Our researches have brought about improved varieties of crops, seedling

Dashiell Kenton

A management team of the Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), led by Dashiell Kenton recently visited the Headquarters of The Guardian Newspapers. He spoke on a variety of issues including the Institute’s forthcoming 50th anniversary celebrations as well as its efforts to boost agricultural productivity through research and development to ensure food security in Nigeria, and Africa at large.

Tell us about yourself and what you do for IITA?
I work with IITA in Nigeria. I started in 1983; I have loved every day that I work here because it has been rewarding for me professionally and otherwise. I love working in Nigeria and IITA is 50 years old. Our birthday was when former Head of State, Yakubu Gowon signed the degree creating IITA. We were actually created by the Nigerian Government, and at that time the government donated about 1,000 hectares of land to IITA next to the University of Ibadan. That was done on purpose because the founders of IITA were people who invested money and created the Rockefeller and Gate Foundations. They actually considered many places before they arrived at the University of Ibadan. Over the years that has proven to be a very good decision because of our relationship with the Harvard University development for all of Africa, and that is one of the major reasons the University of Ibadan was chosen. In many cases student really do the best of the work because they are properly guided by IITA and professors in the University of Ibadan.

And at 50 we want to make IITA better known all across Africa, but first for in Nigeria. We have planned a couple of events ahead of the celebrations, and the main event will be July 24, at the IITA in Ibadan, and we will host former President Olusegun Obasanjo. He is our international ambassador. Gowon will be there also. In the morning of the day, we would celebrate what has happened over the years.

Being here for the past 50 years, how have you deployed research to help agriculture in Nigeria, and who are the targets of your solutions?
Our title partnership for delivery as the name implies our major aim is delivering technology for the end users. Small scale farmers or large scale farmers, whether a huge factory process or small level bio-processing, we deal with a whole range of agriculture value chain. We are a research organisation, and we would do a good research and then we make that knowledge available to other organisations. It could be the Ministry of Agriculture, agro development projects etc, and we hope it will work.

But gradually, IITA has evolved and changed. Our board of Trustees and evaluators now appreciate and require that we have great research. But let me say that it is not enough; six months ago we created a new department. We survive by writing proposals and we write about 250 proposals every year. We get a ‘yes’ reply for about 40 per cent, and a ‘sorry’ reply for 60 per cent. This is how we maintain the Institute and get our funding. But we significantly have to deliver so we work with agricultural development projects and private industries, who believe in our technology to create impact to improve people’s lives. In the early 80s, Cassava was just coming up in Nigeria, and insect started affecting Cassava, since they have never seen it before so people think it came from Latin America where cassava originated, somehow the output of cassava started going down. So we took over the challenge and conducted a lot of laboratory tests and the problem was naturally solved with collaboration with Nigerian institutes. Without that we may not be having Garri or Eba etc. if you can still remember in the 80s, there was little or no maize grown along the Niger or Benue River. The reason is that a disease attacked the maize whenever farmers plant. We started a research and solved the problem. These are just two examples of what IITA has done. It is time for IITA to put more effort in making sure our technology is spread all over the country.

How sustainable is the success story?
In 2011, IITA hired a new Director General for a five-year-tenure. And in recent time, the Director General served two terms before retirement. When the DG was hired in 2011, he found out that the situation on ground was not so good. He called all the staff in Ibadan together and told them, “I know our finance is not very good, I want to make a pledge to you; none of you will lose his or her job, none of you will have a salary reduction. But you have to pledge to me that you will be dedicated to this Institute and you are going to do everything possible to make this place great. Within 24 hours, the atmosphere and the attitude of people changed. Before then, people come to work and they are busy writing their CV.

