A leading African academic reflects on the challenge for young scientists and the value of IFS support

Published: 2015-01-07

Professor Achille Assogbadjo is a leading figure within the Faculty of Agronomic Sciences at the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin. Today he is an eminent scientist and a world authority on Baobab. In an interview conducted by Brian Porter of IFS in December 2014 he remembers how difficult it was to break into a career in scientific research in sub Saharan Africa.



IFS caught up with Achille, when, together with the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin, and with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Belgium Science Policy Office and Protos, we recently hosted 3 workshops in support of proposal writing, collaborative research approaches and the evaluation of on-going research collaborations supported by IFS. Achille Assogbadjo and Flora Chadare were our local hosts, organising a spectacular set of meetings and events. Achille is also the recently elected President of the Benin IFS Alumni Association, and Flora’s recent research on the stability of antioxidants in Baobab features in the 2013 IFS Annual Report (http://issuu.com/ifs2013/docs/ifs_annualreport_issuu).

Like so many academics, Achille clearly remembers his first research grant. It was back in 2004 that he submitted an application to IFS to conduct research on Baobab, and to characterise its ecological and genetic characteristics. His excellent research and fine publication record eventually gave rise to three IFS grants. The first on the Baobab’s genetic resources was the first molecular analysis in Africa of African Baobab. Intra-specific genetic diversity in Baobab is very high and its ecological range is also wide. Further proposals and grants followed on conservation genetics and the regeneration of Baobab species, which is constrained by human pressure (agriculture), bush fires and grazing (eating seedlings).

As Achille points out, ‘The IFS grant is available for equipment and field work items that many governments don’t provide support for’. The research supported by my first 12,000 USD IFS grant resulted in the publication of 4 papers in high impact journals. Without this I would not have had the opportunity to publish and to leverage other grant support. That allowed me to extend my work on Baobab in the whole of West Africa. Since then I have gone on to became, I hope, a good researcher in this field and have published 100 papers.

As Achille points out ‘Research is important in itself, for the growth of the individual, but also to support teaching’. He stresses, ‘I have built up, as a result of the IFS research, a network. First, I was invited to attend conferences to present my research. Now my network extends to Germany, North and South America and Asia. Myself, and my colleagues, then applied in 2006 for an EU grant to work on the domestication of Baobab. This grant was huge’!

‘Today I am a professor, but the path in academia has been long. It began with a PhD, then a post doc a Lectureship, an Assistant Professorship, Associate Professorship and a full Professor position. The most difficult part is getting started’! ‘Initially’, remembers Achille, ‘I had no equipment. My computer came from my first IFS grant. I had my first GPS tool from my IFS grant too, this was vital, and a voice recorder’. The IFS grant also provided money for field trips. ‘I could not get this support elsewhere. Yet from south to north in Benin is 800km and it costs 1 USD per kilometre for a university car plus fuel. My work was throughout the whole country. My parents were not rich but my IFS grant allowed for me to hire a vehicle to do my work’.

‘Now, 10 years later’, says Achille, ‘I am proud to be president of Benin Alumni Association. In the current situation in Sub-Saharan Africa, young scientists need a push to get them started. A PhD student, without means, can do nothing, unless (s)he has a scholarship, and many scholarships only support a stipend and not research. Many young scientists are poorly informed in terms of scientific literature, and sources of funding. This is especially a problem for Francophone countries. Linking and networking of young scientists is really relevant. Young scientists need good examples to follow so the Alumni Associations can play a key role. Young scientists need mentors and capacity building. Capacity to write good applications is a big problem. Proposal writing is a significant deficiency. The Benin Alumni Association supported at least 15 applicants in proposal writing last year and 12/15 went on to get IFS grants’.

Many significant policy influencers are IFS grantees, the Alumni Association will be lobbying for national support. As Achille points out ‘the Rector of Benin University is a former IFS grantee and supports all grant proposals. Many ministers in Benin are also former IFS grantees’.

After a moment’s thought Achille offers another comment: ‘The other donors recognise “IFS grantee ship” as a quality criterion. It is always important to share with other donors that one is an IFS grantee; you are treated as a laureate’.

In summing up, Achille proffers his thoughts on recent IFS evolution: ‘I really like meetings like this one; we have to meet and to discuss. IFS provides seed money, and now also for collaborative research. Previously that was a weak point of IFS to finance mainly individuals, because more and more we share the same problems, in West Africa even the same protected areas, with the same resources. Elephants don’t respect borders! Lagos to Abidjan we deal with the same species, the same peoples, so we have to think together. Individual finance can’t serve so well common problems. IFS should focus more and more on research collaboration to solve science problems in the region’.


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