Tuesday, July 10, 2007

How Sierra Leonean Monty Jones became one of the 100 most influential personalities in the world

t is over twenty years since my last publication in a newspaper. I was a very active member of writers for the student press at Njala University College from 1978 – 1982 and some national newspapers for a couple or so years after I graduated. Since I started my scientific career in the late eighties, I have been preoccupied with scientific articles being a prerequisite for advancement in our field. My motive for writing this article is not because I personally know Dr Monty Jones or because of our mutual relationship with agriculture. It is mainly because of the rather nonchalant disposition of Sierra Leone and Sierra Leoneans towards such a remarkable achievement by a fellow Sierra Leonean that I believe should have been widely publicised.

Monty Jones: Holding a jar of Nerica Rice

Alas, this achievement seems to have passed unnoticed by the nation. I am afraid that the growing negative attitude of many Sierra Leoneans not to praise their fellow citizens when they deserve praise is undermining our desired concerted effort to transform our dear Sierra Leone into a more progressive and prosperous nation. We seem to be happier and more willing to decry our own kind at the slightest opportunity.

I first heard of Dr Jones’ recognition on the BBC’s early morning breakfast show – Network Africa, on May 12, 2007 with the headline A Sierra Leone Scientist has been voted among the world’s most influential people by the US Time magazine. I felt very proud as a Sierra Leonean to hear Sierra Leone being mentioned positively after quite some time. Unsavoury news items relating to the war and its ramifications, blood diamonds, sportsmen melting away in Australia and other places and later surfacing to give every possible reason that will enable them to be granted asylum even at the detriment of the nation’s reputation are more familiar news items. How I cringe with embarrassment when I hear predictable tales of fear of being forcefully initiated into one secret society or the other as the case may be.

I have no doubt that many other Sierra Leoneans who heard that announcement and/or read the publication in the Times magazine also felt the same way as I did. I am, however, very surprised that not as many people as I would wish have heard about the recognition of our compatriot and our country Sierra Leone. I do not remem

ber any of our newspapers or radio stations re-echoing such wonderful news for Sierra Leoneans and informing us about the background for such acclaim. Certainly, if any did, it must have been on a scale reflective of the widespread unawareness of the county’s achievement on the global arena. Is it becoming a fact that Sierra Leoneans don’t like one another? And that baaad heearrrt is taking the better part of us? This is a formidable justification for Dr Bell’s campaign of Sierra Leoneans love one another to be given a national boost.

Time magazine, one of the world’s leading weekly magazines has put together a panel, which chooses the most influential people in the world every year. Dr Jones is one of only five Africans on this year’s list of 100 names. The others are President Omar al Bashir of Sudan, Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, Nigerian Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola, and Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour. On the list from other parts of the world are German Chancellor Agela Merkel, the UK’s Queen Elizabeth, Pope Benedict XVI, and American chat show host Oprah Winfrey.

Dr Monty Jones, a plant breeder by profession was the key scientist involved in developing a new type of rice now dubbed New Rice for Africa (NERICA). After his graduation from Njala University College in the early seventies, Monty worked at the Rokupr Rice Research Station where he faced the reality of the native African Rice (O. glaberrima) being adapted to local conditions with high tolerance to low soil fertility, diseases, pests and the ability to compete with weeds, but with low yields compared to the Asian rice (O. sativa). On the other hand, the Asian rice, though higher yielding, lacks the robustness of its African counterpart to resist the pests, diseases and low soil fertility conditions prevalent in the rice growing environments of the sub-Saharan region.

To further prepare him for such challenge, Monty enrolled at Birmingham University in the United Kingdom, where he obtained a masters degree in 1979 and a doctorate in plant biology in 1983. He then returned to Sierra Leone and continued working for the Mangrove Swamp Rice Project under the West Africa Rice development Agency. In 1988, Dr Monty Jones joined the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Cameroon where he worked as a breeder until he moved over to a sister International Agricultural Research Institution of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the West Africa Rice Development Association (WARDA) in 1991.

As Head of the Upland Rice Breeding Programme at the West Africa Rice Development Association (WARDA) in the Ivory Coast, Dr Jones had the opportunity to fulfil his life-long dream to improve the productivity of rice under the harsh conditions in sub-Saharan Africa. Dr Jones effectively led his research team to successfully combine the desirable characteristics of both the Asian and African rices to produce distinctly different rice types possessing the high yielding characteristics of the Asian rice and the toughness of the African rice to the harsh growing environments in sub Saharan Africa.