In the last five years, things have changed in IITA from about $47 million a year to $140 million. IITA is growing and that means it is sustainable. You can be sure because we are still going to be writing proposals and hope that organisations like USAID, EU, and Gate Foundation will put priority on agriculture in Africa. Right now, the priority is there, and we hope that it will continue, but we cannot be sure. So the people working with IITA will continue to work every day. We are going to do everything we can to keep the work flying. Almost all the funding comes from outside of Nigeria and Africa. The Federal Government pledges to support us every year, and almost every year they honour that pledge. Since 1967, the Federal Government has been 100 per cent behind IITA, because we rely on them to help. Now there are some interesting developments; we have some companies in Nigeria that now support our programmes. They give funding to do work like youth projects. DR Congo also supports IITA to do projects; they donated about 200 hectares to IITA. Imo State is a strong partner. We have big stations in Ibadan, Abuja, and Kano etc. We are in 18 other countries in Africa. And we are not going to move out of Ibadan.

Specifically on some of our researches, the Presidential Initiative on Cassava that was implemented in 1999, saw IITA introduce varieties of Cassava that helped the country to improve the yield by 10 million tonnes, and that made Nigeria the world largest producer of Cassava.

If you go to the North today, you will see many verities of maize, most of them are from the IITA. The reason was because IITA was able to develop verities of maize. Looking at the crisis in the North East, we sat down and decided that there was a need to revive the agriculture sector. We recently donated seeds to the Borno State Government as part of effort to revive the agriculture sector. The first gift a man can give to Borno State is seed, because the farmers concerned need the seeds as the Boko Haram destroyed their farms. When other donors are cutting budget because of funding, donating the seeds was like a lifeline for the farmers.

During the flood, we are also able to give seeds to farmer along the flood devastated areas in 2012. These are some of the things IITA has been doing. What is also most important is the capacity development. Today, we were talking about Akinwumi Adesina becoming the President of the African Development Bank, most of these people spent their time in IITA either as students or as staff of the institution. In several African countries today, if you talk about agriculture, you will discover that some of the people who are doing well have something to do with IITA. These are some of the things that IITA has contributed. This anniversary gives us the chance to reflect on some of the things we have been able to do. Being known for research now we are talking about research for development that is where our focus is. We want to see how our research we impact people but we cannot do it alone we need partners. We need to work with everybody to see how we can all contribute.

You told us Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of cassava, maize and other produce. But today, we are importing Garri, we are importing maise, we are importing rice and almost every food item. How is this possible if we are the largest producer of these produce? 
When I arrived Nigeria in 1983, Nigeria used to export a lot of groundnut to Europe. But when oil came we all stopped. Priority of where investors and government put their money has a big impact. So we have reached the bottom. I think we are on the way up now in improving agriculture and reducing our reliance on oil. Things are improving, but it all depends on the consistency of government’s policies because investors need to be assured of the future of where they are investing their money. If government’s policies help to promote agriculture then businesses can thrive. But if government changes policies then all the development will collapse. That is very important. Nigeria has the weather, soil and the technologies are available not only to IITA, but in many other organisations. Most of the agricultural institutes in Nigeria have strong capable staff, but most of them don’t have the budget that helps them do their job. As a scientist I feel sad when I see very capable professors and scientists not having the opportunities to do good work. The opportunity to produce some of what we import are here, and the problem is not technology, they are available. The problem is change in government policies.

The problem is more related to the history, and how do we reverse that; I think the government is on the right track – changing government policies, making more in work.

Also, a lot of diseases and pests are still ravaging our farm produce, for instance, government is currently battling with army worms in maize in many states. Is it not possible for IITA to have developed some way of controlling these plants diseases in all of these 50 years of being in Nigeria?
The army worms are very devastating. It just came and the scientists just have to figure it out why all of a sudden. It’s just like every place but I am not going to try to speculate on why and how that happened. But it might be similar to the mealy bugs’ thing. These insects came and there were natural enemies. Now there are good controls for the army worms, but its insecticide – getting the right specification, preparing it right and in the right place. Basically, these insects’ eats right in the middle of the maize, so you have to have the right chemical. I think the farmers have to spray right down across the wall of the maize plant, and it will be good, and it’s better to do that late in the evening, 5pm or 6pm.

