What was your position at ILRI and where you are headed next?
I managed the forage Genebank at ILRI in Ethiopia, which has the most diverse collection of tropical highland grasses in the world. That position included managing four field sites, four laboratories (plant health lab, molecular lab, germination lab and nutritional lab) the genebank facilities and 30 staff.
I’m heading to Maputo (Mozambique), returning to the country where I grew up and started my professional life. I gained a lot of experience in the past 25 years, working in four African countries. Now it is the right opportunity for me to return to Mozambique, contribute to the development of my country, look for challenging areas and find something that I enjoy there (as I have been enjoying my work).
I have just accepted the position of director of programs at BIOFUND Mozambique where I will be shifting from conserving, studying and using forage crop diversity to work towards the conservation and sustainable use of aquatic and terrestrial diversity in Mozambique. BIOFUND aims to support the conservation of biodiversity and the sustainable use of natural resources, including the consolidation of the Mozambican national system of conservation areas.
What were your last activities at ILRI?
Very diverse activities: We were challenged to work with other CGIAR centres on the Genebank CGIAR Research Program, get more people on board and expand the work – and to increase the quality of the work, for example by barcoding in the Genebank, upgrading the nutritional laboratory, acquiring more modern equipment in all labs…
With the help of external expertise we were revising the procedures, improving and upgrading our facilities to be more efficient and offer better quality results.
In the field we were also upgrading equipment, upgrading greenhouses, field regeneration fields and better irrigation systems, working on improving seed quality…
An important part of our activities have focused on networking, expanding our network with national partners in Mexico, Brazil, Kenya and Ethiopia.
We have been working on impact and – in relation with the 30-year anniversary of the Genebank – we have been discussing the impact of distributing seeds, together with ILRI Nairobi staff to look at statistics. We have conducted some impact assessment of Napier grass in Kenya together with KARI; we were assessing the impact of the Genebank distribution; and working with the program on Livestock and Irrigation Value chains for Ethiopian Smallholders (LIVES) and their students to assess the impact of the distribution of seeds, in cooperation with the Herbage Seed Unit.
What have been your best moments and achievements at ILRI?
I really enjoyed working with my dedicated Genebank team: We have good, responsible and knowledgeable people.
We have had a lot of support from other ILRI departments e.g. procurement, stores, HR in Addis Ababa and Nairobi – in fact from all departments at ILRI, which helped us immensely.
I also benefited from an AWARD fellowship which helped improve my personal and professional abilities in areas like leadership, people skills and personal confidence. AWARD covers 11 countries so I could engage with other people in my field and related fields and countries in Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana and others. I also enjoyed a fellowship to improve my molecular skills at the BecA-ILRI hub in Nairobi.
During the 10 years at ILRI I learned a lot about forages and I became a forage fan. I have a sweet spot for neglected crops such as root crops and forages!
I also expanded my regional and international network immensely – after working for 10 years and in four different positions at ILRI and Bioversity International.
Finally, it was really nice to be part of the celebrations of the 30 years of the Genebank that created a lot of awareness about the work we do.
Where do you see the big challenges or opportunities for ILRI?
The key challenge remains to attract and retain the right staff at the right place.
Another challenge is to keep ILRI’s focus, independently from donors’ agendas. Things change all the time and we have to keep clear ideas on where we want to go and what we want to achieve.
In terms of gaps, since I came to ILRI I noticed there was not much sharing of information between people. It still relies on face-to-face interactions. Coffee mornings are good but not enough. I still meet a lot of people who have no idea about the Genebank and what we do. We’ve tried really hard to raise awareness but it’s still not enough. Sometimes we have more exchange between CGIAR centres than within ILRI. And with new people coming in regularly, it gets all the more complicated.
ILRI has also put a lot of effort into improving relationships with local institutes but we have to do more. I tried to network with the Kenyan Genebank and I noticed that it was perhaps easier to do so from Ethiopia than from Kenya, even though they are located very close to ILRI Nairobi.
In terms of opportunities, ILRI has a wide diversity of expertise: so many experts in so many areas, so many offices in so many places – it could be considered a weakness but also an enormous opportunity.
Who will take over from your work and how you hope your ‘legacy’ will be taken forward…
For the time being Jean (Hanson) will take over the routine work but a lot more needs to be done and we need a full time person to do that, hopefully to be recruited soon. Now, every new person brings different things and may change the way things are done, for better or for worse.
I tried to do more on networking and awareness raising – writing blogs, leaflets, hosting many visits for schools and otherwise etc. – and it’s something I hope will keep expanding rather than shrinking.
I also hope we keep trying building our relationship with national partners. Sometimes we had really excellent results. For instance we worked with KARI on the Napier grass impact assessment study and enjoyed full support from them – it was a really good joint working experience. I also went to a couple of Kenyan agricultural fairs, displayed Genebank materials at the ILRI booth and the connection and interaction with the farmers was amazing. From the egenbank, we are not usually ready to respond to the farmer challenges such as “What do you recommend me to feed my pigs?”
Any final words?
There is, within ILRI, a huge capacity to do things better. Working together with other CGIAR centres is a good approach: farms are integrated, with people, animals, crops, markets etc. So ILRI is going in the right direction with that cooperation, especially on the Addis Ababa campus with its great potential to do a lot more and benefit more from interactions with other CGIAR centres. We should build on that and bring together our network of local partners.
Alexandra was interviewed by Ewen Le Borgne