Q&A: ‘Innovate to unlock Africas’s livestock potential’

Q&A: ‘Innovate to unlock Africas’s livestock potential’

17/03/2023 SciDev.Net

[NAIROBI] Appolinaire Djikeng promises to strengthen research and innovation to improve the health of farmed animals as he becomes the first African to head the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

Djikeng, a molecular biologist, is a world-leading scientist with over 20 years of experience leading multidisciplinary, global research and development programmes focused on agricultural development, livestock development and human health.

The ILRI Board of Trustees and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) appointed Djikeng as director- general of ILRI and senior director of livestock-based systems at CGIAR in January. He will take up the role next month (3 April).

He joins the two organisations from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where he is a professor and chair of Tropical Agriculture and Sustainable Development and the director of the Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health (CTLGH).

The Cameroonian has received numerous awards, including the 2020 Nelson Mandela Justice Award from the UNESCO Center for Peace. SciDev.Net spoke to him about his vision for livestock science at the ILRI and CGIAR.

Do you think livestock research is where it should be in Africa and how will your appointment help improve it?

We are yet to maximise the possibilities that livestock development offers in Africa. The potential of livestock is enormous in improving socio-economic development, human health and particularly in creating access to nutritious food in the first 1,000 days after birth, and much more. Under my tenure, we’ll continue to work with our in-country partners in the global South to deliver on their national livestock and development agenda through research and innovation.

[caption id="attachment_25912" align="aligncenter" width="756"] Eradication of livestock diseases will be central focus of Appolinaire Djikeng's tenure[/caption]
Livestock farming is the source of livelihoods and nutrition of millions in Africa and globally but it is facing major threats from diseases and climate change. What will your administration do about these?

A significant focus will be to sharpen our offering. We will create better long-term control and eradication systems of key livestock diseases including those caused by germs such as viruses and bacteria. We will leverage advances in animal breeding to select and breed for disease resilient, climate-resilient livestock, and low-emitting animals.

What will you do to impact livestock science at ILRI, and how do you think your leadership will affect farmers who rely on livestock for their livelihoods?

ILRI is already in a very good place. My tenure will be about strengthening research and innovation and partnerships with farmer-facing entities in countries to deliver solutions and other interventions that are sustainable, relevant to today’s needs and profitable to smallholder producers. Building on my science expertise on a wide range of areas, my focus will be leading ILRI to contributing to ending zero hunger and poverty, both goals of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

What do you think your appointment means for science and scientists in Africa and global attitudes to African science?

There are many talented Africans leading similar or more important research leadership positions in Africa and in other parts of the world. My appointment adds to the growing list of leaders I regard as pathfinders and role models. With mine and other appointments, the message to the African scientific community is we need more people to be willing to take on these roles, because it is possible. For me, it is a mission to create possibilities for the many young kids I see in Africa.

I also urge leaders in Africa to consider science, support it and fund it. Science is probably the main driver out of poverty and for real and sustained development. African countries must realise this and treat science as advanced economies do. Hand-outs and other short-term interventions are not as effective.

How did your journey begin as a scientist?

I received my academic and graduate training in Cameroon’s University of Yaoundé, the Kenya-headquartered ILRI and Brunel University [in the United Kingdom]. I then started my research journey as a postdoctoral fellow and then joined the faculty at Yale University School of Medicine in the United States.

“My tenure will be about strengthening research and innovation and partnerships with farmer-facing entities in countries to deliver solutions.”
Appolinaire Djikeng, University of Edinburgh

In exploring for more independence to drive my own research and, more importantly, develop a research programme with more application and potential impact back home in Cameroon and Africa, I joined the faculty at the J Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in the United States to study genomics focusing on infectious diseases and for surveillance of emerging and re-emerging infectious and zoonotic diseases. After about five years at JCVI, the calling to work in Africa became more pressing.

I was fortunate to land a principal scientist and technology manager position at ILRI under the programme Biosciences eastern and central Africa Hub (BecA-ILRI Hub). Here, I broadened my research interests to include food crops research, while still pursuing genomics. On my successful application to join the University of Edinburgh and to lead the CTLGH, I added livestock genetics and breeding to my interests. I have enjoyed working across a wide range of areas focused on global health and agricultural development. I feel extremely privileged to have worked on many research and development settings and have made amazing friends and collaborators globally.

You are the first African to hold the position of director-general at ILRI, why do you think it has taken 40 years for an African to lead an Africa-based global organisation?

In the early days of ILRI, one could understand why no African was considered to lead the organisation. The reason being that all the planning, resourcing, etc. were externally driven. But as more visible contribution and capacity became available in Africa and the global South, this shifted. It may also be that little attention was paid to equity and diversity in the past. However, let’s focus on the future. I pay tribute and sincere thanks to my immediate predecessor and all former directors-general for their dedication and focus on building the world-leading organisation that ILRI is today. This gives me an unprecedented and truly unique opportunity as the first African to leverage my commitment to the mission of livestock for sustainability, and to use my science management and leadership expertise to drive the agenda of responding to the needs and challenges faced by smallholder livestock farmers.

What would you say to an upcoming African scientist whose dream is to reach where you are today?

Any advice and mentorship can only lead to good outcomes if you are driven and passionate about the journey ahead of you. General blanket statements such as “there is no capacity in Africa” are no longer true. There is capacity and we ought to use it effectively.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.

Attached files
  • Appolinaire Djikeng will be first African to head International Livestock Research Institute
17/03/2023 SciDev.Net
Regions: Europe, United Kingdom, Africa, Algeria, Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Congo, Republic of the, Côte d'Ivoire, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe
Keywords: Health, People in health research, Business, Agriculture & fishing, Knowledge transfer


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