By addressing the needs at the heart of quality agricultural research, right there on the station, GCP was the first to cotton on to a crucial missing link between researcher, research station, and support services.” – Hannibal Muhtar (pictured)
“One thing that really energises me,“ enthuses GCP Consultant Hannibal Muhtar, “is seeing people understand why they need to do the work, and being given the chance to do the how.”
And so was born another wonderfully fruitful GCP collaboration. Hannibal, who describes the assignment as “a breath of fresh air,” was asked to identify, together with GCP project Principal Investigators, African research sites of ongoing or potential GCP Research Initiative projects where effective scientific research might be hampered by significant gaps in one fundamental area: infrastructure, equipment and support services. As at June 2012, 19 sites had been selected.
Meet Hannibal Muhtar (audio clip)
Embarking on the voyage to change, storms ‘n’ all
In 2010 and 2011, Hannibal visited these stations, meeting staff at all levels and functions, for an in-depth analyses and appropriate recommendations to assure high-quality field evaluations for GCP-funded projects. With funding from GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP), and with the openness, commitment and energy of station staff to implement these recommendations, the efforts are, starting to bear fruit.
But it has not all been smooth sailing, and the storms encountered along en route should not be underestimated.
Weeds, wear and tear, and a walk on the wild side
“The real challenge,” says GCP’s Director of Research, Xavier Delannay (pictured), “is not in the science, but rather in the real nuts-and-bolts of getting the work done in local field conditions.” The obstacles, are often mundane – missing or faulty, weather stations or irrigation systems; weed-infested fields ravaged, or poor drainage, for example. Yet such factors compromise brilliant research. Take unfenced plots for example – equipment gets stolen, and animals roam freely.
Getting down to the brass tacks of local empowerment, and aiming higher
The overarching objective is, in Xavier’s words, “The effective running of local stations, for facilitating local research, improving local crops, and ultimately leading to empowerment and self-reliance of local farming communities.”
In tackling the matter, Hannibal employed a multi-faceted customised approach, based on the needs of each site, for both equipment and training for technicians, tractor operators and station managers. The dedication of the managers to both learn and continue these efforts after the training was particularly gratifying, since it assures sustainability.
“At the end of the day, it’s about achieving food security and improving livelihoods… which pave the way for healthy families and profitable agriculture,” concludes Hannibal.
Lights, curtain… action!
Much like in theatre, with all the ‘props’ in place, field trials are now performing well, thanks to streamlined ‘backstage’ support. Hannibal likens the positive feedback from the partners he has worked with to “A glass of cold water, after a long day in the sun!”
“With proper infrastructure in place, and with research station staff duly equipped with the hands-on expertise and practical know-how to utilise and apply this infrastructure and training, we’re now seeing field experiments being conducted as they should be, and getting good-quality phenotyping data as a result,” says Xavier. “Moreover,” he continues, “by providing glass-houses or the capacity to irrigate in the dry season, we are enabling breeders to accelerate their breeding cycles, so that they can work all year round, rather than having to wait until the rain comes.”
Examples include sites in Kenya, Mali and Nigeria.
The missing link
As the nuts-and-bolts begin to fall in place for, Hannibal reveals: “By addressing the needs at the heart of quality agricultural research, right there on the station, GCP was the first to cotton on to a crucial missing link between researcher, research station, and support services.”
…and yet another missing link…
But the job is not quite done. One crucial gap is the sensitisation of upper management – those at the helm of national research institutes and research station Directors – to support and sustain infrastructure, training and related services. In some cases, costs could be easily met by utilising a priceless asset that most institutes already have, and which they could put to greater us – land and a controlled environment.
Upper management needs to be actively on board. “A research institute should work like a good sewing machine,” says Hannibal. “All well-oiled, all parts working well, and everybody knowing what they need to do.”
In the meantime, however, results from the field suggest that researchers in GCP projects are already reaping the benefits from improved infrastructure and support services, and are already off to a good start.
The ‘stage’ is therefore set: ‘backstage’ and ‘props’ are well primed, performance trials are acting like they should, and the ‘theatre directors’ have an eye on sustainability after GCP’s final curtain call in 2014.
So, long may the show go on, with a cautionary word, however, to continually seek ways to not only maintain but also enhance performance!
Want more details? Read the extended version of this story