ZEF: Interview mit dem neuen Direktor des ZEF – Professor Borgemeister

CB-ZEF-photo_2000“Interdisciplinary research sounds easy, but it is very difficult”

Interview with Christian Borgemeister, ZEF’s new Director for

Ecology and Natural Resources Management


You are the new Director of ZEF’s Department of Ecology and Natural Resources Management as of October this year. You are an agricultural engineer by training, you specialized in entomology and were Director of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe), with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, from 2005-2013. So what brings you to an interdisciplinary institute working on development issues in Bonn?

Well, I am leaving an international, development-oriented, interdisciplinary research center in Kenya to join a like-minded center in Bonn. From a thematic point of view, I don’t think that there are such massive differences between icipe and ZEF. We strived to conduct interdisciplinary research and especially over the last three, four years we ventured quite significantly into social science. icipe traditionally focussed on natural science. But for various reasons, among others the need to be far more active in terms of cost-benefit-analysis and impact assessment studies we started to embrace a lot more social science. That brought in a disciplinary brick to icipe that we hadn’t had in the past. So, in terms of the interdisciplinary nature of the two centers, icipe and ZEF, I think we are on the same line.

What are your personal “lessons learnt” from interdisciplinary research experience?

It sounds easy, it is very difficult. Many people claim to do it, few actually do it. If you really want to do it in an intelligent way that generates impact, it’s a lot more difficult than you initially think. There are language barriers, differences in approaches. For example, a quantitative approach is the religion in my field. I learnt this on my first day in science. Discussing with colleagues who have a more qualitative approach to research is challenging, sometimes interesting, sometimes extremely frustrating. But I think if you do it right the rewards are quite significant. It is really worth the effort, especially if you want to translate your research findings into something meaningful for your target beneficiaries. And that is what we are asked to do in our field of research.

ZEF’s research even aims to be “trans-disciplinary” in making research findings relevant for development processes. Do you have experience in bridging the gap between research and practice?

I think so. The push-and-pull-technology is probably one of the best-known technologies icipe developed. Around 65,000 farmers in the Lake Victoria region are practicing this intercropping system, and icipe is adding an average 15,000 to 20,000 farmers a year. Another example: icipe is one of the few institutes that deals with etymologies, the science of insect diseases in Africa. We collected a lot of data and did a lot of meaningful things, scientifically speaking. However, we didn’t translate this into something tangible for growers. Four years ago, we established a very fruitful business relationship with a private, Africa-based pesticide producer that has taken up some of icipe’s inventions and turned them into products.

In 2011 you received the international “Plant Protection Award of Distinction” for your work on the role of plant protection strategies in promoting global food security. Why did you choose this specific research angle?

For the last 25 years, I have been working on means to reduce losses that are caused by insect pests primarily in crops – thus contributing to research on food security. Thirty-five percent of the cereals stored in Africa are lost, for example. If this third could be preserved, and I am only talking about post-harvest losses, that would be a phenomenal contribution in terms of food security at absolutely zero environmental costs. The discussion about the future world population of seven billion and the need to boost food production is very often based on productivity. I believe that an intelligent approach to preserving what is already growing in the field and what is already kept in the store is a very environmentally-friendly contribution to food security.


What do you consider the main challenges in higher education in the African countries you worked in?

Gender issues. Too few girls pick natural sciences. This is something that has to start very early. Girls have to be encouraged to engage in natural science at primary school level, especially in Africa. Another issue is that the quality of university education in Africa is very heterogeneous. There are a couple of universities that have improved a lot, like Makarere in Uganda. We need more Makareres, more flagship universities in sub-Sahara. There has to be a paradigm shift away from pure teaching to research. The vice-chancellors of the universities can introduce some simple measures such as rewarding science lecturers who are interested in research. There are some examples, like universities in Rwanda and Ethiopia that are remodeling their education system. More countries need to follow soon.


What is your top priority in issues to be dealt with at ZEF?

Food security and loss prevention, which I mentioned before, and the inter-linkages between agriculture and health are among the topics I would like to pursue at ZEF. Agriculture production systems influence the health status of people, predominately in the tropics. Significant parts of Africa are getting drier, at the same time you have a phenomenal increase in population and food demand. Changes in agricultural landscape architectures can have an impact, for example due to irrigation. Only three percent of the agricultural area in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated.  However, irrigation agriculture can have a tremendous effect on diseases, especially in Africa. As a result, you can have a boost in productivity and at the same time a very sick population. Doing it right would ensure that you obtain the boost, but don’t risk the health of the farming population.

The interview was conducted by Alma van der Veen and has been published in ZEFnews No 28. A hard copy can be ordered by sending an email to presse.zef@uni-bonn.de

The inauguration lecture of Prof. Borgemeister will be held on January 21, 2014 at ZEF. Find more information on the ZEF website: http://www.zef.de

Watch the entire interview-video here.