Dr Abdou Tenkouano, icipe Director General.

Building brand icipe

By Murimi Gitari

Dr Abdou Tenkouano, a national of Burkina Faso, joined the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) in January this year, becoming the 5th Director-General of the Nairobi-headquartered institution. He sat down with PanAfrican Agriculture to discuss his career in scientific research, how he is settling in at his new work station and his vision for icipe.

Dr Tenkouano, congratulation on your new appointment and welcome to Nairobi. Tell us about your experience growing up in Burkina Faso and your educational background. Boys who grow up in the rural African areas usually find themselves in very complex situations. The farm economies in the rural areas were very complex during my time and would start at sunrise and would not stop at sunset.

I used to be involved in a lot of tasks in the village like taking care of the poultry, goats, cattle and going to the field for weeding. I also took part in all the peripheral activities around the farm. Rural people are very hardworking and spend a lot of time working on the farm but at the end of the day what they get might not be commensurate. This requires solutions that will make their effort more rewarding. There are necessary elements like linkage to markets, road infrastructure and other things that when not put in place make the efforts of our farmers in rural areas, many of whom are women, not rewarding. My academic background is in plant breeding and genetics.

I have a PhD in Plant Genetics and an MSc in Plant Breeding from Texas A&M University (USA), as well as a degree in agronomy from the University of Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso). I had actually started studying soil science but later on shifted to plant genetics.

What do you consider some of your key accomplishments?

There is one thing that is common in all the places I have worked. There is the need to have a conscious deliberate mechanism of linking the research to the end user. That is, have the end users in sight, not just in mind. This means sitting face to face with them and understanding them and planning together so they are part of the solution or actors of the change they need.

They must be involved from the start to the end. I have about 30 years of experience in the scientific career and one thing I am proud of is the capacity building component of every project that I have been involved in. Scientists come and go but one needs to ensure that there are new scientists that take over once you retire. I have been able to train and mentor young scientists under my stewardship.

There is even one at Icipe holding a senior role whom I identified as a young scientist with high potential. I was proud to meet him when I joined Icipe. In terms of products, I have contributed to the breeding of varieties that are making a difference. I worked on several crops, including sorghum whose focus was getting a variety that is resistant to striga. I also worked on cassava, banana, and plantain. I spent most of my career working on banana and plantain in West Africa and in Eastern Africa at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Banana is a very complex crop.

Technically no one would want to have their bananas with seeds. However, a scientist will need to bring the varieties to produce seeds so as to develop some new plant from the seeds and develop new varieties. We had to find a mechanism to ‘force’ bananas to produce seeds and in the end to have seedless fruits. That is one thing that shows how difficult the breeding of banana is and why it takes long before getting to the farmers. There is also a good thing which is once you obtain the plant, you do not have to produce seeds anymore as each plant will be able to reproduce itself and that is the beauty of bananas.

In January 2024, you joined Icipe as the Director-General. What is your vision for the Centre, and how do you plan to re-align the organisation to achieve this vision?

Two things: Consolidate the science that is being done at Icipe and get it known to the world. It is an excellent location for science and has a potential for global impact. There are products being developed at Icipe and are being taken to the European market.

It is a good return on investment. The second thing that needs to be done collectively is to get the story known. We must own the products coming from Icipe. All this requires a strong communication to bring the quality of the research to the quality of delivery.

People need to recognise that some of the products they are using, there is icipe inside. There is the need to appreciate a little more of what is being done. I am coming from a part of Africa where we have used Icipe-developed technologies.

Some of the people who use these technologies have no idea where these technologies have come from simply because we do not put our stamps on those products. One of the urgent tasks I will work on is to ensure Icipe technologies are well branded so that anyone who uses these technologies will credit them to Icipe.

With the rising challenges such as food insecurity, climate change and the pandemic, what role do you insect science, and Icipe playing?

There is one thing we learn from pandemics, particularly during Covid-19 era; the fact that there was restriction of movements. There was no movement of goods and people. The markets that deeply relied on external supply sources might not have had what we needed even when we had the money. It is extremely important at country level we boost our capacity to meet our needs. The restrictions proved the need to develop local economies and make them more resilient to produce enough of what we need.

However, one thing that we may not have appreciated enough is that pandemics are just next door, they will be coming. It is therefore important to prepare. Africa has all the tools for that. It is not the task of only the scientist but everyone. A lot of research has been done to make the plants resistant to diseases and pests.

There is a lot of research being carried out at Icipe on these pests.

Many studies show that research institutions are concerned about how to replace an aging talent pool, inadequate funding and how to keep themselves relevant. How will you address these challenges at Icipe?

Fortunately, we don’t have the [aging] problem here. The average age of the scientist is 35- 40 years. This shows that we are in an era where we have a long way to go with the talents we have. The good thing about these talents is that most of them are in the PhD and MSc studies.

