GFAR blog, Partnerships for impact, Research in society

IITA: Transforming African Agriculture

IITA’s first 50 years showed how partnership is a key ingredient for success in IITA’s efforts to bring about transformation in agriculture.

Agriculture is central to the development of the African continent, currently contributing 40% to 80% to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in several countries. In recent years, it has been put back on to the development agenda of most African governments. In Nigeria, for instance, the agricultural policy document of the current government builds on the Agricultural Transformation Agenda of the previous government, and is tagged as “The Green Alternative”.

For a long time, however, agriculture had been seen as a back-breaking and thankless occupation, contributing to people’s livelihoods and creating employment, but only at the subsistence level. Agriculture, however, has the potential to drive economic development and wealth creation. To harness its potential for transformation, agriculture needs to be seen as a commercial business operation at all levels.

IITA founders and supporters, circa 1967.

The birth of IITA

In 1967 an institute was created by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations to contribute towards global food and nutrition security. IITA was created based on the need to have an African version of the Green Revolution that transformed Asia through increased agricultural production in the 1960s.

Africa continues to be plagued further by food insecurity, poverty, an exploding population, climate change, and dwindling and degraded natural resources.

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, or IITA, was established as the first African link in a network of international agricultural research centers, and built in Ibadan, Nigeria, close to the University of Ibadan.

As a research-for-development center supported by numerous donors and partners, IITA focuses on three strategic objectives: (1) increasing food security and availability, (2) increasing profitability of foods, feeds, and other agricultural products, and (3) sustainable management of natural resources.

Its research is organized around several core themes: (1) improving crops, (2) making healthy crops, (3) managing natural resources, (4) improving livelihoods, and (5) enhancing nutrition.

The Institute also works on special initiatives such as youth engagement in agribusiness, commercialization of technologies in a business incubation platform, empowering women, developing seed systems, protecting and conserving biodiversity, big data and open access, among many others.

This year, 2017, IITA is celebrating 50 years of service to African agriculture and the smallholder farmers.


Presently, IITA has become the largest international agriculture research center in tropical Africa, with notable contributions to food and nutrition security in the region. Its research has produced many improved varieties in most of the major staples in Africa that include banana/plantain, cassava, cowpea, maize, soybean, and yam; improved overall agricultural productivity; and created wealth for farmers and value chain actors, while making significant contributions to national economic development through agriculture.

IITA has created hubs in East Africa, Central Africa, and Southern Africa, and the Ibadan facility doubles as Headquarters and as the West Africa Hub. Each Hub, like Ibadan, is equipped with research facilities and fields, with operations engaging countries within the Hub in a spectrum of research and delivery activities.

The impacts of IITA’s research for development on smallholder farmers are evident in the development and adoption of improved varieties in most of the major staples in the continent. For example: adoption of almost 400 varieties of cassava with increased yields and better resistance to pests and disease and environmental stresses; more than 100 IITA-bred materials or genebank accessions of cowpea; 327 maize varieties—70% of which have IITA germplasm; 78 improved yam varieties developed; introduction of soybean as a food and cash crop in West Africa; adoption of drought-tolerant maize in 13 countries in eastern, western, and southern Africa with projected economic gains of US$907 million; introduction of cowpea and soybean for nutrition; and nutritional benefits of biofortified yellow cassava.

IITA maintains a genebank that conserves Africa’s major staples: cassava, maize, banana/plantain, soybean, cowpea, and yam, in trust for humanity.

The development of a biocontrol product called Aflasafe™ against aflatoxins in maize and groundnut and its commercialization in IITA’s Business Incubation Platform is now helping some African countries go back to trade in groundnuts and maize, and making food supplies safer for Africans.

In Nigeria, IITA had been working with the federal government on the Agricultural Transformation Agenda, collaborating with the national agricultural research systems (NARS), partners, and various partnership platforms.

Poverty reduction in sub-Saharan Africa

IITA’s impact assessment studies in several countries showed that as of 2016 at least 4.3 million people had been lifted out of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa through the adoption of improved agricultural technologies developed by the Institute and its partners.

