A man dressed in brown pin stripes has stopped his white, late-model Renault by the roadside adjacent to a field covered with strange-looking, head-high plants. Now we all stand in a sudden downpour, listening to Joe Ebodaghe expound on his plans for the future. "I want to get into byproducts," he says. "Chips. Health foods for diabetics. Bread maybe."
My notebook is getting wet and my ballpoint pen is seizing up, but I have to admire the enthusiasm of a man who believes he can become a food-growing tycoon in a part of the world often thought to be condemned to permanent hunger and dependence on food aid from abroad.
The entrepreneurism of Joe Ebodaghe, however, is for real. It is the other, slightly more hopeful side of an otherwise bleak African agricultural picture. For Ebodaghe is the beneficiary of a little-noticed international effort to harness biology, plant genetics, technology and plain common sense to increase the output of local crops among the world's poorest people.
If farming can be made to pay, the thinking goes, funds (and jobs) will begin flowing to rural areas, investments in the long-neglected agricultural sector will increase and food will find its way more quickly and efficiently into Africa's teeming urban areas.
Africa was largely bypassed by the Green Revolution of the '60s and '70s, in which new strains of wheat and rice cultivated with fertilizer, water, chemicals and relatively sophisticated farming methods helped farmers in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Indonesia.
Africa lacked water, and its climate was severe. Farming technology and agricultural institutions were undeveloped. And, across large parts of the continent, the staple foods were largely unknown to Westerners: cassava, millet, sorghum, fava beans -- not wheat and rice.
In the thick of efforts to redress this situation is the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria, one of 13 international centers around the world funded collectively by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. The research effort is supported by 40 donors, including 24 governments (among them, the United States), international organizations and private foundations.
Whether the commitment of money and expertise can create an agricultural miracle in the world's fragile equatorial belt is still an open question.
Nigeria, where much of IITA's work is concentrated, is not typical of all of Africa. It has oil money, a prosperous middle class and a fairly developed agricultural structure. Successes in Nigeria may not be easy to replicate in the Sahel, Ethiopia, Chad and other places where catastrophic drought and political turmoil are causing terrible hunger.
Even in relatively developed Nigeria, perhaps only one farmer in 100 is using the improved varieties and techniques, and the acreage farmed with new technology and seeds is still minuscule. Even in Nigeria, spreading information about them is still an uphill battle that must overcome traditional ways, bureaucratic hassles and politics.
But demonstrating the possibilities, say those engaged in the work, is at least a start.
Plantain, the leafy banana-like plant grown by Ebodaghe, isn't a miracle crop in the sense that there's a new lab-bred variety that will outyield predecessors. But until IITA's George Wilson came along, few Nigerian farmers had thought of it as a field crop that could bring in cash. Villagers believed that plantain would only grow near the family's cooking fire -- whose smoke was thought to be beneficial to it. Hence, plantains tended to be relegated to the back garden.
Wilson, a Jamaican with a gray, Clark Gable mustache, found that what made plantain thrive out back was not smoke from the home fire but large quantities of household refuse dumped around them, which served as an effective mulch.
Since transporting large quantities of rotting vegetable matter into fields would be expensive, Wilson devised the idea of planting flemengia, a fast-growing, bushy- leaved legume, between rows of plantain. By pruning the flemengia leaves from time to time and spreading them around, a farmer could easily protect the plaintain's fragile roots from the sun.
Wilson found that 21/2 acres would support up to 2,500 plantain plants, each capable of producing one bunch a year worth the Nigerian equivalent of around $5 at current prices.
The news spread fast around IITA's research station at Onne, and one who heard it was Ebodaghe, a man whose only previous agricultural experience was running a chicken farm at one time.
A retired petroleum engineer with an international oil company, he viewed plantain as a good business investment. Living in the middle-class complexes around Nigeria's oil ports, Ebodaghe realized that there was a growing, prosperous segment of the population that wanted and had the money to pay for food delicacies such as plantain. "My kids were always pestering me to get it for them, but it was expensive." Not only was Nigeria's population growing, but Nigerians who had been living in villages and growing foods such as plantain in their backyards suddenly found themselves in urban areas. Supply just didn't keep up with demand.
He invested the bulk of his savings in acquiring 100 prime acres which he named Ebony Farms, and hired a crew to plow it and plant it with plantain. He felt confident he could double his investment in the first year.
Now he is talking about getting into processing, where profits would be bigger. Already, plantain "chips," which taste and look somewhat like potato chips, are being made and packaged for sale throughout the country. Ebodaghe said he was looking into the possibility of milling the plantain into a flour to produce a sort of bread that could be packaged and marketed through health- food stores.
