potentials as far as Africa is concerned.

On the other hand, yam is not studied and people do not understand the crop. The monetary value to farmers who produce yam is quite high; when farmers grow yam they can sell all of it because they cannot afford their own yam. The money they get from it is more valuable to them than the yam; they use that money to buy cheaper foods like cassava.

It is often said that yam has cultural values, but people have a superficial understanding of that value. When a farmer distinguishes himself in yam production, he becomes a reference point in his community; when he speaks, people listen. He plays a key role in community mobilization and leadership. Rites of thanksgiving, passage, appeasement, and petition that are performed with yam as a ritual object among several yam-producing people of West Africa sustain the traditional social values in which the existence of the people, individually and communally, is rooted.

What does the future of yam look like to you?
The future of yam looks bright to me. Today, yam is costly to produce because of Stone Age technologies that dominate the yam crop sector. Yam production, harvesting, and storage technologies are primitive. Why? The answer is that there has not been significant investment in yam research and development. Yam is produced and consumed in West Africa, mostly, that is. West African governments do not care and in that case the Western world does not bother.

But the situation is beginning to change with the funding of YIIFSWA by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In a regional agricultural research on a crop produced and consumed with rudimentary technology, US$12 million over five years is seed money. But it is an important seed money because it is the first of its kind and it will grow to help break the low technology bottleneck in the yam crop sector.

People have talked about the extinction of yam because of its primitive production and handling technologies. Such people should understand that as long as there are yam eaters, yam would be produced. Yam has a bright future because in spite of high costs, West Africans have continued to produce and eat yam. More importantly, with the US$12 million funding for YIIFSWA, the international donor community is beginning to appreciate the various values of yam.

What is yam’s added value?
It is not easy to think clearly of those added values with the present high cost of yam production. Converting yam to starch, liquor, ethanol, etc., will be irrational behavior because there are cheaper sources of those products. If yam is discovered to possess some high medicinal value, which no other plant has, such as a substance that can cure common diseases that have so far defied cure such as diabetes, various cancers, HIV/AIDS, etc., then the crop can be rationally diverted to such use.

How would you then describe the yam of the future?
This is a good question but the answer is not direct because of the different purposes that yam serves which may be conflicting in terms of the nature of yam that serves each purpose. Long ago, I think it was in 1980, the future of yam was the subject of a panel discussion at the Triennial Conference of the ISTRB-African Branch at IITA. The answer to the question ought to consider the different requirements for the various uses for yam. But there is a bottom line and that is cost; the yam of the future must be delivered for the various uses at reduced cost. Yam has no rival as a ritual object in cultural rites in producing communities, but that use alone cannot sustain yam in the future. Yam as food has a wide range of competitors some of which are produced at very low costs following high levels of investments in research and development in the Western countries. As those alternative foods become cheaper, people will switch to them.

You have been associated with IITA for so many years. What do you see as its strengths and what areas need more focus?
I have been associated with IITA since 1977. When I returned to Nigeria from graduate school at Michigan State University, the first place I had a job was the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, as a teacher. A university teacher in agriculture has responsibility for teaching, research, and extension. But the university did not have money for research and I did not want my research responsibility to suffer.

I had a senior colleague in graduate school who was a scientist at IITA, his name was Fred Winch. Fred passed away a few years ago; I do want to remember him. I used Fred’s facilities to carry out the study of “Yam-Based Cropping Systems of Eastern Nigeria” which I referred to earlier. Kun Tekail, who was Director of the Farming Systems Program at IITA, asked me to come to IITA as a full Scientist. I declined because I was enjoying what I was doing in Eastern Nigeria. He then appointed me as a Honoris Causa Scientist at IITA. I continued to work with IITA resources as an honorary scientist until 1987 when I caved in to pressure from Larry Stiffel to join IITA as a full scientist.

I was employed at IITA as a yam economist to work with yam agronomists. Dunstan Spencer was the director of the Resource and Crops Management Program in which I was based. A few months after I came to IITA Dunstan assigned the COSCA project leadership to me and I moved from working on yam to working on cassava. I left IITA in 1997 but I have continued to work on cassava.