But the question here should be: after 50 years, are all these crops completely resistant to all these problems? The answer is no. The reason is not because these diseases are fungus and bacteria, and these insects are living organisms and they want to survive just like you and me. They don’t want to die, and what happens is that they breed and they mate and maybe 90 per cent of them don’t survive but there is a few even if it’s .001 per cent that survive then they become resistant. Probably even in our life time, we are not going to see places where there is no problem.

We are importing a whole lot of food items and exporting very little. Even the little we export are being turned back because of high levels of toxicity. After 50 years of R&D in agricultural produce why are there still toxins in our crops?
Toxins in the crops that make Nigerian export to be rejected, and one of the major toxins are called Afro toxins, and that is a major problem which basically can be solved. There is a product called Afrisafe and if farmers put that on their maize and groundnuts and grains they will be fine, they won’t have the Afro toxin problem. This fungus called Asfogula flogus attacks maize and groundnuts and it produces this toxin called Afrotoxin. The scientists tested thousands of grains, they found a few that did not produce the Afrotoxin, and so they took those we can call good grains, they still grow and they do fine but they don’t cause the Afrotoxin. They produced those into billions, and they cooked them in sorghum seeds that have been cured; we don’t want the sorghum to grow, we wanted them do be food for the fungus. When the maize is about this tall, farmers go and throw the sorghums that have been cooked with the fungus, the good fungus, when it lands on the soil, as soon as there are rains or moist, the fungus germinates and the good fungus attacks the maize or the groundnut. It attacks it first because it’s right there ready to be attacked. Later on, the ones in the soil, the bad ones, they start attacking but there is no room for them to enter so the good fungus has completed the bad fungus and the bad fungus can’t do anything and this is how this particular one works. The farmers can go and throw this on their crops at the right time.

The problem is that they have to go and buy these things. It doesn’t make their crop grow bigger, it doesn’t make their crop have higher yield. It assures them that their crop is safe to eat and good for export. We have been working in Kaduna and Kano states, and now spreading to several states like Oyo, Osun to popularise this product called Afrosafe, and its coming up quite safe. I actually can imagine most farmers actually need to be assured that they could be given a higher price for their maize or groundnuts to use this product because they have to pay for it. Where we find the companies that produce puppy feed, they require that the maize are of high quality or their puppy dies, so they are buying at premium prices. Also, some food manufacturers like Nestle are buying. To produce commodities for export, care has to be given to the crops from planting so that their qualities would be good for export.

If the problem is Afrotoxin, we got its solution right here. I believe that there is great opportunity to revive the groundnut exports, and we are starting down that road now to work with the groundnut producers in Nigeria, because until now there is no way they could export. They would be rejected but now we export.

Nigeria is spending billions importing tomato paste because our local tomato variety has so much water. Why can’t IITA help develop tomato variety that will save the country so much money?
We know that Dangote has built a Tomato factory, and I think we also know that he is not getting raw materials that he needs to operate the factory. Well, honestly it’s just going to take hard work and patience to really get it to work. Farmers can grow the tomatoes. There is enough irrigated land around the different projects in Nigeria where tomatoes can be grown all year round for the companies that are making tomato paste and it’s not just going to happen overnight. But there probably needs to be some type of government policy that helps the local companies compete with the importers because the importer companies will do everything possible to hold the key to their market. This is business, and they want to keep their business in Nigeria. I don’t really know where it comes from, whether from China; but its competition. Dangote is a good businessman, why should I say good, maybe the best businessman, and I believe he is going to find his way. He didn’t invest this to lose his money. He invested in this because he has a good plan, we will se.

