Sunday, November 28, 2010

How can IITA improve on project management?

How can projects deliver their objectives, on time and within the allocated budget? How can we ensure donors get good value for their money? How can project managers proactively identify and arrest problems during project implementation and not spend time reacting to them? These were among the issues tackled during a session on improving project management at IITA on the last day of the planning week.

The scientists and support staff brainstormed on the various tools and processes the institute can put in place to improve the various aspect of project management, including monitoring and evaluation, time management, budget, partnership, quality of projects, among others.

According to Eric Koper, an IITA consultant on project management, the aim of the session was to focus on the solutions and not problems, the future and not the past and most importantly, what to do and not who to blame. He also gave the results of an online assessment on project management.

He said under the on-going CG reforms, the donors wanted impact, accountability, and compliance.

Paula Bramel, IITA’s Deputy Director General R4D, appreciated the suggestions offered and said the management would consider them seriously.

“We are happy with the practical, feasible, and creative ideas to improving project management that have come out of this session. The management is committed to taking them on board. We cannot implement all of them at one go, so we will start an online voting to prioritize them,” she assured them.

Friday, November 26, 2010

IITA’s R4D work changes cassava landscape in Nigeria

IITA’s research led to the rapid growth of the cassava industry as a result of promoting its processing and new value-added products which in turn led to an increase in demand for and adoption of improved varieties according to an evaluation recently carried out in Nigeria in 14 states.

Tahiru Abdoulaye, Outcome/Impact Socio-Economist, speaking on the impact monitoring said clear outputs had been established. These included an array of processing machines such as graters and millers developed to over come processing challenges; value-added products such as odourless fufu, High Quality Cassava Flour (HQCF) which were promoted and adopted, building the capacity of National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) partners and farmers and increasing business knowledge, skills, and processing hygiene.

He said another area that had shown impact was in the adoption of improved varieties. “By 2009, there was a 70% adoption as compared to 20 years when it was only 20%. And all stakeholders have also recognized the role of IITA in the cassava sector in the country,” he said.

Challenges of evaluating impact of IITA’s R4D work

There are many challenges IITA’s socio-economists face when monitoring and evaluating the impact of IITA’s research for development (R4D) work according to Arlene Arega, IITA socio-economist, during the IITA planning week at a session on impact evaluation.

He said the time taken to realise all the benefits of an intervention takes a long time with some taking up to 16 years and many donor organizations do not have the patience to wait that long.

He suggested possible strategies the institute can use to meet donor demands and at the same time have quality assessment on the outcome and impact of its innovations on yields and income as extrapolating the future economic outcomes or setting funds aside for future evaluation.

Secondly, he said, program level evaluation gives a truer picture of the outcomes as opposed to project level. “Projects are at different stages on the R4D continuum and their impact cannot be assessed independently. It is very difficult to isolate the effects of one project when the reality is that many projects contribute to an outcome.”

He added that project evaluation was prone to ‘cherry picking’ highlighting only the successes and ignoring failures but when looking at a program assessment, one looked at both successful and failed projects.

He also said the evaluation methodologies become more complex as the products increased ranging from genetic improvement, which is the easiest to evaluate, to capacity building, post harvest and value addition to genebank. The accompanying indicators also get more complex from yield - the easiest- to income, health, food security, and environment.

He identified information and data gap as another challenge where the interventions and results along the impact pathway are not always well documented. This starts with investments, both human and financial to the outputs – the landraces, planting material, germplasm. For example when it comes to new improved varieties, usually many will have escaped long before the official release therefore keeping track of their movement and adoption impact is difficult.

Saving our forests with fertilizer use

Jim Gockowski presenting the results of a study linking
fertilizer use and deforestation in West Africa

Research carried out among Farmer Field Schools in Ghana has shown that fertilizer use would have averted the clearing of 7 million ha of Guinea forest land in West Africa for crops such as cassava, cocoa and yams in the last 20 years.

This, in turn, would have prevented some 1.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere valued between US$2.8 billion and US$42 billion. This could have also saved thousands of species in the region from becoming extinct. This was reported by Jim Gockowski, an IITA Agricultural Economist and one of the researchers involved in study, during one of the sessions on Natural Resources Management at R4D Week 2010.

