"The idea was actually very simple: Get the very best people and then if you have more money, put buildings and equipment around them."
–icipe Founding Director, Prof. Thomas Risley Odhiambo
The International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe), stands as the enduring legacy of the late internationally reknowned Kenyan scientist, Prof. Thomas Risley Odhiambo.
Educated in Cambridge University, UK, Prof. Odhiambo completed a PhD in 1965 under the supervision of the guru of insect physiology, Vincent Wigglesworth, producing a ‘phenomenally productive’ thesis on the reproductive physiology of the desert locust, producing a series of 14 papers on the topic. He marked his arrival into the world of insect science through a sole-authored short communication in Nature journal titled, Metabolic effects of corpus allatum hormone, in the desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria.
Upon his return to Kenya, Prof. Odhiambo, took up a position as a lecturer in the Department of Zoology at the University of Nairobi. In 1967, he was approached by the Science journal to write a review on the status of science in Africa. In the article, Prof. Odhiambo observed that scientific research was urgently required in the then postcolonial Africa, to develop environmentally safe strategies to increase agricultural production, and to address prevalent tropical and vector borne diseases. He stressed that the science conducted in Africa should have at its heart the elevation of the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.
At the same time, Prof. Odhiambo noted, the indigenous scientific community in Africa was ‘woefully small’, and the continent was hardly equipped, from a financial and infrastructural point of view, to effectively tackle the challenges at hand. He, therefore, proposed that Africa’s best long term solution towards conducting effective research was to concentrate efforts in a few centres of excellence.
Giving the example that eventually led to the establishment of icipe, Prof. Odhiambo recommended that Africa’s insect research could be located in one centre that would have the best equipment, which would be put to the best advantage. Such a centre would have a permanent staff; it would also train young researchers from Africa and offer opportunities to other scientists from across the globe looking for ‘periodical renovation’. In Prof Odhiambo’s words, the insect science centre of excellence would become ‘a powerhouse for the initiated and those wishing to be initiated into research’.
Prof. Odhiambo’s ideas got support from, among others, Carl Djerassi, a world-renowned American scientist. Together, Odhiambo and Djerassi set the wheels in motion for the launching of icipe. Eventually, they gained the support of 21 national academies of science across the globe, who became sponsors of icipe, providing the needed external research directors.
icipe was declared open for business in 1970, one of its objectives being the creation of motivated and highly talented ‘human capital’ in insect research and related areas of science, to enable Africa to sustain herself and to lead the entire pan-tropical world in this area of endeavour.
Prof. Odhiambo later remarked: “The idea was actually very simple, get the very best people and then if you have more money, put buildings and equipment around them.”
In the beginning money was in short supply at icipe, and the Centre’s headquarters consisted of a number of rented wood-frame barracks perched on the hillside of Chiromo Campus at the University of Nairobi. The first postdoctoral researcher arrived to work in a garage that flooded when it rained and the budget was improvised from week to week.
Today, icipe stands as a centre of scientific excellence and training in Africa. And as Prof. Odhiambo had hoped, it is indeed staffed mainly by indigenous African scientists. icipe currently has a staff of more than 400, and the Centre collaborates with over 200 national systems, research institutes and universities around the world.
Prof. Odhiambo’s vision of holistic science is today embodied in the Centre’s 4Hs paradigm, denoting human, animal, plant and environmental health. Its major research areas include disease vectors, such as mosquitoes and tsetse, as well as pests of cereals and horticultural crops. icipe scientists are also conducting research into beneficial insects such as bees and silkworm moths.