For all Ebodaghe's entrepreneurial success, it is increasingly recognized that the key to solving Africa's food problem lies not with commercial farms or billion- dollar projects but in helping the smallholder to produce more food for himself and his community. That is why IITA specialists are glad to see more small farmers, as well, beginning to cultivate plantain as a cash crop.
Cassava is to the equatorial people of the world what the potato was to Europe in the 19th century. It is the most important carbohydrate for some 400 million people, and accounts for 40 percent of the calories taken in by people living around the great lakes and in the coastal zones of nine African countries.
A spindly, tree-like plant that grows up to 8-feet high, cassava is the world's largest non-grain crop. It can grow in very dry conditions. Like the potato, the food part of the plant is a starchy protuberance that grows on the root. Africans commonly pound it into a meal, which, mixed with water, makes a kind of porridge known as gari.
Several years ago, IITA began working on a new variety of cassava that would mature faster and would be more resistant to local bacteria and viruses. Selecting high-yielding and insect-resistant plants from African stock, scientists began evolving improved types. The result was a strain called TMS 572. On test plots, yields were triple those normally obtained by farmers using conventional varieties.
The father of TMS 572 is "Chief" S.K. Hahn, a South Korean who heads IITA's roots-and-tubers program. The title of chief was bestowed on him by the headman in the Nigerian village of Ikire, for services rendered to the community by introducing the new, improved cassava varieties.
Once the new strain was considered ready for Nigerian farmers, IITA officials began promoting it. Nigerian extension agents talked it up, and it was highlighted at "field days" to which farmers are invited so they can see for themselves what the new, improved strains are capable of doing. Today, IITA officials say, several million acres are now planted with the new cassava varieties.
One of those who heard about TMS 572 was Joseph Okunola, 60. Eight years ago he was farming less than three acres and barely surviving. But when he began using IITA varieties his output increased. On the strength of that he was able to demonstrate to village leaders that he would be able to productively farm more of the village's communally owned land.
Although Okunola doesn't look it -- his field clothes seem to be coming apart and his brown gym shoes lack laces -- he is a highly prosperous farmer: a "cassava millionaire," some call him. He is now farming more than 750 acres, two-thirds of which are in cassava, and employs 17 people. He's buying himself a tractor and is in the market for some new, young wives, a symbol of prosperity in Moslem Nigeria, where up to four wives and any number of concubines are permitted.
"Chief" Hahn was also instrumental in IITA's development of a new kind of sweet potato that is now catching on locally, and is providing yields of 15 tons an acre compared with six tons for conventional varieties.
Hahn also found a way to increase the yields of another Nigerian crop -- yams -- a prestige, middle-class food that has a ready market in Nigerian towns and cities. Local lore has it that yams, which can grow to more than 10 pounds in weight, were personally given to mankind by God himself. Growing big ones is a sign of virility among Nigerian farmers. Nigerian grooms were once expected to give their brides 200 of them as a wedding present.
Traditionally, farmers planted one small yam to get a full-sized grown yam. Hahn devised the idea of slicing them up into as many as 20 pieces, each of which could serve as seed for another yam, a big saving. He then pioneered a method of growing them under plastic sheeting, which makes weeding almost unnecessary. Plastic for 21/2 acres costs the equivalent of $400, and is available in local markets. That amount of land can yield $13,000 worth of yams.
Another highly successful part of IITA's work involves cowpeas. Cowpeas, which are really a kind of bean, grow in a pod out of a creeping, knee-high bush. The plant's leaves are also edible and taste like spinach. Cowpeas are high in protein and are a good supplement for millet or sorghum.
The mastermind behind IITA's cowpea project is a serious, bespectacled Indian, B. B. Singh. Normally, cowpeas take nearly three months to mature. But the cowpeas bred by Singh ripen in just two months and thrive in dry conditions that would defeat any other crop. They survived Botswana's drought last year. Their protein content is 25 percent, and they can resist a variety of diseases and insects. They yield up to almost a ton an acre and sell for about $1,300 a ton at the farm gate.
The spread of the improved cowpea variety in Nigeria owes a good deal to Edmond H. Hartmans, the Dutch- born, naturalized-American director general of IITA. Hartmans is that rarest kind of international bureaucrat -- someone who is prepared to throw the book away to get results. Last year, a farmer walked into Hartmans' office with a check. "I've got a truck outside and I want three tons of your cowpea seeds," the farmer said.
IITA wasn't in the seed-selling business, Hartmans objected.
