Conversations in transformation (why it’s good to talk to people on your way to work)

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IITA aims to enhance livelihoods for millions of smallholder farmers in Africa.

A popular story goes that the idea of establishing agricultural research centers, precursors of the modern-day CGIAR network, was born out of the daily train conversations between two gentlemen on their way to work In New York City in the early-1960s.

The story, told by the late Lowell Hardin, former professor at the Purdue University and officer at the Ford Foundation at that time, tells of the on-the-way-to-work chats of George Harrar, the first leader of the Rockefeller-Mexico Program and later president of the Rockefeller Foundation, and Forrest “Frosty” Hill, then vice president of the Ford Foundation. These daily dialogues were the seeds that eventually led to the birth of the first four international research centers: IRRI in 1960, CIMMYT in 1966, and CIAT and IITA in 1967.

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Despite the civil war in Nigeria, the construction of IITA began in 1967.

Although IITA was born in the same year as its “twin” Spanish sister CIAT, and the two multi-crop centers shared similar names in English and Spanish, they had clearly distinct “personalities” in agroecosystem geo-domains.

IITA was to be the premier center based in Africa, specifically set up to address its unique agricultural needs. IITA was born at a time when most of the continent was embroiled in turmoil, stemming from people basically wanting to get their hands on as much resources as they can, as fast as they can, including food.

A hungry man is an angry man, and there were many of them, more so back then. This offered a great opportunity for IITA. And IITA is not one to back down from a challenge.

When we started in 1967, there were only 339 million people in Africa. Today, it’s close to 1.3 billion. Times and conditions also changed. IITA evolved in response, and we still stand strong 50 years down the line.

We knew from the beginning that Africa’s agricultural challenges must be faced holistically. We started slowly, initially looking into bringing farmers out of subsistence farming and into longer-term food security. We also developed soil management alternatives to the highly destructive “slash-and-burn” method persisting among farmers that time. These comprised the bulk of our work in our early years until 1975. Baby steps.

The decade of 1975 to 1985 saw a shift from our initial mandate, as well as achieving our first impacts and building on them. During this period, we tackled the challenge of increasing the productivity of some of Africa’s staple crops. We worked to bring the “king” of root crops, cassava, from being a “poor man’s crop” to an economic and industrial driving force. We partnered with CIMMYT to bring about the “maize revolution” in Africa. Our research also brought soybean into the limelight as the “new” go-to legume in the continent.

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The adoption of drought tolerant maize introduced in Nigeria 10 years ago had moved 2.67 million people from poverty.

In 1981, IITA achieved its first truly pan-African success when IITA, with CIAT, successfully deployed biological control of the cassava mealybug through the introduction of A. lopezi, a natural predator. IITA’s intervention literally rescued the cassava crop across the continent, and along with it the livelihoods of millions of farmers. Savings from the initiative is estimated at more than US$20 billion.

The next 15 years (1985-2000) witnessed our rebirth from a research institute to “research-for-development”. Our battle cry: “Research to Nourish Africa”. This period saw significant strides in our work on cowpea, agroforestry and cover crops especially in the context of the West African agroecosystem, further improvement of roots and tuber crops, early-maturing grain cultivars, and banana and plantain hybrids. And apart from attaining food security, our focus also shifted to bringing wealth into African homes through agriculture.

Largely regarded as IITA’s “Golden Years”, this period saw global recognition for IITA’s work. In 1986, IITA won the prestigious CGIAR King Baudouin award for pioneering multidisciplinary research to combat the Maize Streak Virus. In 1990, the institute received its second CGIAR King Baudouin Award, jointly with CIAT, for its earlier initiative in the biological control of the cassava mealybug. Then in 1995, IITA’s cassava mealybug project team was conferred the World Food Prize. These citations cemented IITA’s position as Africa’s premier agricultural research center.

As the world ushered in the new Millennium, IITA also entered new research territories. From 2000 to 2010, the institute dove head-on into new paradigms in crop and natural resource management, market-driven crop value chain approaches, health and nutrition through crop genetic biofortification, mycotoxin and aflatoxin research for food safety and overcoming crop trade barriers, and genetic improvement to rescue the East African highland bananas.

In 2002, IITA’s work on cassava value addition caught the eye of the Nigerian Government, which requested the assistance of IITA for its Presidential Cassava Initiative that required flour millers to include 10% cassava flour. This boosted cassava production in the country by 10 million tons in 6 years, and saved Nigeria some US$2 billion in foreign exchange from annual wheat imports.

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IITA’s Business Incubation Platform in Ibadan helps bring mature technologies into commercialization with partners in both the public and private sectors.

In 2011, IITA adopted a 10-year Strategic Plan aimed at lifting 11 million people out of poverty and putting 7.5 million hectares of degraded land back into sustainable use by 2020. This ushered in new developments in the institute’s R4D work. Highlights of these included the initiation of IITA’s AflasafeTM commercialization of a fungus-based biocontrol product against aflatoxin contamination in major African food crops; the IITA Youth Agripreneurs’ Program is launched, aimed at empowering African youths to use agriculture as a tool to tackle unemployment; and the IITA Business Incubation Platform (BIP) is established, aimed at accelerating the commercial development of the Institute’s proven and profitable research-based technologies and in preparation for future larger scaling-out and scaling-up initiatives of the institute.

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The Institute created the IITA Youth Program in 2012 which is now used as a model for a pan-African effort to engage youth in agribusiness.

In 2016, IITA and CIP were awarded the 2016 Al–Sumait Food Security Prize for Development in Africa for outstanding work on addressing undernourishment, again recognizing the value of IITA’s work.

Just this year, we celebrated our Golden Jubilee, a testament to our resilience. And from “Research to Nourish Africa”, our haka has become “Transforming African Agriculture”, echoing our next-level evolution towards achieving our core mission of making lives better for African farmers.

IITA became a Partner in GFAR in 2016 because IITA shares the same goal of using agri-food research and innovation to change lives for the better, driven by the needs and demands of the end user communities.

So, the next time you are on your way to work on a bus, train, or a plane, do try and talk to the person next to you. Your conversations might just spark the next big breakthrough. George and Frosty probably did not expect that their small talks would, later, change millions of lives for the better.

PARTNER SPOTLIGHT logoThis story is part of our Partner Spotlight  on International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Join us this week as we feature the stories from of one of the leading international research centers in sub-Saharan Africa that is transforming agriculture in the continent to improve lives, health, nutrition, and incomes of millions of smallholder farmers.

GFAR Secretariat is turning the spotlight on the work and collective actions of Partners in GFAR who share in our mission to strengthen and transform agri-food research and innovation systems globally. Not a GFAR partner yet? Join now!

This blog post was written by Jeffrey Oliver, Regional Communication Manager for Southern Africa, IITA. IITA was established in 1967 as the first link in the African network of international agricultural research centers. IITA is a member of CGIAR, a global partnership for a food-secure future. 

Photo credits: IITA


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