Another Dreamer in a Garage

Rumor has it, that the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, the center that I’m working and living at this summer, was started in a garage. This sounds like beginning of start-up stories and “from nothing” tales about fortune 500 businesses and multi-million dollar companies. But today, instead, let’s talk about a man and his quest to start an organization to pioneer collaboration of sustainable agricultural research is Sub-Sahara Africa (no big deal).

Like all good stories, this one begins with a dream. This dreamers name was Thomas Risley Odhiambo. After being asked to participate in an interview with Science in 1967, he proclaimed this dream. He envisioned the future of the status of science in Africa as a global leader. He saw collaboration and organizations and sustainable practices for agriculture production being spread throughout the tropics of the continent and beyond. At the heart of all of this, he specified, was smallholder farmers.

This was not an easy dream to have. The indigenous science community in Africa was as Thomas put it, “woefully small.” The science-related struggles and challenges, however, increasingly large.

Despite the challenges, the Cambridge graduate, Odhiambo, opened the center for research in 1970. The first scientist invited to participate in research did so in a garage that flooded when it rained. He budgeted on a week-to-week basis to make ends meet. Although the financial support was small, his objective was not – “to enable Africa to sustain herself and to lead the entire pan-tropical world in this area of endeavor.”

As Thomas Odhiambo and his new team of young African scientists grew, they started gaining access to facilities from the Chiromo Campus at the University of Nairobi. They also added the name, ICIPE, the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology. Little did they know (or maybe he did) that ICIPE would be known across the continent for life-saving technologies for their original audience – smallholder farmers.

Throughout the years this organization has only grown its commitment in enabling farmers with environmentally-friendly, accessible, affordable, and efficient techniques and farming methods. They have created the push-pull method that I have described in a previous post, “Magical Kenya.” Push-pull and Climate Smart push-pull has been adopted by more than 130,000 farmers across the continent, increasing yields by up to 300%.

After finding success in the creation of ICIPE, Thomas is quoted saying, “The idea was actually very simple, get the very best people and then if you have more money, put buildings and equipment around them.” This is a strategy many entrepreneurs across the spectrum could put into use.

Thomas R. Odhiambo even reminds me of an incredible program I’m involved with at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln, Engler Entrepreneurs. One of the pillars of our program is grit. What else could’ve been beside grit that kept Odhiambo going when the garage flooded? What about when the continent of Africa was the only one in the world where the hunger situation was worsening? Just like ICIPE, Engler students are looking up, towards the future, for new solutions in agricultural sciences.

For the past ten days and for the next forty-five, I have been staying at the Thomas R. Odhiambo Campus. Every employee I’ve gotten to know here at ICIPE is incredibly proud to be working for an organization found by Dr. Thomas R. Odhiambo.

I have found from working in research and academia these past couple of weeks, that things like dreaming and entrepreneurial theory have little talking space is the science industry. But for what they lack in talking space, they make up for in actions and real movement of the real world. Maybe it is as simple as Thomas said; all you really need to start a world-changing, agriculture-related organization is a dream and a garage (and the best people in the best places).


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