"Look," the man said, "We're farmers. Next year we'll have seed for 5,000 farmers. The year after, those 5,000 will have seed for 50,000." Hartmans likes that kind of talk. He gave the man the seed. When he visited the farmers' area later he found many growing cowpeas. "Everybody wants that seed. I was going against all the rules. But someone has to take the initiative," he said.
Although improving crops is, in some ways, the most dramatic work done at research centers such as IITA, it is not always the work with the most local impact. Hartmans sees the key to increased food production in Africa as soil management, rather than higher yields. African soil, apparently so fertile, is in fact vulnerable once its protective canopy of jungle vegetation has been removed. Bulldozers do a quick job of bringing new land into production -- but often do damage that it will take 50 years for nature to repair.
Without protective mulch or vegetation, African soil compacts and becomes sterile. It must be disturbed as little as possible. IITA has developed a system of "no- tillage" agriculture based on the use of a gadget called the "rolling injection planter" -- a kind of spiked wheel that can be pulled manually or by animals. it punches a hole in the ground even through a thick layer of mulch or debris. Simultaneously, it drops the seeds in. No plowing or other forms of tillage are required. The tool can be manufactured by a village blacksmith for $50. It is now in use in more than 30 countries.
Next to soil loss, insects are the leading enemy of the African farmer. That is why IITA is planning the biggest exercise in biological control ever. The area involved covers 25 African countries. Experiments in Guinea Bissau, Togo, Congo and Zaire have shown that predator insects -- wasps, mites and beetles -- can be as effective as chemicals at a fraction of the cost. The price-tag is still substantial -- up to $21.5 million for a three-year project -- but that is small in comparison to the losses from insect infestations.
At IITA test fields in Ibadan, Nigeria, farm workers drop to their knees as a twin turbo-prop aircraft comes in 10 feet above ground at 200 miles an hour. George Coles, a former British Royal Air Force pilot, was following the contours of the land. He can score a bullseye on a 60-by-60 foot target with his compressed-air machinegun firing one round a second. "Bomber command never asked me to do anything like this," he sometimes grumbles.
Coles fires tiny plastic tubes containing up to 1,500 bugs, all enemies of two insect pests -- the cassava mealybug and the green spider mite -- which have been playing havoc with Africa's cassava crop over the past few years.
Accidentally introduced into Africa from Latin America, the pests, unchecked by any local predators, spread like locusts. IITA scientists went to Latin America to find their natural enemies and now intend to breed 15 million of them a day for aerial release over 25 million acres.
One reason why cassava millionaire Joseph Okunola was doing just fine was that some experimental releases had been done around Ibadan. But elsewhere in Africa, the bugs can destroy up to 60 percent of the crop. Annual losses are estimated at $2 billion a year. In Zaire, entire villages have had to relocate because there's no food.
Sorghum -- which, with millet, is the staple grain crop of 13 countries in a belt from West Africa to the Arabian Peninsula -- is a nutritious, drought- resistant plant that can survive the dryness and scorching heat of that area. But it has a serious drawback: It is the favorite of a host of larvae that munch their way up the plants' stems.
Heading the war against the bugs is the Nairobi-based Institute for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE). At ICIPE's research station at Mbita Point, Kenya, on the shores of Lake Victoria, the stem borer is public enemy number one.
Around Mbita, farmers traditionally took stem-boring weevils to the nearest witch doctor, who would pound them, along with other secret ingredients, into a mixture to be applied to the afflicted fields. ICIPE's scientists are trying a different approach that has enabled some fields to survive even in areas otherwise destroyed by the pests.
One of the most damaging maggots come from eggs deposited on sorghum seedlings by an insect known as the sorghum shoot fly. ICIPE found that advancing the planting date by just two weeks (when the shoot fly population was still low) made a big difference.
Then ICIPE scientists began exploring why the flies liked some sorghum plants more than others. The answer turned out to be the presence on some plants of a scented chemical. They isolated it, mixed it with water to form a spray, and doused cowpeas and maize plants which do not provide the right conditions for the shoot fly larvae to develop. The flies, fooled by this strategy, zeroed in on those plants to lay their eggs, leaving the vulnerable sorghum untouched.
The new Green Revolution may not be as dramatic as the last one. But its underlying philosophy seems sound. Few people in the West get excited about the profitability of farming sorghum, cassava or yams, but it is just such profitability that assuring adequate food supplies and better living standards for the majority of Africans. The evidence so far is somewhat encouraging -- welcome news from a region that is so often associated with bleak calamities than green miracles.