When Dr Nteranya Sanginga, a soil microbiologist, assumed office as the Director General(DG) of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in 2011, many were skeptical about the kind of leadership he will bring to the foremost agricultural institution as he broke record as the first African to hold the exalted position of Chief Executive Officer of the institute.
To many, IITA was on the road to oblivion because they believed that Africans do not possess the requisite leadership drive to lead an international organization. There were also those that held the belief that Africans are synonymous with corruption and whenever they find themselves in leadership positions, they always manage to leave tales of woes behind.
This was not surprising considering the fact that in 2011, when Sanginga was appointed, the fate of IITA was blurry and the future looked bleak as a result of myriad of challenges- staff morale was low while internationally and nationally recruited staff were leaving IITA in droves as benefits were taxed and sometimes cut while infrastructures were dilapidated, working tools almost non-existent and career advancement as well as promotions was becoming a pipe dream.
This was the situation the institute was when Sanginga got on board as the seventh DG on November 1, 2011, after being the director of a smaller agency; CIAT-TSBF Institute.
When he took over, Sanginga was faced with a surprising discovery of a failed investment of $15million incurred during the administration of his predecessor which occurred between 2008-2009, and had put the institute in dire straits. He has to sit up and face the challenge headlong, especially since few people believed that an African can make a difference.
But Sanginga had not only managed to discredit such myth, his exemplary leadership qualities have propelled IITA to enviable heights, making it arguably the best agricultural institute in the world. Ten years after his appointment as Director General, Sanginga’s accomplishments speak for themselves. Under his watch, IITA has transformed into a strategic center, go-to institution for innovation and knowledge on tropical agriculture, and leading partner for research-for-development in sub Saharan Africa.
Having recognised the need to address the challenges of natural resource management, climate change, food and nutritional insecurity, youth unemployment and the need to transform African agriculture to feed its teeming population, the DG enagaged the services of additional scientists, thereby increasing the number of scientists in IITA from 115 to around 250, and also increased the institute’s work force from 800 to 1500.
With his prudent and efficient leadership style, Sanginga has been able to more than triple the budget of IITA from $35 million to $120 million and has built up the cadre of scientists in the institution, partner national programmes, expanded the research infrastructure with laboratories and field facilities being used by about 200 research-for-development programmes and for capacity development of partners in the DR Congo, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia.
Sanginga has effectively led IITA’s research and development initiatives on many fronts, notably crop improvement research, natural resource management, plant health, agribusiness, youth engagement in agriculture, women empowerment, technology commercialization, systems research and integration, nutritional enhancement, value addition, innovative partnerships and institutional platforms.
Under his leadership, IITA’s research efforts are now showing impact at both the farm and community levels. According to a recent report from impact assessment studies across several countries, at least 4.3 million people have been lifted out of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa as of 2016, through the adoption of improved agricultural technologies developed by the IITA and its partners.
To help African countries generate jobs and prepare a new generation of farmers and agribusiness leaders that would lead development in the region, the DG has been pushing for engagement of youth and young students in agribusiness opportunities. He started the IITA Youth Agripreneurs (IYA) scheme in 2012 to provide training and opportunities to youth from diverse disciplines in agricultural business or entrepreneurship. The IYA programme has been helping to change mindsets about agriculture, build character, foster determination, promote self worth, hard work, self discipline, teamwork and provide the youth with start-up support, capacity building and opportunities that provide gainful employment in agricultural businesses.
In 2018, Sanginga launched an intervention programme, Start Them Early Programme (STEP). It was designed to take agribusiness studies to primary and secondary school students, engaging them in club participation, course work, and experimental learning. The programme was also aimed at providing primary and secondary schools with agricultural inputs to train and empower students to change their mindset towards agriculture as a business and as an opportunity for job creation. STEP has been operating in DR Congo, Kenya, and Nigeria for over two years in nine secondary schools.
As the first African DG of IITA, Sanginga has revived the institute’s partnership and capacity development programme to work towards the common vision of agricultural development in Africa, and also encouraged developments linked to the major African organizations-AfDB, African Union, Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), among others, while maintaining IITA’s brand as a world-class research institute working in Africa for the millions of smallholder farmers and their families.
Sanginga believes that linkages with advanced research institutes are indispensable to ensure inclusion of state-of-the-art methods and approaches within IITA’s research activities. He has, thus, fostered innovative partnerships by ensuring that IITA plays catalytic and brokerage roles between advanced research institutions-both private and public, national agricultural research systems (including universities), and the private sector using different mechanisms for research dissemination. These include networks, such as the African Network for Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility (AfNet), a pan-African network that is able to mobilize 400 scientists that engage in integrated soil and fertilizer management (ISFM) research for development, and consortia, e.g. Consortium for Improving Agriculture-based Livelihoods in Central Africa (CIALCA), which is providing smallholder farmers with sustainable jobs and incomes.
Such mechanisms for programmatic coordination have also been used for global initiatives such as the Conservation and Sustainable Management of Belowground Biodiversity (CSM-BGBD) and the World Digital Soil Map funded projects led by CIAT-Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute.
Speaking on how he was able to transform IITA to a leading research institute and record several accomplishments in such a short time, Sanginga said it is about mindset. He noted that everyone can make a difference with a set vision, passion and by working hard.
According to him, “it all boils down to leadership. We made a difference with a set vision, passion and working hard with the vision we have. As a leader, you put the people first. If you don’t care about the people and you don’t make the people the priority, you can’t make a difference. I was able to demystify the position of Director General. Changing the mindset is important and humility is also important in leadership.”
“I used the People Strategy to inform the Business Strategy (IITA Refreshed Strategy 2012 – 2020) as the best approach to lead and develop the organization. Both strategies have to work together to enable the organization to deliver on its mission and mandate of transforming the agricultural agenda in Africa. Most staff in IITA and other organizations have asked me about my people strategy.
“My answer has been that you will not find that in any annual report and probably not in any internal IITA document either. Yet, we all agree that people are the most important assets in any institution. For me, the people strategy is the link between business strategy and the implication for human resources,” the DG added.
In the life of the 54-year-old institute, Sanginga has proved those who believed that with an African at the helms of affairs, the institute is on the sure path of destruction wrong. He not only managed to destroy unfounded beliefs about Africans’ abilities, his exemplary leadership qualities have also transformed IITA into a problem solving and wealth creating institution.
Sanginga’s ability to develop agricultural institutions, build capabilities of young scientists in Africa, maintain effective internal management, partnerships and good teamwork, which has enhanced the nurturing of good communities of practice between and within science and administration has earned him the title of Aare Afurugbin Ola of the source from the Ooni of Ife, Oba Enitan Adeyeye Ogunwusi, Ojaja II, who will on December 11, 2021, confer the chieftaincy title on him.
The IITA DG is the first foreigner and African to be awarded a chieftaincy title by Oba Ogunwusi since he ascended the throne of his forefathers six years ago. Sanginga’s giant strides in IITA has also earned him a year extension in office from the institution’s Board of Trustees after completing his five-year second term in office.