On September 7, The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), based in Ibadan, Nigeria, became the first institution to receive the distinguished Africa Food Prize at the 2018 African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) held in Kigali, Rwanda.

The independent Africa Food Prize Committee, chaired by former Nigeria President Olusegun Obasanjo, selected IITA for its deep commitment over many decades to producing a steady stream of innovations that have boosted the nutrition and incomes of millions of people across Africa. In recent years, that work also has included a critical focus on connecting crop science to creating employment for Africa’s youth and ensuring African farmers can adapt to the stresses of climate change and the growing threat for an array of crop pests and plant diseases.

“IITA stood out to us for its steadfast and inspiring commitment to a research agenda that aligns with both our African traditions as well as the evolving needs of African farmers and consumers for the latest advances food production. From the cassava we’re still eating today, to the valuable and nutritious soybeans we now grow in our fields, to maize varieties that can withstand drought and deadly toxins—our diets and our agriculture businesses would be much poorer today without IITA’s leadership, and its willingness to forge powerful bonds with African farmers and African communities.” President Obasanjo said.

Developing world-class research for Africa’s farmers

IITA was founded in 1967 and has since developed a track record as a protector and promoter of Africa’s most important food crops. IITA scientists have developed hundreds of new, improved and high-yielding varieties of major African dietary staple crops. This includes almost 400 new varieties of cassava, a plant which was once considered a poor man’s crop.

Under IITA’s breeding efforts, cassava has become one of Africa’s most lucrative and diverse farm commodities, with uses ranging from bread flour to beer to industrial processes. IITA has also led efforts to breed new varieties of banana, cowpea, maize, soybean and yam that are suited to the region’s wide diversity of growing conditions and dietary preferences.

In all, the value of the crops developed by IITA and its partners for Africans now stands at $17 billion and counting, underscoring its contribution to not only Africa’s agriculture but its economy as well. IITA continues to provide solutions to African farmers by continuously monitoring fields and farms for signs of emerging risks or opportunities.

An example of this commitment was in 2016 when IITA scientists were among the first to identify the arrival of the dangerous and invasive fall armyworm pest in Africa. They are currently working with a number of partners to help guide farmers to solutions for controlling a pest capable of devastating entire fields of maize and 80 other crops in a number of days.

Maize, which is also especially vulnerable to unreliable rains, has got IITA working in partnership with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) to develop some 160 new drought-tolerant maize varieties for farmers in 13 countries. These varieties are already credited with lifting some 2.7 million people out of poverty.

Working closely with partners at HarvestPlus and the Nigerian National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), IITA has helped usher in a new day for cassava production with the release of a cassava enriched way to naturally produce vitamin A. Deficiency of the Vitamin A nutrient is regarded as a leading cause of preventable blindness in children and also can be fatal to pregnant women.

The new cassava varieties, which are high-yielding and pest-resistant, can provide 25 percent of the daily vitamin A requirement for both children and women. The health benefits of this cassava, in Nigeria alone, could be worth $1.5 billion per year.

Crops are not IITA’s only contributions. It recently partnered with experts at Pennsylvania State University to develop Nuru. Nuru is a breakthrough technology accessible via smartphone that employs artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities to help farmers accurately identify a number of cassava diseases. The ability to quickly spot the emergence of problems like Cassava Brown Streak and Cassava Mosaic disease, distinguish one from the other, is crucial to an effective response. These diseases are a major threat to cassava production in West Africa and responding effectively to these threats rely on early detection and fast, targeted interventions.

IITA’s Director General, Dr Nteranya Sanginga, while receiving the Prize on behalf of his institution stated his belief that a great deal of IITA’s success rests on its ability to develop relationships and collaborations that allow the fruits of its research to be scaled up and made available to millions of farmers.

“I’m extremely honored to be receiving this prize on behalf of IITA and proud to be part of a group of researchers dedicated to building lasting and relevant solutions for the continent. It would be remiss of me if I didn’t acknowledge the important role of our various partners, from other research centers to governments to the private sector, without whom our research might never have seen the light of day.” Dr Sanginga said.

Staying responsive and nimble to adapt the institution to today’s realities

In addition to its research work, the Africa Food Prize selection committee also cited the institute’s role in moving from being a developer to become the producer and distributor of Aflasafe—a product that can remove 80 to 99 percent of a deadly, cancer-causing fungus called aflatoxin that contaminates maize and groundnuts.

In order to prove there was a market for the product, IITA established a “Business Incubation Platform (BIP)” and manufactured and sold Aflasafe itself. The product was a hit with farmers, who found the savings generated by Aflasafe were many times more than the product cost. IITA eventually handed off production to a private sector partner and there are now manufacturing plants for Aflasafe in Nigeria and Kenya.

During the congratulatory message to IITA on this recognition, President and Chief Executive Officer of Yara International, Svein Tore Holsether noted that “since its inception in 2005, the Yara Prize now known as the Africa Food Prize has honoured people and organizations who are strong voices in the African agriculture sector.

“African agriculture is now at a defining moment. To achieve real transformation we need to mobilize across sectors, and research organizations like IITA will play a crucial role, providing valuable science, vital in making sure we can produce enough food, which is also nutritious and environmentally friendly,” Holsether said.

IITA was also praised for understanding and acting on agriculture’s potential to become a source of employment for young people on a continent that is looking for ways of solving the youth employment challenge. Under Dr Sanginga’s leadership, IITA began a Youth Agripreneurs Program in 2012 to help young Africans create profitable agribusinesses. The program has since been adopted by the African Development Bank (AfDB) as a model for its ENABLE Youth Initiative. AfDB has tapped IITA to lead the efforts, which has ambitions to reach 800,000 young people in at least 20 African countries.

In an interview last week, Dr Sanginga relayed the story of Lowell, a young aspiring entrepreneur who used the training and mentoring he received from IITA to start a high-quality cassava flour processing business in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Revenue from the business has grown from $4,000 to $20,000 a month. His success inspired the creation of an industrial park near Kinshasa for the country’s growing bread industry.

“I’m convinced that today’s young generation of Africans is a major asset for African economies and contrary to conventional wisdom, they are not averse to working in agriculture. They just need some guidance and training to point them to the commercial opportunities available and, like many of the young entrepreneurs we’ve worked with, are capable of seizing on those opportunities and doing great things,” he said.

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