Dr Hans R. Herren, former icipe Director General, speaks about his tenure

My appointment as the Director General of icipe came 15 years into what was a chance sojourn in Africa.

In 1979, after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, focussing on biological control, I answered an advertisement for an entomologist in a maize programme at the IITA in Nigeria. However, because of my experience, I was offered a position in the biocontrol of the cassava mealy bug and green mite. Through this project, I got the opportunity to implement my ‘book-knowledge’ on biological control not only in natural settings, but in a sustainable way that few people had considered before.  We reared millions of ladybugs and parasitic wasps and then airplanes to shoot them over cassava fields. We were able to control this destructive pest, saving millions of people from starvation.

In 1994, I received a phone call from Bill Mashler, who was at the time the Chairman of the icipe Governing Council, inviting me apply for the position of Director General. At that time, I was contemplating a move from IITA to the United States, but the opportunity to lead icipe into its new phase sounded too interesting to pass, even though I knew that the transition would be difficult.

At the Centre, I found a strong team and an even larger platform for sustainable development. I developed the 4-H paradigm, as the framework for the "new icipe" research and training program. I came to this idea, from the experience I had gained both at IITA and from having studied the failures of  many development projects. I realised that to be successful, projects needed a holistic and integrated approach that would facilitate sustainable development for farmers and rural communities in general.

The 4-Hs paradigm represents Human Health, Animal Health, Plant Health and Environmental Health. In regard to human health, some of the continent’s most devastating diseases, including malaria, dengue fever and sleeping sickness, are transmitted by insects. These diseases not only put a strain on an already fragile health care system, but also cost the continent huge amounts of money, in terms of loss of life and manpower.

In animal health, every year several million cattle a lost each year in Africa, due to the fatal disease nagana, which is transmitted by the tsetse fly. If we can control these pests, we increase the production of milk and meat and, importantly, draft power for tilling the land, as most farmers cannot afford tractors. Insects pests also constrain the production of most major crops in Africa. However, efforts to combat these pests should not just focus on how to increase yield, but also on how to do it in a sustainable way. This means better water and soil management and also integrative production systems that maintain diversity and provide the needed ecosystem services. For all these tasks we need more well-trained people in Africa who can deal with the problems on their own and in their own environment.

The main idea was to link the 4Hs, which had a common thread, the insects, to create momentum and positive synergies, along an upward spinning spiral, which would cater for the different development problems encountered by the farmers and rural communities. I am proud to have left the 4Hs as a legacy of my tenure at icipe, and that the best example of this research paradigm, the push-pull strategy, continues to thrive.