icipe Turns 50 – 7 April 2020

7 April 2020: On this date in 1970, the International Centre of Insect Physiology (icipe), Africa’s only institution dedicated to the study of insects and other arthropods, was officially registered by the government of Kenya, its host country.

icipe was founded by the late internationally renowned Kenyan scientist, Prof. Thomas Risley Odhiambo. This was at a time when the very notion that insect science – or indeed, the then woefully small indigenous African scientific communities – could contribute to a prosperous future for Africa, must have seemed audacious to say the least.

And yet, icipe has progressed and thrived as envisioned.

Today, the Centre prevails as a model of scientific excellence, uniquely combining generation of world-class knowledge, and the translation of such insights into innovative technologies, transforming the lives of numerous communities across Africa. The Centre is also distinct in its holistic approach, working across Human Health, Animal Health, Plant Health and Environmental Health.

With its headquarters and field stations in Kenya; country offices in Ethiopia and Uganda; operations in more than 41 African countries; 79 donors; and over 300 partnerships with a diverse range of organisations including academic, research, public and private institutions across the world, icipe is truly African, and remarkably global.

Unique from the start

Right from its founding, icipe stood out in several ways; first as an idea conceived by an individual scientist. And then, in an era when most African countries were aiming to establish national institutions, icipe was conceived as an international organisation, with a mandate for Africa and the tropical regions.

Moreover, the Centre’s overall vision was to push the frontiers of science, not just for the sake of it, but because of the direct relevance to significant challenges affecting the continent. This foresight of undertaking advanced mission-oriented research and technology development was in contrast to traditional approaches to science in Africa over the eras, which accorded exclusive emphasis to one aspect – either basic or applied research – at the expense of the other.

icipe may be described as an experiment that worked – a study in the intellectual communion of Africa’s scientific communities and research institutions across the world to solve the continent’s priority problems.

(Selected) examples of success*

Human Health Theme: icipe’s most significant contribution is in malaria control, where the Centre’s extensive and ongoing studies on mosquitoes and the malaria-causing Plasmodium parasites have led to the development of a range of tools and strategies. icipe continues to employ these solutions with commendable success, through an integrated vector management (IVM) approach. Indeed, the Centre is noted for its leadership in IVM; a process that seeks to improve the efficiency, cost-effectiveness, ecological soundness and sustainability in the control of insect transmitted diseases.

Animal Health Theme: The tsetse repellent collars stand out as a fascinating centrepiece. This technology is based on chemical cues identified by icipe researchers from waterbuck (an animal that is common in tsetse habitats but is not fed upon by the insects). A blend of these chemicals has been packaged in innovative dispensers which, when worn as collars around the neck of cattle, essentially make the animals unattractive to tsetse flies. The tsetse repellent collar technology has undergone intense trials and has now reached a stage of full-scale commercialisation.

Plant Health Theme: The icipe push-pull technology is another fascinating example of success, due to its ability to provide a platform to address a complex set of issues. Push-pull, an innovative companion cropping technology developed over the past 25 years by icipe in close collaboration with national partners in eastern Africa, and Rothamsted Research, United Kingdom, is modelled along the African smallholder farming system of multiple cropping. Push-pull was originally created for the control of stemborers, the key pests of cereal crops in Africa. The technology involves intercropping cereal crops with insect repellent legumes in the Desmodium genus; and planting an attractive forage plant as a border around this intercrop. The intercrop emits a blend of compounds that repel (‘push’) away stemborer moths, while the border plants release semiochemicals that are attractive (‘pull’) to the pests. In addition, push-pull has also been found to control the parasitic Striga weeds, aflatoxins and other mycotoxins, while improving soil health and providing high quality fodder, since the companion crops are superior forages. The technology therefore facilitates crop-livestock integration, thus expanding farmers’ income streams. Most recently, push-pull has been found to be effective in controlling the invasive and highly devastating fall armyworm, whose arrival into the continent in 2016 spelt potential doom for production of cereals (and many other crops) in Africa. A climate-smart push-pull has recently been developed and disseminated, in view of increasingly dry conditions in many parts of Africa.

Environmental Health Theme: icipe activities in the sustainable exploitation of commercial and beneficial insects have enabled the establishment of beekeeping and silk farming value chains in several parts of Africa. These initiatives have become lifelines for rural communities, especially those living in fragile or natural resource-rich ecosystems. Moreover, such ventures have provided a basis to create dignified jobs for young people, specifically through initiatives in Ethiopia.

Insects for food, feed and other uses: The Centre is a leader in this globally emerging research area, originating knowledge on aspects such as: diversity, host plants and abundance of various edible insects; their nutritional profiles; rearing protocols; and developing simple methods to extract insect oils that could be used as food ingredients and in skincare products. In addition, icipe has been involved in determining aspects that will enable insect-based enterprises, for example through training of researchers and potential entrepreneurs; and preparation of policies and industry standards.

Capacity building: The longstanding focus on strengthening skills and leadership capabilities in insect science across Africa is one of icipe’s most sustained achievements. While the Centre has impacted thousands of researchers and stakeholders, the African Regional Postgraduate Program in Insect Science (ARPPIS) remains paramount as a continental effort to nurture and retain young African talent. Between 1983 and 2019, 723 postgraduates (PhDs and MScs) from 33 African countries (plus 67 postgraduates from 15 countries outside of Africa) completed their training, including 242 through ARPPIS. Many of the ARPPIS graduates (about 75%) are today contributing to Africa’s future via their research, development or higher education roles across Africa. The African alumni (377 MSc, 346 PhD students, and more than 50 postdoctoral fellows) represent an outstanding community of researchers in relevant fields who are well- positioned to advance research for development and higher education on the continent. This is evidenced, for example, by four icipe alumni members, all women, having taken the position of Vice Chancellor at public universities in Kenya in the past 10 years.

Innovation and bioeconomy for socio-economic transformation: In recent years, icipe has re-examined its contribution to Africa’s concerted goals of achieving inclusive and sustainable development. One way is by creating much needed technical and scientific capacity, to enable incorporation of bioscience research into developmental agendas. This vision, backed by the Centre’s demonstratable institutional strengths, has resulted in icipe being mandated to host and manage two novel and landmark initiatives: the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF – https://www.rsif-paset.org) of the Africa-led Partnership for skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET); and BioInnovate Africa Programme (https://bioinnovate-africa.org), one of Africa’s largest regional innovation-driven science initiatives.

*A special report providing the first comprehensive narrative of icipe, from inception to present day and the Centre’s future forecast, will be available soon.

Notes for Editors

The International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (www.icipe.org): Our mission is to help alleviate poverty, ensure food security, and improve the overall health status of peoples of the tropics, by developing and disseminating management tools and strategies for harmful and useful arthropods, while preserving the natural resource base through research and capacity building. icipe gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the following core donors: Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC); Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida); UK Aid, from the government of the United Kingdom; the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Kenya; and the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. In addition, icipe receives restricted project funding from a range of institutions from across the world, among them, governments, private foundations and United Nations agencies. icipe also benefits from extensive partnerships with research collaborators (including universities and research institutes in Africa and beyond), private sector partners, and communities across Africa. A comprehensive list of icipe donors and partners is available at: http://www.icipe.org/donors-and-partners. For further information on icipe visit: www.icipe.org.