Page last updated at 01:22 GMT, Monday, 7 April 2008 02:22 UK

The Hat Man who helps Africa

By Hugh Levinson
Africalab, BBC Radio 4

IITA director Hartmann (Image: BBC)
Hartmann's mission is to use science to improve the lives of Africans

A remarkable research centre is helping the lives of vast numbers of Africans - but who is the mystery man in charge?

I'd been warned not to ask his first name. So when I met the man in charge of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), I asked him how he liked to be known.

"My name is Hartmann," he said. "Those who know me call me Hartmann, those who don't call me hat man, because I always wear one."

Always, I asked?

"Even in the shower" he replied, and laughed.

He's got a sense of humour, but Hartmann is deadly serious about the importance of the institute's work - which means he has a third name too.

"And those who tackle or tangle with me sometimes call me the hitman."

Sense of mission

Brought up by a single mother in Tanganyika, now Tanzania, he has an intense sense of mission.

His aim is to use advanced science to help the lives of Africans - most of whom still depend on agriculture for survival.

Scientist in a laboratory (Image: BBC)
IITA scientists are developing new strains of food crops

The Institute is funded by international donors and sits in a lush campus on the outskirts of Ibadan, Nigeria.

It can afford to hire some of the world's best plant breeders, who use conventional techniques rather than genetic modification.

"We are saying it's our responsibility. The end goal is what counts to us," Hartmann says. "To feed the poor and put some money in their pockets."

I saw that research in action on a nearby model farm run by the Dominican Order.

Here, they test out the IITA's new varieties of crops and show local farmers how to make best use of them.

Helping farmers

They introduced me to a local commercial farmer, Chief Tola Adepomona, who was wearing a resplendent set of gleaming robes.

He's been growing new varieties of cassava, one of Nigeria's staple crops, which is made into a flour called gari.

Local farmer Chief Tola Adepomona (Image: BBC)
Cassava farmer Chief Tola Adepomona grows what was developed in the lab

Compared to conventional cassava varieties, the IITA strains produce three times as much crop and in half the growing time, which can triple farmers' incomes.

"It has improved my standard of living," he says. "Easily I can train my children in university. I can pay their school fees conveniently. I can maintain a farm and live in a decent house."

The Institute works on other crops too - like maize or sweetcorn, which gives farmers a higher income than traditional crops such as millet or sorghum.

Yet the achievement Hartmann is most proud of is an invisible one.

A few years ago, a parasite from South America arrived in Africa, threatening to devastate local cassava which had no immunity from it. Tens of millions of farmers could have suffered.

The Institute's scientists introduced a natural predator parasite, which kills the original parasite.

"The parasites are there attacking the bad parasites, the good guys are attacking the bad guys and nobody knows," Hartmann says.

"They're there, and spreading over 27 countries and working day and night, they don't have Monday to Friday jobs or 35-hour jobs like the French," he says, laughing.

External reviewers suggest that these biological control systems may have helped between 50 and 60 million people.

Relevant research

Scientists at the IITA argue that their work demonstrates the importance of doing research close to the lives of those affected.

We are saying it's our responsibility...To feed the poor and put some money in their pockets.
Hartmann

Researcher Busi Maziya cites the example of a paper she read which suggested Tanzanians could absorb more iron from beans if they added an enzyme.

She collapses in fits of laughter when describing the idea.

"It's not practical," she says. "It just wouldn't work. Where will they get enzymes? Who will make it?"

More practical, she argues, would be to exploit a familiar local technique like fermentation.

Like Hartmann, she is a strong believer that African science has to be directly relevant to the continent's needs.

"Africa as a continent, has HIV, malaria, food insecurity, civil wars," she says.

"If I sit here and conduct abstract research, by the time I have come up with the answer I am not sure how many people will have died."

Mural of farmers at IITA (Image: BBC)
The IITA is dedicated to improving the lives of African farmers
But not everyone agrees, even in Nigeria.

Toxicologist Professor Enitan Bababunmi told me that there was a danger of an excessive reliance on applied and relevant science in Africa.

"It's a short cut - but that is completely against scientific principles," he says.

"Science is empirical, you just do science, then at the end of it, you apply it globally and then you compete. The short cut doesn't work in the end."

Hartmann may have a different vision - but both he and Professor Bababunmi share a passionate commitment to the importance of research to do good.

"Sometimes you and I think we've got hardship, but we don't know what hardship is," Hartmann says.

"If we see what hardship really is it's what you will see when you travel around here. And if you can do anything to that it gives meaning to your life. It makes you feel worth it."

Hugh Levinson reports in Africalab at 2100 BST on Monday 7 April on BBC Radio 4. The programmes will be available on our Listen Again service for one week after transmission at www.bbc.co.uk/radio4



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