May 15, 2019 was a day to remember for the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven – Ku Leuven – a research university in the Dutch-speaking town of Leuven in Flanders, Belgium. Ku Leuven is one of Europe’s oldest universities, a university which, from renaissance philosophy to cutting-edge nanotechnology, boasts a long tradition of ground-breaking research and high-quality education. Ku Leuven is ranked among one of the 50 universities in the world.
On this day, one of its alumni who is making waves in one of the most populous countries in the world, Nteranya Sanginga, was chosen by the university for a honourary doctorate degree award. Sanginga, the first African Director General of the globally-acclaimed International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, (IITA) 65 years old, is an acclaimed microbiologist who hails from the Democratic Republic of Congo and who has been living on the sleepy outskirts of Ibadan, capital of Oyo State for close to 30 years now, including the few years he went for his doctoral studies.
Ku Leuven’s hall was filled to the brim. The event was attended by professors and academics who had come to witness an alumnus of the university who had made good in his endeavor being so recognized. The academics gathered were all decked in gowns of Ku Leuven that ranged from black to grey robes with black or red caps, excluding the honoree who was decked in black academic gown, a black academic cap over a blue suit and white shirt. In his opening address, the Rector of Ku Leuven, Lucas Selsco commended IITA under Sanginga for “its consistent attention to capacity building and agricultural research” and “charismatic leadership in giving IITA a significant boost without compromising technological integrity and visionary commitment to tackling youth unemployment in Africa.’
In his acceptance speech, Sanginga traced the history of his decision to study agriculture to a time when there was conflict between Rwanda and DRC. He also itemized all the interventions between IITA and Ku Leuven which have significantly benefitted the Nigerian-based institute.
From a very humble background in DRC, Nteranya attributed his knack for agriculture to his upbringing by his grandmother. “I was born in Bukavu (in what was then still known as Belgian Congo, now DRC.). I spent every free moment helping my late mother in the field. She couldn’t afford to pay someone to help her weed and harvest. It made a deep impression on me that, all these years, she was feeding us with her own-grown manioc, corn, and beans. So it wasn’t a coincidence that I decided to study agriculture science at the university. In those days, our crop yields were declining, probably because of erosion and a lack of good plant varieties. Food security was becoming a huge problem in Congo. Agriculture played a crucial role in this respect, and I wanted to contribute to finding solutions,” he said.
The solutions he was primed by providence to provide could not be contained on the borders of DCR. Nigeria was later to become the seat where Sanginga’s expertise and know-how were funneled to the globe. A prolific academic, Sanginga has published his research materials and findings in over 120 papers in renowned journals which were basically ground-breaking contributions that focused on particular emphases on more sustainable ways of cultivating soy. In doing this, Sanginga’s researches also have a sub-focus which is on soy varieties that possess more leaves and roots than the GMO from multinationals. He told Ku Leuven News, the university’s academic newspaper: “When these leaves and roots are left on the field after the harvest, they enrich the soil with nitrogen, thus yielding a heavier crop when, for instance, you grow corn there afterwards.”
Sanginga graduated as an agricultural science from the Faculte des Scientes Agronomiques, Yangambi, in 1977 and came to Nigeria’s IITA where he worked in jobs ranging from scientist, to project coordinator, from 1989 to 2002. He thereafter left for Kenya in 2002 where he worked as Director of CIAT-TSBF, an institute for tropical soil biology and fertility, from 2003 to 2011, before coming back to Nigeria in 2011 to assume the position of IITA’s first African Director. Between working for IITA at his first coming to Nigeria, Sanginga decided to do his doctoral in Ku Leuven where he obtained a PhD in 1985, as a collaborative engagement between the university and the world-renowned research institute, specializing in microbiology and nutrition, with a dissertation that focused on these subjects.
Sanginga is reputed to have redrawn the map of African competence and capability in managing and changing the status-quo of a ran-down concern. By the time he took over the running of IITA, the institute had been ran aground by his American predecessors and was only reluctantly posted to man the institute. Those who interviewed him for the job probably believed IITA’s lot would soon turn for the worse. But in less than eight years, IITA has more than quadrupled in ranking, infrastructural-wise and developmentally. This and many more were the reasons Ku Leuven chose him for recognition as an alumnus and an achiever.