He added that eventhough there was a steady increase in crop production with the use of fertilizers -- with  yields more than doubling when farmers used the recommended amount -- only 4% of the sampled farmers were at that optimal level of fertilizer use.

“Despite the huge loss of forest land, the growth in crop production was insignificant, with cassava increasing only by 0.2%, oil palm by 0.22%, and cocoa by 0.64%,” he said. “We have harmed the environment but we are still way behind our MDG goals because we failed to intensify our agriculture.”

The Guinea forest of West Africa is one of the IUCN's global hotspots covering 1.4% of the earth’s surface and containing 60% of all animal and plant species. It has been heavily deforested by farmer smallholders of cassava, cocoa, and oil palm.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Good progress but countries still lag in agriculture funding goal

Increased investments in agricultural research could help lessen the
drudgery of work especially among women in many African countries

The total expenditure on agriculture -- the most important sector in reducing poverty -- was still under 10% of the GDP of many countries in West Africa. This despite the committment made by the countries under the Maputo Declaration of 2003.

As of 2007, out of the 11 countries in the region with available data, only four countries had met this target: Burkina Faso (15.8%), Mali (11%), Niger (15.4%) and Sénégal (14%).

However, IITA scientists were told, there had been a steady increase in funds set aside for agriculture since then, especially after the 2008 food crisis.

This was highlighted by Mbaye Yade, sub-Coordinator for the Regional Strategic Analysis and Knowledge Support System (ReSAKSS), while presenting the results of the first evaluation of the Comprehensive Africa Development Program (CCADP), a strategic framework to guide the development of the agricultural sector.

He also noted that there were positive changes in indicators such as a reduction in poverty incidence, poverty gap ratio, and undernourished ratio, as well as increases in per capita GDP.

ReSAKSS is a project implemented by the CGIAR centres in close collaboration with the Regional Economic Communities (RECs). It is supporting CAADP to put in place an M&E system and the Africa countries to define their agricultural programs and M& E.

Tapping opportunities and strategizing against agricultural threats

Scientists on day 2 of R4D Week 2010 brainstormed on strategies to mitigate threats to global agricultural productivity.

The Opportunities & Threats meeting, which was moderated by Victor Manyong, IITA Director, specifically sought measures that would cushion farmers from the pains caused by pests and diseases, climate change, and food price changes, among others.

Apart from climate change and pests and diseases, experts also examined the impact of global trade policies and their likely impacts on resource-poor farmers.

The group discussed the application of early warning systems and brainstormed on tools that would help in predicting threats to food production.

They said that with the growing demand for food, spiraling population, and unpredictable weather, it was time to set up machinery that would ensure the steady production of food.
The group hopes to play the role of a think-tank to policymakers, donor agencies, and farmers in the days ahead.

They also brainstormed on resource mobilization especially in line with the ongoing CGIAR reforms.

The group observed that there were many opportunities for IITA to tap by aligning most of its activities with the reforms.

Manyong commended members for their contribution and also solicited their support especially in the area of resource mobilization.

He also emphasized the opportunities in the area of developing tools for impact assessment of projects.

IITA's impact on poverty, hunger, and food security highly rated

Research and development activities of IITA are making a big difference in the fight against hunger and poverty and it was rated as having the highest impact achievement among the 15 international agriculture centres of the Consultative group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Victor Manyong, IITA’s R4D Director for eastern and central Africa, said in 2009 the institute scored the highest among all the CGIAR centres on impact assessment and had the best impact paper that effectively demonstrates a centre’s impact on the poor or food insecure people and to the environment and rated for quality and rigor.

Commending the scientists for the good work during a mini symposium looking at improving monitoring and evaluation at IITA on the third day of the R4D Planning week, Manyong stressed that the institute should continue to strengthen its impact evaluation guided by three principles: accountability, learning, and rigor.

“Monitoring and evaluation should be incorporated in the research activities at the start of all projects and not at the end and should be seen as more than a donor requirement,” he said.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

CBSD control strategy in the region

West Africa, Peter Kulakov, IITA head of cassava breeding: “The institute and its partners are working on measures to prepare in the event the disease spreads to the region. Extensive breeding is underway that includes hybridization of local varieties with those from eastern Africa that have been known to have resistance.”

