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It is something of a homecoming for Frank Rijsberman, the 55-year-old Dutch national who was recently appointed chief executive officer of the newly-formed CGIAR Consortium — formerly known as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

Rijsberman was until 2007 head of the CGIAR's International Water Management Institute, a post that he left in 2007 to become programme director on the philanthropic team of, and subsequently director of water, sanitation and hygiene strategy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Now he is returning to head the leadership team of the  body that is responsible for integrating and co-ordinating the work of 15 separate agricultural research centres — known as the CGIAR Consortium on International Agricultural Research — as it goes through the final steps of a major reform.

These reforms began in 2009, with the announcement that the 15 research centres would be brought together to work on a series of research programmes, financed from a central donor fund, to address agricultural issues more holistically.

But this challenge is one for which Rijsberman — who trained in civil engineering and brings to the job 30 years' experience in development and environmental issues — appears to be ready.

"I am privileged to have a chance to work on such an important mission, at a time when the world really recognises that food security is the top challenge facing humanity, as we need to provide 70 per cent more food between now and 2050, without destroying the environment," Rijsberman told SciDev.Net.

His immediate plan is to enhance performance management at the consortium, increase public and private sector investment in agricultural research, and help smallholder farmers put more food on the table through using environmentally-sound practices.

"Many of our research programmes are much more focused [than before] on climate change and agriculture, and we believe we can help make agriculture more climate-resistant," says Rijsberman.

"This might mean anything from conservation agriculture [practices] to growing drought-tolerant maize."

A new Green Revolution

Established in 1971, the CGIAR was, Rijsberman says, "too successful" during the early years, when it spearheaded the 'Green Revolution' of the 1970s, with its panoply of research, development and technology initiatives.

This helped transform agricultural production, leading to wide-scale adoption of high yielding crop varieties, a growing abundance of food, and low food prices.  

"Clearly, Africa did not experience similar levels of success, but the world as a whole had enough food and low food prices, and became complacent," Rijsberman said.

A farmer in Mali, Africa

The new green revolution must boost agriculture and food security in Africa, says Rijsberman

Flickr/Peter Casier

He adds that, as a result, investments in agriculture declined to precipitously low levels.

"The Green Revolution's success almost made the world fall asleep and think that we had solved the agriculture crisis and did not need to invest anymore", he says. "Now we need to come up with a new Green Revolution, one that is effective for Africa and one that works not against but with the environment, and is clearly focused on smallholder farmers."  

Science and technology, Rijsberman says, are at the root of this.  

Focus on water

In 2011, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave him responsibility for developing grant-making for a new sanitation strategy focusing on impoverished communities worldwide, which led to the development of a science and technology initiative.

Rijsberman sees his new appointment as a natural transition, due to his extensive experience working on water issues. He was awarded a multidisciplinary PhD — by Colorado State University — in water resources planning and management and civil engineering. Rijsberman also conceived and led the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food.  

Rijsberman has a reputation for successfully reeling in project funding. During his tenure as director-general of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) between 2000 and 2007, Rijsberman grew the organisation from a budget of US$9 million, with operations confined to South Asia, to an organisational budget of US$23 million, with 12 offices across Asia and Africa.

"I will be building on a lot of work that donors, the centres and everyone has done in putting in place major foundations and building blocks for reforms," said Rijsberman, explaining that the reform of CGIAR — which he has described as a multi-headed beast — should be finalised to help secure investments and to build strong relationships with partners.

Forging the future

Asked about where the consortium will be in ten years' time, Rijsberman said that by 2022, it should have a strong and streamlined portfolio of research programmes, with investments of around US$1.6 billion. With the introduction of improved maize, wheat and rice varieties, the CGIAR should have made an impact on food security and poverty for hundreds of millions of poor people, he said.

Rijsberman added that an analysis of returns on investment had shown that the CGIAR had one of the highest returns of investment in development. Some studies have indicated that every dollar invested in the CGIAR brings backs US$9 in benefits, mainly for smallholder farmers.

In 2011, the total CGIAR budget was US$700 million and is projected to grow to US$900 million in 2012. Rijsberman is optimistic that the consortium will reach its US$1 billion target by 2015.