There have been so much talks going back and forth on gene muted organisms (GMOs). Are the GMO foods good for consumption?
Given the IITA policy, it is not for the IITA to determine whether the GMOs are safe or not safe, IITA’s role is to follow the rules and regulations of the countries we operate in. If the country says we ban GMOs then the IITAs doesn’t work on GMOs for that country. If a country like Nigeria says we are not saying all GMOs are safe; we are not saying all GMOs are bad, but we believe that we need to test them. And if we find that they are good then we can encourage our farmers to use them, and make sure it has such regulations for it to be followed. To the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been any particular crop priority that has gone through all the processes where it can be released but there is a priority of cowpea (beans) that has been tested where it can be used that are resistant to something called Maruca, an insect. Scientifically, the vast majority of scientists around the world believe they are safe. When again they are tested and proven to be safe we can’t just say all are bad or that all are good, they have to be tested.
Somebody bringing a DNA from pepper and putting it in maize that meaning it’s not pure maize by genotype but most maize is still pure maize, and most soybean is still pure soybean. Not all of them are pure, but has all of them been improved by scientists? Yes, almost all.

The world is going more organic than using fertilisers for their crops, but Nigeria still relies heavily on fertilisers. Is it not better to go for organic rather than fertiliser crops?
Fertilisers are organic and inorganic. I will tell you the IITA philosophy, and the philosophy I support, both are important. To really have the inorganic fertiliser perform to its maximum and work well, we also need organic input. What we mean by that is that the soil can’t just be barren and you go and put some MPK, or some urea fertilisers. It will still boost yield, but in many cases organic input is still needed. Then how do we do that because the trouble is the struggle, and the problem is where do we get this organic material? The best way to do it is that when we harvest, the residues from the maize, or the residues from groundnut or cassava stay on the field, and we don’t carry it away or traceably you can carry it away and feed the livestock and then the dong from the livestock gets back to the field again. What we usually see in many places in Nigeria, and in many places in Africa, is that the field close to the homestead have more of these inorganic residues because the family brings everything to their compound. Maybe that’s where they trash it so the field at the homestead gets more of these inorganic residues, and so much often those fields have higher productions and yields than the other, but there are not enough inorganic residues to take to all fields.

Both are good, I believe both are very much needed. We couldn’t reject any one of them is that in most places in the world like the country I come from the United States, there are many people who are ready to pay double or triple the price for organic vegetables or organic fruits. Farmers register to be organic producers and they make sure that they comply that there is not going to be inorganic fertiliser on the land for three years, to never spread the insecticide, no GMOs to be qualified. So they get low residues but they get higher income because of the agreement price.

If you look at the African scenario, we are not even using fertilisers as we ought to use – the use of fertilisers is still less than 10kilogramme per hectare. So it means that Africa generally is using organic more. The other thing that we must also look at is that while in the United States for instance, there is this premium paid for any crop that is grown organically, but in Africa it’s not the same. Therefore Africa will remain to have low yields if we go full blast organic, as we used to be or we remain uncompetitive to the global world, so we have to balance all of these.

The political will has to be there because sometimes some of the things that we are actually importing are things that we can produce locally. If we are importing Garri, does it mean that we don’t have cassava to produce? It doesn’t make sense. It’s just because our government needs to have the political will, and to say that this and this are what we are not going to allow into our country, and let the system adjust itself just as what is happing now. People are going into agriculture now because there is this price incentive that was not there before. So we must keep encouraging people to go into agriculture. If we open the borders and the prices crash, we are going to see the crime rate go up because the youth will leave agriculture, some civil servants that joined agriculture to augment what they are earning will leave agriculture and that’s a very bad situation.

Another problem we have here is the wrong use of pesticides on beans, and IITA has a technology that you don’t need to apply pesticides at all. It’s just to use a particular bag and store your beans for instance, and it will be safe for one year with no weevil or anything. So what do we need? We need a kind of sensitisation, and I think it’s where The Guardian becomes a good powerful tool that we can use to let people know about the Triple Bagging System, which is just a bag that you put your beans in and keep it there for just a year without applying pesticides.