One of the ways Sanginga benefits Nigeria from these verdant researches was in convincing farmers in Northern Nigerian to invest in this mode of soil improvement, taking them on explanations that by so doing, they would access soy that generates instant profit when used to make tofu or soy milk. The improvement that Sanginga’s IITA has made in this regard since 1989 is phenomenal in terms of crop improvement.
“We were able to improve manioc, bananas, and corn with protein and vitamins. That is highly necessary because 40 per cent of the African population is still malnourished today. That is mainly a problem for children under ten because it disrupts their cognitive development. So it’s easy to see why I’ve been working on this for the past 30 years. And with success, luckily. For one thing, since 2016, we’ve lifted over 4.3 million Africans out of poverty with an IITA project about improved agricultural techniques.”
Sanginga met huge debt burdens upon resumption at IITA in 2011. Not sure of his fare, the institute’s establishment sent the first tranche of auditors to audit him in his few months of directorship but was astonished at his prudence and resourceful management. Not only was he able to sort out all the debt profiles of the institute, in a short while, he got the institute’s budget on its foot again and more instructively, has been securing very huge budgets for the institute ever since. One of the prime sources of IITA’s funding comes from the African Development Bank (ADB) headed by Nigeria’s former Minister of Agriculture, Akinwunmi Adesina which was enamored of Sanginga’s ENABLE Youth Initiative pioneering programme and began partnership with IITA in this regard some seven years ago.
“I called it the IITA Youth in Agribusiness (YIA) programme because it encourages young ‘agripreneurs’. I’m truly passionate about young people; I spend a lot of time meeting and training them. After all, they are the potential driving force behind a change in mindset. Most African young people have long considered agriculture to be synonymous with poverty or struggling to get by. With YIA, we prove that this doesn’t have to be the case. We introduce them to better crops, techniques, and equipment, and we show them good practices, including those in the processing industry linked to agriculture. Young people tend to forget about that industry,” he said.
Many people have sought to divine why an African like Sanginga is harvesting tremendous goodwill in a global concern, a feat that is alien to Africans working on the soil of Africa. Many attribute his string of successes to his enormous charisma and his African roots – which, paradoxically, is an albatross to many an African head of such institutes. Sanginga is on first contact with many African government leaders who ask him to fix their agricultural headaches. To this, Sanginga admits, “They ask (for) my advice in Togo, Ghana, Benin, and soon, I’ll be setting up a programme in the DRC at the President’s request. I’m very pleased to have been the first to establish a business incubator for agricultural companies and to have adjusted the IITA strategy in such a way as to help change the direction of agriculture on our continent.”
Sanginga’s enthusiasm of what IITA has been able to achieve with the programme is infectious: “The success of YIA and STEP is probably what I’m most proud of. Our programmes are real weapons against the extremely high youth unemployment rates on our continent, and we can help to ensure that Africa’s surging young population does not become a burden but an asset.
”Collaborations between advanced universities such as Ku Leuven and African institutions are so useful. I want to encourage Belgian students to keep coming here to do research. This continent will become indispensable for the future of agriculture and offers many opportunities, including ones for European investors,” he said excitedly.
The IITA DG takes a bird view of the strides of his office and its impact on Africa in general and is optimistic that a change is coming the way of the continent: “Young people are throwing all their energy into the fray. Last year, a student supervised by Roel Merckx and myself obtained her PhD. Words can’t describe how proud we were. It was one of those times when I felt I can make a difference. It’s draining to be on a plane every two weeks, on my way to yet another meeting, but when I see the return on investment, it’s all worth it.
“I’m careful to maintain the balance between body and mind by playing squash almost every day. I used to be the captain of Congo’s national soccer team. That not only gave me the unique opportunity to take part in championships, it also taught me how to manage a team.
“Everything starts with humility. You have to listen, especially to the lowest in rank. Our conceptual basis at IITA is solid because we talk a lot with the farmers themselves. Our scientists are approachable; they don’t make you shake in your knees, which is the effect some Belgian professors used to have on me. That’s why I wanted to do my PhD at IITA, and why I turned down offers from the universities of Liège and Minnesota. It made people laugh at me, but my training at IITA was exceptional. The approach here is very international – we have 43 nationalities at the moment – and that widened my outlook on the world for good. That is still what motivates me the most.”
Dr Adedayo is a member of the Tribune’s Editorial Board.