Victor Manyong: Strengthen socioscience capacity

Victor Manyong, R4D director. Photo by IITA.
Victor Manyong, R4D director. Photo by IITA.

Victor Manyong, IITA’s director for eastern and central Africa, talks about his 17-year experience with the institute as an agricultural economist and his vision for the institute’s socioscience research.

Can you give us a brief outline of your career at IITA?
I joined IITA in 1992 as a postdoc fellow based at Ibadan, Nigeria. I was recruited to head a project covering 11 countries in West and Central Africa on the GIS-based macro-characterization of agricultural systems. It was a challenging 2-year research but I had a 1-year extension during which the institute’s agricultural economist left. I applied and was offered the position. Then, I became a scientist and was first posted to the moist savanna project within the Resource and Crop Management Division.

As CG centers moved to a project-based approach, I was asked to lead and coordinate the project on social science research. When the DG, Hartmann, came on board, he introduced the Research for Development Council (RDC) to help him in strategic issues. I became a member of the first interim council. A year later, I was elected to serve as a council member, so I had to step down as a coordinator of social science research.

After serving a 2-year term, I left RDC and became an ordinary agricultural economist until 2005 when I was relocated to Tanzania. Here, I occupied the new position of agricultural economist for East and Southern Africa. I was also appointed the Officer in Charge of the station in 2006.

What challenges did you encounter in your move from West to East Africa?
It was a challenge to establish myself in a new environment, to establish a new research agenda for the institute, define my research priorities that fit in with the institute’s priorities, and to fit in with the existing team. It also was a challenge to build and strengthen a new network of partners.

What can you say about the status of social science research at IITA?
IITA is a commodity and natural resources management center in the CG system. Hence, social science is embedded in its research agenda. The strength of social science research at IITA is that we are working with the biophysical scientists, such as breeders, plant pathologists, and so on to create a very strong multidisciplinary team where members benefit from one another.

One problem is that we cannot have all the disciplines of social science research we need because of resource limitation. IITA’s social science has been dominated by agricultural economics while areas such as anthropology, rural sociology, political economy, and market economy have not been well addressed.

However, the institute is making efforts to remedy the situation. Currently we are recruiting a market economist. We also aim to have an anthropologist.

What does the agricultural economist at IITA do?
We work with other scientists in designing new technologies by looking at their economic profitability and social acceptability. A technology may be good but if it is not profitable or if it is rejected by the intended users, then it will not work. We contribute to studies related to the institute’s priority setting. The agricultural economists also monitor the adoption of improved technologies, measure the benefit to the end users, determine the difference the technologies make, influence policies, and are involved in the capacity building of young professionals.

Currently you are a director for R4D. What does this entail?
I am a member of the R4D directorate handling the eastern and central African region covering about 11 countries. I oversee our stations in Cameroon, DRC, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. As a member of the R4D Directorate, I work under the DDG-R4D to provide leadership on all R4D-related issues at IITA.

What challenges have you encountered in the transition from a scientist to an administrator?
Before I became the director, I was the OIC in Tanzania and a scientist. After the appointment, I now have to handle three functions: that of a scientist, OIC, and director. There obviously is the additional workload. I therefore needed to get organized to manage all the tasks.

I am also now managing more human resources, looking at relationships with government and other officials, and am the institute’s representative to the public. I needed managerial skills and to cope, I put in a lot of extra time. Currently my tasks are lighter because my duties have been reduced to those of the director and the country representative for Tanzania.

What are some of the highlights of your stay at IITA?
I have many but one of them was in 2005 when I published my first book that focused on agriculture in Nigeria. For a researcher this was an important milestone. The other highlight is contributing to the development of IITA’s regional hub for East and Central Africa in Tanzania. I am also lucky to have greatly contributed to mentoring young professionals at IITA and training of many in social science in Africa. Some of them are working as colleagues in international organizations or as professors in universities.

What changes have you noted at IITA over the years?
I have noticed many changes, all positive. The institute has really grown, becoming more stable. Financially, we have moved from an annual budget of $35 million to the current $50 million. And IITA rates well in research and quality of science among the CG centers. I have also witnessed the decentralization of our research activities. When I first joined, everything was done from Ibadan. The decentralization has brought the scientists closer to the fields of operation outside West Africa. For many years, IITA was considered an institute for West and Central Africa. This is no longer the case.

How can the institute sustain its growth and progress?
We need to consolidate our research in the decentralized mode of operations to strengthen the regional hubs but not at the expense of West Africa. We also should not ignore the reforms taking place in the CG. We need to see how the institute can evolve in the new consortium of CG centers.

What would you like social science at IITA to look like, say in five years time?
I would like to see a more diversified group of social scientists. We need to strengthen the areas of qualitative social science research and on markets. The current thinking is that one economist can do all research related to social science. I disagree. For example, can one breeder breed all crops? At IITA we have breeders of maize, cassava, cowpea, and yam, etc. So, when it comes to social research, we need a diversified group of social scientists.

Socioscience is also wanting at the NARS where the social scientists are always lured away by better-paying NGOs. We build their capacity but when they are ready they move on and we have to start again when they recruit new members. One solution is to link up with universities where we have more permanent social scientists.

What has contributed to your success?
I attribute my success (if any) to the support I receive from the management. They have always made me feel that my work is important and that it is valued. I also would like to acknowledge the support and collaboration with partners and colleagues within and outside the institution.
On research management, I am part of a great team where members support one another. We have good leadership and good support from management. I have also been lucky to work in my area of expertise.

What would you have been if not an agricultural economist?
Well, I resisted a lot of pressure from my family to study medicine and become a medical doctor. I have always liked agriculture. I moved 2,000 km from my home town in Lubumbashi (DRC) to study agriculture at the then unique country Faculty of Agriculture in Kisangani. The person who stoked my interest in agricultural economics was Prof Eric Tollens, currently at KU Leuven (Belgium) and a former IITA Board member. When I joined the Faculty of Agriculture in Kisangani, he was then a professor and chair of the Department of Agricultural Economics. I listened to his talk, and I knew what I wanted to be.