Southern Africa, Pheneas Ntwaruhunga, SARRNET coordinator: “In South African countries, the disease was reported a long time ago in both Mozambique and Malawi. In my visits around Malawi I have seen the disease is increasing and I am particularly concerned as it is now attacking the main variety that the farmers are growing. However, breeding for resistant varieties is underway incorporating germplasm from varieties showing resistance from neighbouring countries to transfer resistance or tolerance to the local varieties.”

“In Mozambique, the NARS had released four varieties which were tolerant to the disease and the pressure was now greatly reduced. In Angola and Zambia so far there have been no confirmed cases of CBSD.”

R4D Planning week: Halting spread of cassava rot disease in Africa

The Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD) is one of the greatest threats to production of cassava which is an important source of food and income for millions of resource poor farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

IITA scientists working on various aspects of controlling the disease from breeding for varieties with resistance both conventionally and marker-assisted, to tracking the spread and disease vector, met to develop a strategy to intensify, in a coordinated way, their efforts to save the crop on the second day of the IIA planning week.

Dr James Legg, an IITA virologist told the group it was now irrefutably proven that the whitefly was the vector transmitting the cassava brown streak virus. However, he said, various studies were still underway to understand exactly how the transmission takes place.

Giving an update of conventional breeding efforts to develop varieties with resistant to the viral disease, Edward Kanju, IITA cassava breeder said there were over 30 promising genotypes for lowland areas in Tanzania at various stages. Some were under on-farm trials while otehrs showing great tolerance - they show leaf symptoms but no necrosis on the roots – were poised for official release very soon.

He said a breeding program started in 2004 in Uganda has developed three tolerant clones that have shown leaf symptoms but with no damages to the roots. They were the best options for the mid-altitude areas and there was a huge demand for them in the region.

Morag Ferguson, IITA molecular Biotechnologists, said a project started five years ago with the national program in Tanzania had identified suitable markers associated with the CBSD. She said though they had not been validated, which would take another three years, they could still be used to assit breeders especially as the situation was becoming more severe.

Since the CBSD was mostly spread by infected cutting materials, halting the movement of infected planting material should halt the disease spread. However, Lava Kumar, IITA virologist said this was not easy for CBSD as the symptoms on the leaves are not so clear.

He said this calls for extra caution when selecting planting material for multiplication to avoid spreading the disease further. Furthermore he said good diagnostic tools were available which needed to be used carefully and the testing carried out several times.

He added for countries where the disease was not present, there was a great need to create awareness on the disease, symptoms and control measures to arrest the situation in time.

Sustainable seed systems for roots and tuber crops

Sustainable seeds systems in the vegetatively propagated crops (VPCs) such as banana and plantain and root crops including cassava and yam are not well developed as farmers mostly tend to reuse their planting material and the private sector had not been keen to get involved.

This was one of the key issues scientists under the roots and tubers program discussed on day2 of R4D Week in a session led by Robert Asieudu, IITA R4D Director in charge of the program.

Pheneas Ntwaruhunga, coordinator of the Southern Africa Root Crops Research Network (SARRNET) that is hosted and implemented by IITA, started off the discussions by briefing on the outcome of a workshop on seed systems organized under the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

He said the work defined the starting point of a sustainable seed system as the development of high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties where breeding agencies such as IITA play a critical role. It must be followed by an efficient multiplication and distribution systems to ensure that the beneficiaries get the seeds.

He said other issues included certification of the seeds, affordability, and a good coordination mechanism for all aspects of the seed systems.

Antonio Lopez-Montes, IITA yam breeder, called for caution when establishing seed systems, saying they must be farmer-driven and not imposed. "When there is a market demand for farmers' produce, they will realize the value of investing in increasing production by acquiring among others high-yielding varieties."

He also said the farmers can be trained on how to use part of their field to grow seeds and that they should be made aware that seed production is a profitable business.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

IITA's challenges for Banana and Plantain program

Banana and plantains, important food and income crops for millions of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, are threatened by a growing list of diseases and pests sweeping across the region that IITA scientist are searching for their immediate and long term sustainable control solutions.
On the second day of IITA’s 2010 planning week, scientists working on the two crops in various aspects updated each other on their current activates and brainstormed towards a focused strategy to coordinate their efforts in a session led by Jim Lorenzen, Banana Breeder and Program lead.

