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“CTA is like a good farmer who knows they cannot cultivate yield from a big field alone”

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Wellington Ekaya delivers a training on project impact pathways to ILRI PhD fellows and CapDev Grand Challenge 2019 finalists

© Wellington Ekaya

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Wellington Ekaya, head of capacity development at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), has engaged with CTA throughout his academic and professional career. In this article, he outlines the instrumental role of the Centre in linking him with networks, mentors and development opportunities over the last 15 years.

CTA is like a good farmer who knows they cannot cultivate yield from a big field alone – they go out, scan the landscape and look for some good ‘seed’ in the form of promising individuals and institutions. The seeds are planted, watered, and nurtured by CTA. At harvest, those of the highest quality are selected, multiplied and used for establishing subsequent generations. Before you realise it, you have several sacks of good quality harvest from CTA-generated seed; so, many people having high-value traits.

I am just one of those ’CTA-propagated’ seeds; there are thousands like me, who have been involved with CTA in different ways. But CTA does not just wait for seeds to multiply and get connected, over time there has been a deliberate effort by CTA to help people connect, learn from each other, and address issues collectively from a transboundary perspective.

Building capacity and confidence

For the past 15 years, I have been engaging with CTA from a capacity development perspective. Attending my first CTA-convened meeting in Wageningen with very senior people from different organisations, I felt like I had been thrown in at the deep end! Although nervous at the time, it built my confidence in expressing myself, networking and establishing partnerships and I realised that, for a good scientist, confidence is key to growth. Additionally, to be successful, you cannot just work in your own microcosm, you have to connect the local to the global and find the right people to partner with.

In my professional life, mentoring is crucial for success, and CTA has provided me with mentoring opportunities at different levels. I spent 15 years working at the University of Nairobi, growing from a graduate assistant to senior lecturer, and earning my PhD in 1998. It was during this journey that I met Judith Francis, CTA Senior Programme Coordinator for Science and Technology. She would point out exciting opportunities such as responding to EU calls for proposals, and would say to my university mentor, Professor Agnes Mwang’ombe; “Tell Wellington to work on this, I think it’s a good thing.” And whilst I did not realise the significance of this coaching at the time, as well as the opportunities CTA were getting me involved in, looking back, I can appreciate that I have been wired to solve literally any problem. The continuous facilitation and mentorship along a career path, which never stops, is what I find unique about CTA’s approach.

Adapting a CTA approach

At ILRI, I am responsible for about 200 students, fellows and mature people in our capacity development programmes across West, Eastern and Southern Africa, as well as East, South-East and South Asia. The fellows play a very important role as ILRI ambassadors after completing their study programme here. With this in mind, I wanted to motivate the fellows by offering them a platform to interact, challenge and be curious about each other’s work. So, I conceived the CapDev Grand Challenge, a contest which aims to enable next-generation scientists to pitch their research findings to a panel of non-scientific judges. The platform also provides a chance to win cash prizes, and the overall winner also takes home a glass trophy in the shape of an elephant with their name engraved on it. ILRI management thought it was a really interesting idea and agreed to fund the initiative.

The final stage of the contest was held during 2-5 December, 2019, where 25 top-selected participants pitched their research for 3 minutes in front of a panel made up of scientist-turned-communicator, a communications/media expert, a former donor and a policy expert. Just like CTA did with me, the ‘hidden card in my back pocket’ was to challenge and excite these young minds in communicating their complex science in a simple way to ‘ignite’ change. This is what they will be expected to be doing after their time at ILRI – getting their science to turn the development wheel.

The whole idea for the competition came from me reflecting on some of the things I did with CTA. I saw the value of their competitions – particularly for women and young professionals – and I wanted to adapt my own version for the researchers, and it worked!

Facilitating large groups of people is another key part of my job. I work with many ILRI colleagues, all of whom have varying expertise. If there is a proposal to write, for example, my job is to enable the process. You really have to know how to work with people, how to judge their soft skills, their strengths and weaknesses, and know how to harness their best with a sense of focus and purpose to achieve what you all want. Facilitation is an ability that not many people have, but is something that I learnt from CTA and it keeps me going up the ladder every time.

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