They are coming from all over Africa and from Kenya they get trained and go back to their countries to make an impact and be part of an army of scientists who are going to help in addressing the issues affecting the continent. Resources are required. Governments have now started channelling resources towards research, which is impressive. We do not have the luxury of time anymore. With climate change, things are changing so quickly that we need to be alert.

That’s why we need to build enough elements that have been missing in the past. We do not have to wait till the problems hit us before reacting. There is a lot of anticipatory research being carried out at Icipe to understand the trends, whether it is on malaria research or dengue fever in people or on trypanosomiasis in cattle, fall army wormy or fruit fly in crops.

Some of the insects we do research on are also our friends. They are bio-regulators. Probably tomorrow the food we will be taking will be from insect proteins. That is something we are preparing very well for as it is a global agenda on how to derive good meals from insects. It is a whole bio-economy that is bubbling at Icipe

From working with crops research institutions and now to a centre that is specifically dedicated to insect research, how are you handling the transition?

I started my journey in East Africa based in Arusha [in Tanzania] as the Regional Director for Africa at World Vegetable Centre. We had offices in Madagascar, Bamako in Mali, Yaounde in Cameroon and others. These branches were coordinated from Arusha. We developed best practice hubs that were spaces where communities and the scientists worked together in the experimental processes.

We would bring in people from the communities as students and they would pay fees by maintaining the fields. They learnt and when they graduated, they would go to educate other people in their respective communities.

This ensured there was community involvement in the research. In Senegal, I was involved in organising the national research institutions of 23 countries while working in the secretariat of the Council for Agriculture Research and Development in West and Central Africa.

There are similar organisations to that in Africa like the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA) based in Entebbe [in Uganda].

These organisations have the same approach to organising national research institutes and en sure there are enough resources for the implementation of programmes for these centres.

The beauty of all this, the transition from crops research to insect research, is that there are collaborations amongst scientists.

When I worked in Senegal, I had a view of the whole of West and Central Africa, I did the same when I was in Mali and Tanzania. It involved a lot of interaction and collaborations because there is no country that can solely have the expertise to address the issues that have no boundaries. The research technologies therefore move across the boundaries. Working with colleagues, I have been able to mobilise resources for the centres I have worked before.

The resources we will get at Icipe will help strengthen the capacity of the centre to support the development of the research products and put in the hands of our partners for delivery along the value chain. The only difference in terms of what I did in other areas and what I will be doing at Icipe is that before I was a broker and now I will be beating the drum myself.

Are there specific areas of research or innovation that you intend to prioritise during your tenure?

The demands are too huge and setting priorities cannot be the duty of one person.

We are going to first work on the new vision and strategy, which is a collective process. Some elements of it is to continue to consolidate the science and perhaps develop as part of the consolidation what I would call a business continuity plan. We are enjoying a lot of support from our donors and we also intend to build our own capacity in terms of resource mobilisation as we envision quality research, quality products and quality trainings.

What are your plans for strengthening and expanding Icipe’s collaborations and partnerships?

Partners are friends that help to deliver the mission. If the mission changes one is bound to also have new partners and previous partners may no longer identify themselves with the new mission. The good thing is there will be no major change in the mission. We will still the tackle the same issues. There will probably be new partners who will come and we will be looking at who we intend to engage with.

Building partnerships is a process of continuous renewal. For instance, in some parts of Kenya, Icipe has not been there and to extend the same we will need new partnerships to ensure our services and products get to the community. Also, if we have been to a place and intend to leave for them to be able to run on their own, obviously the partners will still be friends but now there will be no working with them on a day to day basis.

How would you describe your leadership or management style?

It takes more than a finger to hold a glass. I believe in leadership style where one does not impose their views but develop collaborations. All the fingers must work together to hold the glass. My approach will be to emulate in everyone, the excellent talents they have and them taking responsibility in delivering what is expected from them. Anything they will need from me, in terms of what is required of the management then I will do my best to ensure it is done for them to be able to deliver. I will depend on them to buy into my vision and to support it. One of the issues you are likely to find yourself having to deal with is human capital.

How do you intend to handle staff retention owing to the fact that many other organisations might be interested in their expertise?

I do not see retention as an issue. I would feel proud seeing a scientist at Icipe being sought after. Icipe would have contributed to making talents available to others. As people come and go, we continue to maintain the brand of centre for excellence. Take, for instance, a water pipe. If closed and water does not flow anymore, it will burst at some point and everything will be spoilt. I would like Icipe to be that pipe where the water that flows is of excellent quality and irrigates more and more land as it moves. Retention should therefore not be a primary issue.

They will continue being the ambassadors of Icipe wherever they go. When you are not working, what do you do for leisure? I found this campus to be extremely welcoming and people have smiles on their faces when they see me. It has been fantastic for the time I have been here at the campus and in Kenya as well. I am still discovering the breadths and the lengths of Icipe. It has been an exciting adventure so far. I have been to western Kenya and I intend to explore the other parts of Kenya.

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