On Banana Bunchy Top Virus (BBTV), one of the top priority disease, Lava Kumar, IITA virologist told the group the institute had good baseline data on the disease including how and where it was spreading. And although there were no known sources of resistance to the disease, he said, in Cameroon trials had began to identify varieties that are tolerant to the disease, still giving acceptable yields even when infected.

He said they had started a campaign in Cameroon where the disease was now present as farmers moved planting material from Gabon where it is entrenched.

Fen Beed, a plant pathologist, said a lot had been done on BXW, good diagnostics for the virus using DNA capture were in place, and there was an ongoing regional survey in seven countries in partnership with national research and regulatory officials: Rwanda, DRC, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Zambia.

He said, however, that there was still a lot to do as it was still spreading through the region. For instance in Uganda there has been a resurgence of the disease despite the government having launched one of the most effective control programs.

"It's not clear whether it's because the people have stopped putting in place the appropriate measures or the disease is more complex than we thought," he said.

Irie Bi Vroh stressed the difficulty of breeding plantain which are sterile and unbreedable. He said in West Africa the research focused on boosting their fertility and enlarging the germplasm base with material from colleagues around the world.

Leena Tripathi, IITA Biotechnologist, updated the group on the progress in transforming the two crops to develop varieties resistant to the major diseases. She said there were transgenic lines resistant to BXW under confined field trials in Uganda and there were also plans for testing in other countries such as Kenya.

Danny Coyne, IITA nematologist, emphasized the complexity of controlling nematodes, a major threat to banana and plantain as there were different species involved. The institute is still focusing on an integrated control including ensuring clean planting material by boiling suckers in hot water and breeding for resistant varieties as a long- term solution. "Boiling in water is simple, practical, and fast. We need simple campaigns to create awareness among the farmers."

Monday, November 22, 2010

2010 R4D Week: The benefits of the ‘charging services’ model for IITA

The ‘charging for services’ model being used by IITA presents an opportunity to help improve the quality of services and free more funds for research, Lakshmi Menon, IITA DDG (Support) has said.

The model, which is principally a cost recovery framework, is part of the strategy adopted by IITA management to cushion the impact of the reforms in the CGIAR system.

Other measures adopted by IITA included the use of tools to closely monitor expenditures and increased efficiency in service delivery.

Menon said the approach had freed up resources for research, making more funds available for R4D.

Some of the impacts of the institutional reforms include the drop in power consumption in IITA-Ibadan using energy-saving devices and the enhanced Internet connectivity in East/West Africa due to laying of fiber optics.

Menon said, “Prices have dropped from an average $6000 per megabyte to $1000 per megabyte.”

Overall, the internal reforms are gradually putting the support units in a better position with some units now becoming financially sound.

Menon called for scientists’ understanding on the new internal charges placed on services, stressing that savings made are for the overall benefit of the institute with some funds being transferred to R4D and also for maintaining other research stations.

2010 R4D Week: Our financial situation is healthy, says Chief Financial Officer

The institution is in a healthy and stable financial condition even in the face of the looming CGIAR reforms and the funding uncertainties accompanying it, IITA’s Chief Financial Officer, Shalewa Sholola, assured scientists in his presentation on the first day of the Planning week. He said in the 2009 financial year, IITA’s books were well balanced.

He told them that in 2011, which was going to be a transition year as many of the CRPs are not yet approved, the institute’s management was committed to ensuring that there would be minimal undue shocks and disruptions to their research activities and operations even the Institute braced itself to meet the excellent opportunities and challenges posed by the changes.

“However, this calls for us to operate more efficiently, to be more prudent by prioritizing our activities, and exploring ways to accomplish activities at minimal costs. We need to eliminate wastage by implementing best action plans and stringently use the precious unrestricted funds,” he said.

He called upon scientists to use well the available tools and systems on project management and budget monitoring, and regularly suggest ways to improve them. He assured them that the management was going to invest in new and existing tools and systems for better financial management and build the capacity of staff to use them.