In Nigeria, two technologies—improved cowpea varieties and drought tolerant maize varieties—had contributed to getting an estimated 3.5 million people out of poverty.

One study found that by 2012, 58% of cowpea farmlands was cultivated to improved varieties with yield gains of 254% over local varieties. It also established that the nutritional status of children below five years was higher among those who had adopted the technologies compared to the non-adopters.

A 2015 baseline study of the African Development Bank-funded Support to Agricultural Research for Development of Strategic Crops in Africa (SARD-SC) on adoption of improved cassava varieties introduced by IITA and partners in Zambia, DR Congo, Tanzania, and Sierra Leone, and an impact study of the Consortium for Improving Agriculture-based Livelihoods in Central Africa (CIALCA) on improved crop varieties combined with crop management practices, integrated pest management practices, and marketing strategies collectively showed further that almost a million people were lifted out of poverty in association with IITA technologies.

Multiplying cassava somatic embryos.

Food security improvement

In 2016, IITA received the Al–Sumait Food Security Prize for Development in Africa. The prize was awarded jointly to the International Potato Center (CIP) and IITA for their groundbreaking research on the causes of undernourishment and for providing solutions. IITA was cited as “a leading Africa-based crop center and a member of CGIAR, focusing on research and development of the key African food crops: banana and plantain, cassava, cowpea, maize, soybean, and yam. The team’s efforts developed and deployed safe and more nutritious food crops such as legumes, cereals (vitamin A maize), with the first released orange maize varieties from it, and tubers (cassava) through biofortification, use of efficient and affordable biocontrol products against aflatoxins, and made these available to smallholder farm families in the region to balance calories, diversify diets, and safeguard health and nutrition.”

In support of AfDB’s programs, including the Feed Africa initiative, IITA leads the implementation of the AfDB-funded multimillion dollar initiative to transform African agriculture called Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation or TAAT. Over the next 10 years, AfDB will be investing $24 billion in agriculture, focusing on agricultural value chains, agribusiness, and agroindustrial development.

A key component of AfDB’s strategy is providing more support to Agripreneurs—those young agricultural entrepreneurs who will drive agriculture and development in Africa in the future. This will be achieved in a new flagship program known as ENABLE Youth. This program was based on an approach that IITA piloted and is designed to develop the next generation of millionaire/billionaire farmers and agribusinesses. Last year AfDB had financed almost $800 million for the program in 8 countries. This year another 15 countries will be financed.

Capacity development

IITA has also contributed massively to capacity development of African researchers and scientists in agriculture, and supported national agriculture research systems in the continent.

Since its inception, IITA has trained over 140,000 individuals from 68 countries—more than 40,000 of them women. These professionals have advanced their knowledge and acquired skills directly through IITA’s training programs and indirectly through knowledge passed on to them.

IITA celebrates IITA50 with President Akin Adesina, an IITA alumnus who is being honored as the 2017 World Food Prize Laureate.

Also, many former staff and alumni of IITA are now occupying important positions in their countries or international organizations, the likes of which include 2017 World Food Laureate Akin Adesina, President of the African Development Bank, who in the 1990s worked as an economic and social scientist in IITA Cameroon; former International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) President Kanayo Nwanze, inaugural Africa Food Prize Laureate in 2016, an entomologist in IITA from 1976 to 1979; and Burundi’s Minister of Agriculture and Livestock, Dr Deo-Guide Rurema, an alumnus of IITA’s training program. Even IITA’s current head, Director General Nteranya Sanginga, started as a postgraduate trainee and completed his PhD in the Institute in the 1980s.

IITA—with partners such as GFAR—will continue to be a key player in assuring the food and nutrition security of the continent as well as making contributions through agriculture to the development of African countries.

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 Katherine Lopez, Head of Communication, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). IITA is a member of CGIAR, a global partnership for a food-secure future. 

Photo credits: IITA


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