Robert Asiedu: Advancing the development of Africa through science

Robert Asiedu. Photo by IITA.
Robert Asiedu. Photo by IITA.

Robert Asiedu is a plant breeder, whose main research interest is on tropical root and tuber crops, especially yam and cassava. From the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) he joined the Root and Tuber Improvement Program of IITA in 1989. His initial research was on cassava and its wild relatives but he spent most of his time on yam research. He has held various leadership or management roles in IITA since 1991. He is Director, Research for Development (R4D), West Africa, and Program Director, Agrobiodiversity and Root and Tuber Systems Programs. In this interview, he talks about research on root and tuber systems, and on agrobiodiversity initiatives.

What inspires you at work?
The potential to advance the development of Africa through agricultural research is a major inspiration for me. IITA offers an excellent platform for achieving this so it is a great pleasure and a privilege to work here.

What do you like about your work as director?
I enjoy the broader opportunities and challenges the position offers to contribute to the development of the subregion through science.

How do you feel about IITA’s work in West Africa and in those areas that you are in charge of as program director?
West Africa is the subregion in which the Institute has worked longest. It is fascinating to reflect on the changes in our modes of operation and interaction with partners in response to the changes in our environment. We have done well so far but there is still a
lot to do.

What is your work philosophy?
To do the best I can every time.

You talk about yam as being a “part of man”. What is so special about yam?
My thoughts on the links between man and yam are based on several fascinating articles by anthropologists and ethnobotanists that I have read on the subject. From West Africa through the Caribbean to the Pacific region, yam is respected and celebrated through major annual thanksgiving festivals in areas where it is cultivated as a staple.

How is progress on IITA’s R4D on roots and tubers/ Agrobiodiversity?
The R4D work on tropical root and tuber crops continues to focus on genetic improvement, crop and pest management, food science and technology, and agroenterprise development.

For yam, improved options for the mass production of affordable and healthy seeds are a major component of our agenda. We have been investigating nutrient use efficiency and the role of mycorrhizal fungi in yam mineral nutrition. The research on food science/technology is focused on understanding the functional properties required in yam tubers and products for household and industrial purposes, development of new competitive products from yam, and screening of germplasm for textural and nutritional attributes.

We continue to improve on our efficiency and effectiveness in conserving the germplasm of banana/plantain, cassava, cowpea, maize, soybean, and yam. Core collections and reference sets are being defined. These collections are characterized using molecular tools and several are being preserved in the form of DNA available for delivery to requestors. Documentation of information has been improved and are now available online. There has been a significant increase in the accessions of clonally propagated crops that are preserved in vitro, in addition to the field banks.

What are the challenges in working on roots and tubers? Agrobiodiversity?
The limited history of research on the tropical root and tuber crops, such as cassava and yam, has left huge gaps in the knowledge of their basic biology. This affects the pace of advancement in research, compared to that of other major staple crops. This is exacerbated by the limited pool of researchers on these crops worldwide. Research funding is very low compared with the importance of these crops in sub-Saharan Africa.

In Agrobiodiversity, the major challenges are the lack of clarity in the interpretation of various international conventions, increasing protectionism in the sharing of crop germplasm, and the apparent lack of international agreements governing the status of collections of nonplant taxa.

What can you advise colleagues?
We should constantly keep our focus on the status, needs, and expectations of those who will benefit from our work.

How could we make the partnership with national programs, donors and policymakers, the private sector, or the growers work better?
Successful partnerships are built on good foundations. Establishing partnerships involve the joint setting and common understanding of the objectives, sharing of responsibilities, and clarity of roles. Periodic and objective assessment of progress is necessary, followed by effective action on the findings. There should be mutual respect and trust in the relationship as well as regular, effective, and open communication. It is important to monitor the changing circumstances of the various partners, including institutional and policy environments, and the needs of some partners for capacity building to play their roles effectively. Good cooperation also depends on fairness in acknowledging the contributions of partners and equity in sharing results, credits, or benefits.

How would you assess IITA’s efforts in agrobiodiversity conservation?
IITA has played and continues to play a key role in conserving germplasm of staple crops, underutilized crop species, and nonplant taxa that are important to African agriculture. Most national programs in sub-Saharan Africa have difficulty in providing the facility and personnel required for long-term conservation of these materials, especially the clonally propagated crops. The duplication of national collections of selected crops in our genebank is a major contribution to the assurance of long-term security. IITA works with a range of partners to continually improve the methods of preservation and characterization of the conserved germplasm.

How can we promote agrobiodiversity conservation among our audiences?
We can increase information dissemination using the print and electronic media and stakeholder consultative workshops to highlight the benefits of sustaining diversity in the food and farming systems and hence in the genetic resources on which these depend. The long-term conservation of nonplant genetic resources, such as beneficial insects and bacteria, requires even more explanation. Taking advantage of our political neutrality and links with relevant international agencies, we can engage in more consultation with policymakers in Africa to allow more freedom in making new collections of germplasm and facilitating international exchange.