He said the management team would also work to attract more restricted funds which will contribute to overhead costs and cost recovery and reduce any funding gaps.

He explained that under the new reforms, the funding would be based on performance contracts and agreements as well as multi-donor and multi-year funding, and unrestricted funding would cease. He said there were three windows of funding opportunities and four sources of funding for IITA.

“There will be funds allocated by the council, by the fund donors to the CRPs, and fund donors as institutional support which will be transitional for 2-3 years or so and lastly, the bilateral fund provided outside the funds framework to finance projects or activities under the CRP.

2010 R4D Week: The good and the not-so-good in the on-going reforms for IITA’s R4D

The ongoing reforms at the CGIAR, though presenting huge challenges, are also offering immense opportunities for our research-for-development (R4D) activities that we should use 2011 to prepare and gear up for, Paula Bramel, IITA’s Deputy Director General R4D told the scientists on the first day of IITA’s R4D Week.

She said that under the reforms, the partnerships will become complex and more formalized. “We will be operating in broad partnerships and multicenter global teams. There will be a lot of competition for funding and conflict resolution will be key to make them work,” she said.

She said the way the projects will be run, and monitored and evaluated will also change.

“In the past the focus was mainly on the science but now the success criteria will be on outcomes, outputs, and impacts. We will therefore need to invest in new tools and processes to manage our projects and new performance indicators to determine our impact,” she said. “We also need to formalize our monitoring and evaluation, both external and internal.”

The institute will also have to manage the different roles it will play under the CRPs, from being a lead role in one CRP and a primary partner in others to playing small roles in areas that are of priority.

On the other hand, there are lots of opportunities up for grabs. She said IITA will now have to operate globally. “We will finally get our research and technologies to other continents. This will lead to greater impact and visibility for our work,” she said. “

“There will be new research areas that we have previously not been involved in and new and diverse partnerships especially with the private sector,” she said. “And though initially there are funding uncertainties, in the long run, there will be more funds for the centers and new research areas.”

She said 2011 would be a transition year as many of the CRPs would still not be funded and the institute will invest in prioritizing areas to focus on, in strengthening its reporting, learning from the past, resource mobilization and new areas such as intellectual property and gender mainstreaming issues to prepare to adapt to the changes.

2010 R4D Week: Hartmann calls for better use of resources

IITA Director General Hartman on Monday called on staff to work smarter, and be more prudent in the use of financial and material resources at their disposal. This is against the background of the global economic crises and the CGIAR reforms which are seeking to dramatically change the funding of centers.

Addressing staff at the 2010 Research-for-Development Week (R4D Week) in Ibadan, Hartmann emphasized the need for discipline in managing inventories and in requisitioning new items.

According to him, one big area to extract savings is by having greater discipline in purchases.

“Please think one, two or three times before you order something,” he said.

He invited scientists to make a commitment to preserve the unrestricted funds in the next six months. The proposal elicited a positive response from the attendees, signifying endorsement from the staff.

Commenting on the CGIAR reforms, Hartmann said it presented excellent opportunities to IITA. He explained that “the future looks positive,” but added, “we must work to come out stronger and leaner by better managing our resources.”

He commended the CGIAR for the creation of the Fund and the consortium’s commitment to fund the genebank, saying that it was a decision in the right direction.

Earlier, Hartmann hinted on the new IITA strategy which would take effect starting January 2011. The 10-year strategy is a product of over three years of work by the Board of Trustees that highlights how the institute will operate in the next 10 years.

Though the goals of the strategies are fixed, Hartmann said the implementation of the strategy would be flexible.

The DG also used the occasion to introduce Dr. Trine Hvoslef-Eide, from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, who joined the IITA board recently.

He also acknowledged the presence of Jennie Quinn from Irish Aid, Irish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

IITA marks 2010 Open Day with tree planting to save biodiversity

Members of staff of IITA marked the 2010 Open Day with the planting of indigenous trees in Ibadan to help mitigate the effects of climate change and losses in biodiversity.

