“There is no other institution in West Africa tackling research, capacity building and service provision for climate change in this way”

You have been appointed Scientific Director and Head of the Competence Center of WASCAL as of May 1, 2016. The first function of Scientific Director is new, so what will be your “tasks” to fulfill?

Of course, it is quite challenging to be the new scientific director of WASCAL, as science is the backbone of the program. My first task will be to conduct an assessment of what has been done so far in the whole research system. Based on this, we can write up a new strategy and research plan up to 2017. The second major goal is scaling up our fundraising efforts, as fundraising is critical for the sustainability of WASCAL. My third point is that we have to ensure that the capacity building program is strongly interrelated to research, so that impact becomes more visible.

You have an extended professional background in ecology and soil sciences. So what brought you to WASCAL and which experiences you made do you consider crucial for handling the WASCAL program?

I call myself an agro-ecologist. Agro-ecology is key to building up resilient landscapes in West Africa. I have been able to participate in several projects in West Africa over the past seven years. My experiences as a soil scientist will be key in achieving some of the goals WASCAL is targeting. WASCAL is focusing on climate change, specifically on the adaptation of climate change. I have, for example, been able to establish a strong network of soil scientists in West Africa which I can build on. One major issue in West Africa is sustainable land management: how to produce enough food for the growing population and how people can make money out of that. To achieve this in our region, we have to conduct more sustainable land management and develop strategies to mitigate the impact of climate change. Before I joined WASCAL I was working with ICRAF, where we tackled the issue of climate change mitigation. We were looking into how to build on the knowledge of local people and how they can get money from xxx  trees and selling non-timber products. So I think my professional background can be useful.

What made WASCAL so attractive for you that you wanted to take over this challenging task of directing it?

WASCAL provides a unique opportunity that brings together capacity building, research, and service provision in order to tackle climate change. Of course, there are several institutions in West Africa dealing with climate change, but not in that way. That is the comparative advantage of WASCAL. The prospective that activities will be handed over to African actors is also appealing. It is really challenging that the opportunity of managing these tasks has been given to an African to see how he can best fulfill these goals and implement this program. So for me it is a great opportunity.

What are your personal goals and your vision with regard to the WASCAL program?

First of all, we should be able to fund ourselves to ensure the sustainability of this program. So far, we have been mainly funded by the BMBF (German Federal Ministry of Education and Research) but this funding will not last forever. So we have to be able to raise funds ourselves to survive. My second overall goal is to build up WASCAL as a center of competence in climate change issues. Climate change is one of the constraints with regard to agricultural production and building up healthy socio-ecological landscapes. So in order to be able to mitigate the impact of climate change we rely on research and on capacity building. We also need to scale up practices that improve agricultural production. I think WASCAL is on the right track of becoming a regional center of excellence.

What are the weaknesses of WASCAL in your opinion and what are the main challenges to tackle?

The link between capacity building and research is not strong enough yet. We have to find ways to improve that. There is also a gap between the Core Research Program and the Research component of WASCAL. We have to bring the activities together so we have the same goals on the ground. Our impact has to become more visible and more effective. But we also have some achievements to be content with: We have enough African states backing us up. A research and administrative infrastructure was set up over the past five-six years. The vision is to have a center of excellence focusing on research activities that can generate impact on the ground, improve the livelihoods of small holder farmers, and be adapted in a number of states. One big issue in Africa is that new technologies are not taken up by farmers, policy-makers and stakeholders. So one of the challenges of WASCAL is to achieve sustainable land management and reducing poverty.

What are the main challenges which West Africa will be facing in terms of climate change and variability in the coming ten years?

Figures provided by the United Nations project an increase in the world’s population to up to nine billion people. What this means for West Africa we do not know yet. We certainly will need an increase in food production for our growing population. So WASCAL can close that gap by providing information on climate issues in the coming years. However, I do not see WASCAL as a service center for climate only, but for environmental issues in general. Another big issue in West Africa is the loss of biodiversity. Do we know enough about the rate, about the biodiversity hotspots in the landscape of West Africa? We do have some figures, but they are outdated. We need up-to-date information on biodiversity, carbon sequestration, potential emission of CO2, etc. WASCAL, in cooperation with its international partners, can do that. So I think that WASCAL is key in implementing environmental policies in West Africa.

I would like to take the opportunity to express my gratitude to the German Government and the BMBF for funding WASCAL.

The interview was conducted by Alma van der Veen

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