Q&A: CGIAR consortium head on agriculture in Africa

Frank Rijsberman
Copyright: Photo: C. Schubert (CCAFS)

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  • CGIAR consortium is prioritising partnerships and innovation to spur food security
  • It has initiatives that could attract Africa’s unemployed youth into agriculture
  • It is aiming to address gender inequality to help benefit more people

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Frank Rijsberman, CEO of CGIAR consortium, tells SciDev.Net about efforts to increase food security in Africa.

Two years ago, Frank Rijsberman took over as the CEO of CGIAR consortium, a global partnership that brings together organisations with interest in research and development for a food secure future. SciDev.Net talks to him about his priorities for achieving food security in Sub-Saharan Africa, some successes and key research challenges of CGIAR consortium.
After two years in office, what have been your priority areas of action and key achievements?
Our achievements include supporting the development of the organisation’s 16 global research programmes and facilitating collaboration with 15 research centres and other partners. 
This cross-fertilisation of ideas and capacity is changing the way research is done, and making the process more participatory and open.

“In the coming years, investment in innovation in agriculture will be key to addressing issues facing Sub-Saharan Africa and other developing areas of the world.”

Frank Rijsberman, CGIAR consortium

We are also working on a clear set of cross-consortium intermediate development outcomes such as lessening rural poverty, improving food security, nutrition, health and sustainable management of resources to help the CGIAR consortium demonstrate impacts of research across the globe, especially in developing countries.

Another priority area is strengthening relationships with key stakeholders that include donors, research partners, farmers, national governments, national agricultural research services, regional research agencies and civil society organisations working with farmers in rural communities.
What are some of your focus areas in the next few years, especially for Sub-Saharan Africa, and why?
The core objective for agricultural research today is ‘sustainable intensification’. Some of the areas prioritised are adoption of new innovations and technologies such as improved crop varieties to reduce rural poverty and scaling out programs that will allow farmers to intensify productivity sustainably through partnerships.
CGIAR consortium has changed its research model to make researchers account for development outcomes.
In the coming years, investment in innovation in agriculture will be key to addressing issues facing Sub-Saharan Africa and other developing areas of the world.
CGIAR consortium is working in partnership with the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme, the African Union Commission and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development to align initiatives that boost African agricultural research and development.
We will continue to work with farmers. For instance, the East Africa Dairy Development programme in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, which is led by Heifer international in partnership with and the World Agroforestry Centre, among others. It aims to implement a volunteer farmer-trainer model, which promotes farmer-to-farmer exchange of knowledge and skills.
Why is it that many African countries are still food insecure?

Some of the challenges to food security and nutrition include lack of investment in key initiatives by the private and public sectors; poor infrastructure; conflict; poor quality of education for many, especially for girls and a lack of the right partnerships and cooperatives at local, regional and international levels.
What is CGIAR consortium doing to address these challenges?
CGIAR consortium is working towards providing solutions to food security by ensuring that the right knowledge and tools reach the right people.
A few examples of CGIAR consortium’s initiatives to address food security in Africa include drought-tolerant maize that increases yields by 20-30 per cent, which is expected to benefit 30-40 million Africans by 2016 and provide added grain worth up to US$200 million each year.

“The results of CGIAR consortium research offers new initiatives, practical knowledge and innovative solutions to revitalise the businesses and employment of young men and women farmers.”

Frank Rijsberman, CGIAR consortium

In West Africa, CGIAR consortium is collaborating with Mars Incorporated — a global manufacturer of food products — and local partners to improve incomes of poor farmers by developing improved cocoa varieties. The partnership also aims to secure markets for agroforestry products in developing countries, especially in rural areas and quantifying the potential for trees on farms for climate change mitigation and adaptation. In some areas, cocoa yields have increased by up to four times.
CGIAR consortium has developed staple food crops high in iron, zinc or vitamin A to combat malnutrition. Our efforts have also led to high-yielding, drought-, disease or heat-tolerant crop varieties for farmers.
In Mozambique and Uganda, adoption of vitamin A-rich sweet potato has doubled the intake of vitamin A for children and women. In Nigeria and Zambia, maize high in vitamin A is improving family nutrition.
Africa is grappling with youth unemployment. How can the youth be enticed to agriculture?
There are two different ‘youth’ issues here — one is young people working as agricultural scientists and the highly important matter of young people being farmers.
For potential agricultural scientists, the agricultural sector is no longer the slow or boring sector it was once perceived to be. It is now an exciting time to be an agricultural scientist.
Our understanding of genetics and genomics has evolved so rapidly that what was not possible three to five years ago has not only become possible, but it is also affordable today.  The fact that agricultural research has become such an exciting field to work in means that the youth is already being enticed to the fold.
The results of CGIAR consortium research offers new initiatives, practical knowledge and innovative solutions to revitalise the businesses and employment of young men and women farmers.
The agricultural sector already has more to offer young farmers now.  Much of CGIAR consortium’s research is focused on Africa and there are many examples of its impact on the continent. An example is a project called EverGreen Agriculture that integrates food crops with ‘fertiliser trees’. The practice has benefits such as increased productivity, incomes and climate change resilience. 
What are some of the challenges that CGIAR consortium faces in its research efforts?
In many areas of the developing world, there are increasing challenges due partly to diminishing natural resources and declining rates of crop yields, which increases political instability and conflict, malnutrition and food insecurity.
The core mission for agricultural research in addressing these challenges is ‘sustainable intensification’ and investment for long-term food security in Africa and around the world.
Although funding for public international agricultural research for development has doubled in the last five years, it is still modest and public investment has a crucial role to play in areas not covered by the private sector.
CGIAR consortium research will also pay special attention to the needs of women in rural areas and, among other initiatives, will explore ways to raise their income and nutritional outcomes. Where there is more gender equality, there is increased all-round benefit.
Q&As are edited for length and clarity.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Saharan Africa desk.