The planting of trees comes at a time when Nigeria’s deforestation rate has reached an alarming rate of 3.5% per year, translating to a loss of 350,000–400,000 hectares of forest per year. In 1976, Nigeria had 23 million ha of forest; today only 9.6 million ha remain—less than 10% of Nigeria’s total land area!!

Dr. John Peacock, who is manager of the IITA - Leventis Foundation Project, says the planting of trees is part of a new initiative to restore rainforests in Nigeria. IITA is also contributing to the important UN-REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) initiative in Nigeria.

Through the IITA-Leventis Project, the team, particularly Olukunle Olasupo and Deni Bown, have raised over 15,000 seedlings of 33 different species since February 2010 in preparation for planting next year, with at least as many again hoped for during the coming dry season when most tree species produce seeds.

“We would like every family, represented by staff members in IITA, to plant an indigenous tree next year as part of IITA’s activities to increase the forest area,” Peacock added.

Earlier this year, IITA and partners made efforts to raise awareness of the need to preserve biodiversity—a term that describes the variety of living organisms—especially in forests that are increasingly becoming lost or threatened. For example, statistics indicate that Nigeria’s Milicia excelsa (iroko) has become endangered, with about $100 m worth of iroko timber illegally poached from remaining forests last year. “The unfortunate thing is that these very valuable trees are not being replaced,” Peacock noted.

Over the years IITA has championed efforts not only to increase crop productivity but also the conservation of biodiversity and natural resources including water and forest. Today, the 1000 ha at IITA Ibadan campus is taken up by research, administration, and residential buildings, lakes and experimental plots, and a further 350 ha. comprises valuable secondary forest. This forest can be compared to an oasis in the desert and is dominated by a canopy that includes fine specimens of Milicia excelsa (iroko), Ceiba pentandra (silk cotton tree), Celtis zenkeri (ita-gidi), Terminalia (afara), and Antiaris toxicaria var. africana (akiro).
In 1979, an arboretum was established comprising 152 different tree species, 81 of which are indigenous. Peacock says the IITA-Leventis Project plans to increase the forest area and the IITA arboretum with the planting of more indigenous trees.

Another area of importance to the project is education, particularly of school children, says Deni Bown, project coordinator and medicinal plant expert with the IITA-Leventis Project. “In this regard we are educating the young on the importance of afforestation and conservation,” she said.
Peacock and his team are hopeful that through reforestation and education the rate of deforestation in Nigeria will be significantly reduced.

Monday, November 8, 2010

IITA holds 2010 Open Day amid pomp and fanfare

It was a memorable day on 6 November 2010 (Saturday) at the IITA Open Day celebration as members of staff and their family members gathered together for a day of festivities. The attendees were gorgeously dressed; some in their traditional attires, others in formal wears. Flashes of light pervaded the Conference Center as cameras clicked to capture the memorable events and people. The events took off with tree planting which involved selected members of staff at the East bank of the IITA Lake, after which members of staff gradually arrived and made their way to the Conference Center. There were various exhibitions made by the different units such as the IITA Bioscience Center, Genetic Resources Center, Virology Unit, Banana and Plantain Unit, and the Leventis Project. A documentary on IITA programs featured IITA’s impact. Children played and freely ran around while their parents chatted, laughed and took pictures. During this period also, staff members showed their family members around their offices.At the Sports Center, children had their own space at the basketball court where they danced and played. One of the highlights of the event was the raffle draw where lucky staff members were randomly selected and given prizes donated by the management and units of IITA. Some of the prizes won included; umbrellas, wall clocks, 2kg Blackforest cake, tickets to the IITA Pizza Night, lunch at the International House, steam iron, glass stand, DVD player, dinner set, and a refrigerator. The dance competition between the children, staff and dependents elicited more prize-giving and added to the excitement of the day. The best dressed individuals and couple also carted away prizes. The program was rounded off by Deputy Director-General (Support), Dr. Lakshmi Menon who gave the closing remarks and vote of thanks. The star prize of a 26 inches LCD was won by Mr. Paul Sunday Eshi who was on duty but was represented by a colleague, while the presentation was made by Mr. Omosalewa Solola of the Finance unit. Members of staff who were in attendance commended the efforts of the management and planning committee and attested to the fact that this year’s IITA Open Day was well planned and executed.