There is an agricultural problem that IITA needs to address. That problem is neglected perhaps because of the assumption that Africa’s agricultural development will necessarily follow the path of other regions’ agriculture. For example, in Africa R and D effort is focused on achieving a Green Revolution because of the success of Green Revolution in Asia and South America. But are Africa’s needs and circumstances the same as those of Asia and South America? In Africa, a different kind of revolution is needed to pave the way for a Green Revolution; that is Mechanical Revolution. In the 21st century African agriculture based on the hand hoe cannot compete with the rest-of-the-world agriculture. I am not talking of tractor mechanization but improved farm tools that are designed by engineers working in Africa and maintainable by local artisans.

How do you perceive the impact of IITA’s work on roots and tubers for farmers in Africa?
Whoa! Tremendous! In Nigeria, scientifically determined yield of cassava was 15 tons per hectare in the 1990s following wide adoption of IITA’s high-yielding mosaic resistant TMS varieties. There was an estimate that in Nigeria alone, the additional value in terms of gari from these high-yielding mosaic resistant TMS varieties was enough to feed 29 million people annually. We have information which shows that the price of cassava products relative to the price of other commodities dropped in the 1990s, which meant increased income to consumers who paid less for cassava food products such as gari. At the same time, because of reduced cost, farmers are making more money. IITA’s effort on cassava including the biological control, mosaic disease control, and the high-yielding varieties produced tremendous value in terms of income to millions of cassava producers and consumers.

How do you picture Africa in the next 50 years?
Income will improve in Africa and people will be better off materially. The meaningfulness of that in terms of improved welfare depends on how much the measures that create the wealth interfere with the fundamental values of the African people. I wish to see a significant decline in the present high levels of poverty, deprivation, and inequality in Africa. Retaining African social values while improving the economic conditions of the masses of the people will be the better of two worlds.

How will agriculture play a role in doing that?
Improved agricultural productivity will mean improved income for farmers through reduced production costs and for consumers through reduced food prices. Improved productivity in agriculture will generate feed and industrial raw materials and help expand employment opportunities in the industrial sector. Large farms could be depended on to improve agricultural productivity but they can convert small farmers into farm laborers. Measures to improve agricultural productivity should protect small farms to allow even distribution of increased farm income from improved productivity.

In the ISTRB symposium 2 years ago, you were given the Lifetime Achievement award. What does that award mean to you?
The Award for Lifetime Achievement in research on roots and tuber crops was given to me by peers in the ISTRC and that makes it satisfying. One of the reasons I was given the award is the pan-African cassava research project in which I served as Project Leader while I was a scientist at IITA, i.e., the Collaborative Study of Cassava in Africa or COSCA study. I do not claim the award for myself alone even though it was given in my name.

The COSCA study involved 63 scientists from all over the world not just Africa. The study was the idea of Dunstan Spencer, John Lynam, and others whom I do not even know. Soon after I came to IITA in 1987 as a Yam-Based Systems Economist, the new COSCA study was assigned to me to execute. CIAT, NRI, International Child Health Institute, and MSU are among collaborating institutions from outside Africa. National agricultural research centers of Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, and Uganda played critical roles.

What is the value of a medal like this award? Igbo wisdom says that “if you say thank you to somebody, the person will do more.” Saying thank you is inexpensive but it is an inspirer. Besides, awards such as this one can open doors; Prof Felix Nweke, winner of Lifetime Achievement Award, is at the door, please let him in. I am going to make effective use of this effect to do more work on cassava and yam in Africa. That is what the award means to me.

What would you say is the highlight of your career?
This question can hardly be answered with dispassion; self-assessment is more often than not underrated or overrated depending on one’s level of humility. Nevertheless, I consider that the highlight of my career is demonstrated in the accomplishments of the people with whom I have grown up professionally. These are not only students whom I taught in the classrooms or those whose higher degree dissertations I supervised; there are several of those. But having worked closely with Prof Carl Eicher of Michigan State University for the past 50 years beginning in 1963 at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, I assimilated what I consider his finest professional value. Carl Eicher is like a magnet that draws young professionals to him and he grows with them, in some cases for life. Many of the people I have grown with that way are highly accomplished professionally and they are all over the world, not just in Africa. That is the highlight of my career and it could not have been better.