Does this bag have any form of treatment?
No. what happens is that it tightens the air. There is no air at all inside the bag, and you know that these insects survive once there is air inside. But if you use this triple bag, there are three polythene; you tie the first one, and then the second and the third, so there is no air inside. Any insect inside dies immediately, and you can keep your beans safe. So why are people not using it? It’s because the awareness is not there, and so The Guardian can be a tool for the awareness. The last time the bag was sold was N300a per bag and that’s 50kg against juke bags, which sell for around N150 to N200 a bag. With that you can actually preserve your seeds.

Then the other thing is modern technologies. I think African needs modern technologies. We must use modern technologies even as climate change becomes more pronounced, a lot of things, diseases are changing, and the seasons are changing so we need modern tools. We don’t need to wait for 10 years to develop a variety of cassava. We need a technology that can reduce that to two years and that is what we do in IITA. For instance, how do we shorten the breeding cycle of crops? Lastly, tomato is not one of our mandate crops, so IITA doesn’t work on tomatoes. We work on cassava, yam, maize, soybean, beans, bananas and plantains. These are our major works; of course, we have some work on coffee and maybe cocoa.

In view of your huge investments in cassava, what was the contribution of IITA in the discovery of cassava bread?
Basically if you look at cassava bread, for instance, there was someone that came to IITA, and he told me that anytime he eats bread, he has problem of constipation for at least one week; he doesn’t use the toilet. He came to IITA, and there we serve cassava bread, and he ate it and he had no constipation. So he came to me and asked me: what is happening, what is this kind of bread that I ate and I had no constipation? It was cassava bread. Cassava bread is an excellent product that we should consume, and it is friendlier to people with diabetes than people who eat wheat bread because it has a lower glycaemic index and that is proven. Now, why are we not doing it? We need a political will to say: oh we must go this way. As a people, we must eat what we produce, and if we decide not to do that, there is nothing you can do. But the good thing about the bread is in Abuja today, if you go to Shoprite, they are selling cassava bread. In several bakeries they are using cassava flour. The biscuit industry is also using cassava flour. So these are the successes that are going on.

With your mandate to improve durability of your mandate crops, how would you rate your performance in the last three years in view of food security?
A lot has happened but if you can imagine that if there were no IITA what would have happened to Nigeria? Things would have been terrible. We wouldn’t have had the improved variety of cassava that we have today, we wouldn’t have had the maize varieties that we have had today, and we wouldn’t have had even the cassava processing machine. In Benue for instance, in the last 60 years that Nigeria has been, we don’t have a single machine that we can use to extract orange juice. In Benue, the farmers allow the oranges to ripe, drop on the ground to decay and to become fertiliser for the tree and that continues; the same thing with mangoes. If you look at the contributions of IITA, because IITA is working on cassava, we brought in a lot of processing machines into Nigeria. Our local fabricators learned from these machines, and today, we can see several machines that people are using at local levels to grate their garri, dry the garri and all that. But look at orange, the oranges that we love so much, just because no institution has thought of even bringing pictures for us to see and then thinking of doing it, we still don’t have a processing factory for orange juice and people say this is not rocket science.

If you see what IITA has done at the local levels like in the villages, you will see people processing cassava and some others in the cottages. These are some of the things we have done. Today, we are talking of weed control with simple machines so that people don’t need to use hoe and cutlass. Simple machines that people can use that don’t even involve spraying. If you talk about soybean utilisation in Nigeria, we worked on the production of soybeans and the use at household levels that people began to make soymilk and so on. When you look at the contributions of IITA, we have not actually sat down to quantify but these examples are actually there to sign post the benefits.

We also have the Genetic Resource Centre that holds the collections of seeds of these crops there were mentioned. So today, if there is anything that happens to Nigeria, Rwanda, or any of these countries, IITA has a seed bank that all the seeds are. It’s just for us to go in that bank and bring the seeds and give it to farmers, and that is a resource that will hold the trust not just in Africa, but also in the whole world.

In this article:
Dashiell KentonGMOIITA


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