Leading IITA Eastern Africa hub in times of COVID-19
Excerpts from an interview with Victor Manyong, IITA-Eastern Africa Director, with Radio IITA on the COVID-19 situation in Eastern Africa and the various measures that IITA has put in place to protect staff from the viral disease as they carry out their activities.
Q: What is the COVID-19 situation like in Eastern Africa? What are the different measures the countries in Eastern Africa have in place to control the disease?
A: IITA has offices in five countries in Eastern Africa and all have reported cases of COVID-19. The countries have taken different steps to control the spread of the disease which we must respect. Some countries, such as Kenya and Uganda, have ordered a total lockdown and restriction of movement. Others, such as Madagascar, Sudan, and Tanzania, have partial lockdowns and restrictions on gatherings.
Q: What measures are in place at IITA EA to protect the hub staff and at the same time, keep crucial work going on, where possible?
A: Our measures are first and foremost in line with those set by the various governments. At IITA-Kenya, staff are working from home and going to the office one or two days a week. In Uganda, the staff are working from home except for essential field or lab activities. In Tanzania, there’s a partial lockdown with only essential staff coming to the office in Dar es Salaam and Arusha. IITA has also placed necessary preventive hygiene measures including hand washing facilities and sanitizers at the entrance to all the offices and gun thermometers are being used to take the temperatures of staff before entering the offices. We have also bought masks and made it mandatory for the staff to wear them when in public places at work and when interacting with others.
Q: What are the challenges IITA is facing in following these measures and how are they impacting IITA research activities in the hub?
A: The pandemic is slowing down everything. As an agricultural research organization, our activities rely on natural conditions like the rainy season. We cannot control this, and we may lose a whole planting season. Due to restrictions in our movements, we also cannot travel to the rural areas to collect samples and bring them to the laboratory. We cannot interact with our partners freely. Capacity building is a big element of our work. We cannot conduct or attend training workshops. Another challenge is the budgetary implications. The Institute has fixed costs which it will continue to incur such as maintenance costs for its facilities and payment of staff salaries. The Institute is also concerned about a reduction in funding as donors and donor countries focus inward to deal with the impact of COVID-19 on their population rather than on international aid.
Q: How are you trying to cope with these challenges?
A: To cope with the current situation, we have made changes in our mode of operation with work now becoming more virtual. With reduced travel, the staff are catching up on data analysis and spending time identifying new opportunities for fundraising and developing proposals. We are also trying to minimize the losses in our research operations by keeping essential experiments and fieldwork going.
Q: What are you doing to support efforts to reduce COVID-19 on agriculture and food security in the region?
A: In eastern Africa, the disease is adding to other shocks existing in the region. One such shock is the invasion by locusts. So we are looking at the double impact of a pandemic and locusts. We’re offering our expertise to help respond to and minimize the impact of these two phenomena on agriculture and food security.
Q: As the head of IITA Eastern Africa, what is your biggest worry concerning COVID-19?
A: The safety of our staff is my priority. Therefore, currently, my biggest worry is to one day wake up and hear that one of our staff has contracted the coronavirus. It should not happen. That is why we are doing everything we can to ensure everyone is taking the necessary precautions.
Q: Any words of advice to staff as they try to cope with COVID-19 in their professional and personal life?
A: If we listen to experts, we do not know when the disease will end. We should remain vigilant and observe all these preventive measures for as long as necessary. So, for all our staff in the hub and their families, the word is prevention! Prevention! Prevention!