The evolution of CIAT in Africa – a brief history

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Bean workshop Malawi 1980

The scene captured in this black and white photograph from March 1980 holds a special significance for the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). The week that these people met in Lilongwe, Malawi, they made a piece of CIAT history.

While the idea of CIAT branching out of Latin America to share its bean expertise in Africa had been mooted since 1973, it was at this meeting that the wheels were set in motion. Here CIAT Africa was conceived, and three years later, in 1983, Rwanda welcomed CIATs first Africa-based members of staff.

The group, which included representatives from seven national research centres in Eastern Africa, three CGIAR research centres (CIAT, IITA and ICRISAT), and aid agencies GTZ (now GIZ) and USAID, came together to make bean research in Eastern Africa a reality.

From humble beginnings in Rwanda, which led to major successes with climbing beans, CIATs presence on the continent has today grown to 160 staff spread across 10 countries, conducting research across 30, working with partners to reduce hunger and poverty through agriculture. CIAT research in Africa has expanded beyond beans, to include tropical forages, soils, policy and climate change.

A foundation built on beans

Credit: S.Malyon / CIAT

CIAT’s first staff members might have arrived in Africa in 1983, but the centre’s relationship with the continent started well before.

Since its birth in 1967, CIAT had established itself as a leading institution in bean research. By the time partners met in Malawi in 1980, CIAT had already developed lines with the potential to increase production and productivity in Latin America and was sharing bean germplasm with national research centres across Eastern Africa. Making the jump from sharing germplasm with national researchers to conducting collaborative research was the next logical step.

Participants of the Malawi meeting identified the need for a regional centre for bean research that would lead to greater food production and nutrition and CIAT was recommended as the international research centre to support its development.

Over the years, plans for a regional bean research centre evolved into regional networks, which later became part of the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA) established in 1996.

Coordinated by CIAT, and from its origins as a small network of East African member countries, today PABRA is a partnership of more than 350 bean researchers and development stakeholders across 30 countries. Research focuses on improving bean productivity through variety development and promotion of integrated crop management, addressing malnutrition through better beans, linking farmers to markets and harnessing public-private partnerships for seed production and value addition.

Branching forth into soils, forages and policy

15763741295_a57ec1bd91_zCredit: G.Smith / CIAT

Bean research has enabled CIAT to establish a solid foundation for quality research on the continent. It has also, along with ‘new’ research streams, enabled CIAT to respond to arising issues and challenges.

In its early years, CIAT didn’t have a dedicated soils research area, and yet soils research was a significant part of the centre’s work. Instead, soil scientists were based within crop programmes and so, the first Africa-based soil scientists worked within the bean programme.

Soils research became more pronounced in 2001 when CIAT merged with the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute (TSBF). TSBF was a well-established inter-University collaborative programme founded in 1984 to conduct research on integrated soil fertility management practices, such as nutrient cycling, soil physical structure and soil carbon dynamics.

Still well-remembered among partners, CIAT-TSBF formed the foundation for today’s CIAT Soils Research Area, which encompasses the original theme of sustaining soil fertility and health, and has evolved to include research addressing restoring degraded land, and soils and climate change, both on-farm and across entire landscapes. Currently, more than 20 CIAT scientists work with farmers, policy makers and other stakeholders across six African countries.

More than ten years ago, Ralf Roothaert worked jointly for CIAT and ILRI to develop a research strategy on Feeding Strategies for Dairy and Market Oriented Livestock Production in East Africa.

Gender and linking farmers to markets have been important elements of the bean programme for many years, and continue to gain importance within mainstream research.

CIAT in Africa today

The transformation of CIAT’s work in Africa to incorporate many other aspects of agricultural research, has been in direct response to the continent’s changing needs and challenges. CIAT’s ability to draw on its global research and expertise to target regionally specific issues has allowed it to evolve.

So what is CIAT’s strategic position in the region, both now and in the future?

Farmer Kuria Samuel practices drip irrigation in the Tana River Basin, Kenya. Credit: G.Smith / CIAT 15616311882_d831d81041_zCredit: N.Russell / CIAT

Once out of favour with donors because of the long-term nature of soils research, the importance of soils as the resource that feeds us is leading to increased interest and investment. So much so that this year, soils research takes centre stage under the UN declared International Year of Soils 2015. On a continent where 67% of land is degraded, their work has never been more important.

Forage research, once side-lined as a result of the public outcry around livestock’s contribution to climate change, is now viewed as a catalyst for reducing the impact of livestock production in terms of mitigating climate change while at the same time providing a sustainable adaptation option. Under the Tropical Forages program in Africa, CIAT focuses on strengthening forage-based dairy and beef cattle value chains, promoting adapted forage grasses. The value of forage research lies in increasing livestock productivity, supporting environmental services, overcoming constraints of forage seed production and establishing efficient and reliable forage seed systems contributing to livestock value chains that are climate-smart and sustainable.

IMG_9255Credit: S.Malyon / CIAT

In 2016, during the International Year of Pulses, PABRA will celebrate its 20th birthday. This year, PABRA’s work begins to take a primary focus on market development and nutrition based on the priorities of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). Indeed, led by the Rwanda Agriculture Board, PABRA researchers will soon release the results of a unique multifaceted survey to identify the links between agriculture, markets and gender – and their impact on nutrition.

PABRA’s model is hailed as a successful partnership, ensuring that research not only links to and benefits end users, but does so at scale. This model can be adopted across different crops and products in the region.

Under DAPA, CIAT teams focus on Climate Change, Ecosystem Services, Linking Farmers to Markets, Impact Assessment and Big Data. With various projects implemented by our researchers in collaboration with diverse partners, our research seeks to contribute to the wider vision of the CGIAR.

CIAT’s Africa operations have come a long way since partners met in Malawi 35 years ago. The recommendations of that meeting were the catalyst that brought about a wealth of agricultural research aimed at delivering improved food and nutrition security, reduced poverty, improved resilience to climate change and sustainable resource management across the continent.

Building upon our strong foundation of quality research over the decades, we continue to evolve and embrace change to meet the challenges of tomorrow.


Source: CIAT News

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