Farewell interview with Prof Christian Borgemeister, icipe Director General, 2005 - 2013

On 30 September 2013, Prof Christian Borgemeister left icipe after eight years as the Centre’s Director General. In this interview, he discusses the Centre’s accomplishments during his tenure as its chief executive officer.

What do you consider to be icipe’s biggest achievement during your tenure as Director General?

In the past eight years, icipe has obtained more funding, and therefore better stability as an organisation. The Centre’s finances have tripled, from USD 9.5 million in 2005 to a projected USD 30 million at the end of 2013.  35% of this funding is unrestricted core grants, provided by the Governments of Denmark (until 2011), Aid for Africa, Kenya, France, Sweden, Switzerland, German and the UK. The remaining 65% is restricted grants, which stem from various donors both development-oriented as well as science-focused. This has enabled us to greatly increase icipe’s R&D and capacity building activities across Africa.

How has this success been achieved?

Primarily, we have built on the foundation laid by my two predecessors, Prof. Thomas Risely Odhiambo, the founding director of icipe, and my immediate predecessor Dr. Hans Herren.

The accomplishments in the past eight years are also largely as a result of icipe’s uniqueness, which is based on three factors. First, icipe is an independent African-based, African-owned organisation with an African identity. There are not many institutions that have those characteristics.

Second, icipe’s research cuts across agriculture and health, and also incorporates the environment. This thematic mix is particularly unique, as most often research and development organisations focus on one single theme.

The third factor is icipe’s track record, which is based on a number of key assets. The Centre has always had a dual mission of conducting fundamental scientific research while providing practical solutions that make a real change in the lives of people in Africa, primarily the rural and urban poor. In other words, icipe embraces the developmental aspect while not sacrificing science. As a result, the Centre is able to gain support from more development oriented organisations as well as those more focused on science.

Moreover, icipe has maintained the idea of partnerships with institutions in Africa and beyond, as one of its key strategies. Closely linked to this, is the incorporation of an interdisciplinary approach to research. Traditionally, icipe has primarily been a natural sciences institution. However, in the past several years, the Centre has acknowledged social sciences as a vital component of its activities. In 2011, icipe re-established a socio-economic unit, which now provides a platform for systematic impact assessments, learning and knowledge sharing for all the Centre’s projects.

Lastly, icipe has built a solid reputation among funders in regard to its financial management. Since 2009 the Centre’s external auditors have not issued a management letter, thus in effect giving the Centre a clean bill of health in terms in its financial reporting.

What are some examples of how these factors have come together?

A good illustration of the convergence of these factors is the push-pull technology, which illustrates how collaboration between icipe, research, development and private sector partners can open up opportunities for the improvement of income and nutritional security of smallholder farmers.

Push-pull, an innovative technology that uses crop intercrops to simultaneously combat the key constraints of cereal production in Africa, i.e. stemborer pests, the parasitic striga weed and poor soil fertility, was developed by icipe in collaboration with UK’s Rothamsted Research and national research institutes in Kenya. Through support from community-based organisations, donors and private sector partners, over 60,000 farmers in East Africa are now using push-pull.

Moreover, some of the crops used in push-pull, for instance desmodium and Napier grass, are high quality, perennial animal fodder plants. Therefore, an important benefit of the technology is the provision of all-year round quality fodder. Consequently, icipe has formed a close collaboration with Heifer International to incorporate animal husbandry within push-pull. This partnership includes assisting farmers to acquire improved livestock breeds and training them on proper animal care.

A second example is in regard to the commercialisation of isolates developed through icipe’s long-standing research on fungi that attack crop pests, through agreements signed with Real IPM, a pan-African, Kenya-based producer of bio-pesticides. As a result, Metarhizium anisopliae ICIPE 69 isolate, is now registered for control of mealybugs in papaya and marketed as Campaign™ in Ghana, and for microbial control of other pests in Kenya, where it is marketed as Real Metarhizium, and in Ethiopia, Mozambique and the Republic of South Africa. In addition, the Metarhizium anisopliae ICIPE 78 isolate is being marketed as Achieve™ in Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa, and is effective against a range of economically important mites.

A third example is icipe’s growing international recognition, aptly illustrated by the designation in September 2012, as a Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) Reference Centre for vectors and vector-borne animal diseases. FAO Reference Centres are institutions selected by FAO’s Director General to provide specific, independent technical or scientific advice on issues related to its mandate. The Centres are chosen on the basis of their high level scientific expertise, their commitment to capacity building and provision of services. The designation is also based on prior collaboration with FAO and contribution to the organisation’s programmes. Selected institutions must also have demonstrated ability to contribute to capacity building in their areas of expertise.

How has icipe contributed to the advancement of scientific capacity in Africa?

Capacity building is indeed one of the most important aspects of icipe’s activities, and a goal that the Centre has continued to advance from a number of perspectives in the past eight years. Overall, the Centre’s approach is to enable researchers to take leadership in seeking solutions to Africa’s development problems while gaining recognition within the international scientific community.

The flagship of icipe’s capacity building activities is the training of young academics, primarily through the African Regional Postgraduate Programme in Insect Science (ARPPIS) and the Dissertation Research Internship Programme (DRIP). By 2012, a total of 350 PhD students had been trained by icipe and their University partners, and most of them have remained in Africa, where they are working for a range of organisations.

In the past eight years, icipe has also enhanced its role as a Centre of Excellence, which provides Africa’s finest talent with the right opportunities and infrastructure. Currently, icipe employs around 60 scientists, half of whom are African nationals, working alongside peers from Asia, Europe and North America. The Centre’s scientists publish more than 100 peer-refereed scientific articles per year, which demonstrates their own, and in effect Africa’s, contribution to global scientific knowledge.

icipe also provides training to farmers as well as technical and extension workers to strengthen their capacity in applying the Centre’s technologies and to provide them with the knowledge and information that they require to define solutions for challenges related to food and health.

Beyond the human resources, icipe has also significantly contributed towards strengthening Africa’s scientific infrastructure. For instance, the Martin Lüscher Emerging Infectious Disease (EID) Laboratory, which was launched in November 2011 at icipe’s headquarters in Kasarani, Nairobi, provides a specialised platform to undertake studies that will improve risk detection, early warning and response capabilities, to outbreaks of vector-borne infectious diseases of national programmes in Kenya, and Africa in general. Therefore facility is one of the few existing laboratories on the continent that provide such a resource.

Moreover, as icipe has increased its programmatic activities across Africa, now extending to 20 countries, it has in effect contributed towards making the scientific capacity – human and infrastructural- stronger. Currently, the Centre has field centres in Ethiopia and Sudan. The rest of icipe’s activities are underministered under national research institutes in the respective countries.

In the past several years, icipe has also become particularly involved in supporting institutions in post conflict countries. For instance, we are supporting the University of Somalia in Mogadishu to develop their curriculum.

Where to next?

I will be taking on a new role as the Director of the Ecology and Natural Resources Management Department at the Centre for Development Research (ZEF) of the University of Bonn, Germany. Founded in 1995, ZEF’s research aims at finding solutions to development-related issues. I will be leading the implementation of a similar vision as at icipe, that of research and development within an interdisciplinary and international context.