Combining the two species had been attempted before, but with no success. Crossing different species is notoriously difficult because of the high probability of sterility in the offsprings. In his quest to combine the two different rice species, Dr Jones ventured in a field where few scientists had gone before and succeeded in crossing the two species to produce offsprings that overcome the genetic barrier. Eventually the team produced new rice varieties with the ability to resist weeds, survive droughts, and thrive on poor soils with reasonable yields under limited external inputs characteristic of our resource poor farmers. In addition, many of the NERICA varieties mature much earlier (about 3 months) than the traditional varieties requiring from 5 - 6 months to mature. This breakthrough has provided the opportunity for African rice farmers to obtain yields of 4 – 6 tons per hectare (compared to yields of 1 - 3 t/ha produced by existing varieties) potentially benefiting 20 million rice farmers and 250 million consumers in Africa.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations declared 2004 the International Year of Rice, and to honour the FAO’s celebration of the crop, the world food prize was given to two rice scientists who, working independently, made significant breakthroughs that bettered the lives of countless human beings throughout the world. Dr Monty Jones, now dubbed the Rice Man of Africa was the deserved co-laureate of the 2004 World Food Prize, the first ever won by an African in recognition of his breakthrough achievements in creating the New Rice for Africa (NERICA) with immense potential for food security and poverty alleviation in sub-Saharan Africa. Professor Yuan Longpin of China was the other scientist for his breakthrough achievement in developing the genetic materials and technologies essential for breeding high-yielding hybrid rice varieties. The World Food Prize, known as the Nobel prize for Food and Agriculture honours outstanding individuals who have made vital contribution to improving the quality, quantity or availability of food throughout the world.

It is definitely now little wonder, if any, why and how the celebrated Dr Monty Jones and by association Sierra Leone, appeared on the list and citation of Time magazine’s 100 most influential personalities in the world.

Jeffrey Sachs, Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute noted that When Africa breaks free from the grip of poverty and famine – as it now looks poised to do – Monty Jones, 56, will have played a pivotal role, adding that Jones’ effort in creating NERICA is legendary. In his supporting letter to the World Food Prize Committee, Sir Gordon Conway, Chief Scientific Adviser for the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development wrote Dr Jones’ ability to combine cutting-edge science with on-farm work has yielded significant benefits for the many poor rice farmers in Africa who were by-passed by the Green Revolution. Receiving high tributes from world leaders at the Tokyo International Conference on Africa’s Development (TICAD) III in September 2003, NERICA emerged as a byword for successful Asia-Africa cooperation. To honour Dr Jones, WARDA recently launched an annual Dr Monty Jones Lecture and presented him with a plaque recognizing his outstanding achievement in rice research and exemplary dedicated service to Africa.

The announcement of the co-winners of the 2004 World Food Prize took place during the US State Department ceremony with US Secretary of State Collin Powell, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, FAO Director General Jacques Diouf, Chairman of the World Food Prize Dr Norman E. Borlaug, Chairman of the World Food Prize Foundation John Ruan III, President of the World Food Prize and former US Ambassador Kenneth Quinn. The Director of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), Dr Francisco Reifschneider and the Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to the UN, Professor Joe Pemagbi attended the announcement ceremony.

At the National Awards on Independence Day in 2005, H.E. Alhaji Ahmad Tejan Kabbah conferred the Order of the Rokel on Dr Jones for his achievement. Dr Monty Jones is currently the Executive Secretary of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) located in Accra, Ghana; a position he has held since 2002. At FARA, he oversees advocacy coordination efforts in support of regional research, with the goal of increasing agricultural growth by at least 6 percent by 2020, as well as fostering ongoing economic growth, alleviating poverty, and improving food security for Africa’s people.

The New Partnership for Africa Development (NEPAD) Steering Committee has identified NERICA as one of Africa’s best practices worth scaling up and has endorsed its expansion across the continent. The African Development Bank (AfDB) has provided more than US$ 30 million to support national programmes in the dissemination of NERICA over a 5-year period in seven West African countries (Benin, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria and Sierra Leone)

Unfortunately, the recognition brought to Sierra Leone through the naming of Dr Monty Jones among the world’s 100 most influential people has not been adequately publicised to indicate how much we cherish such achievement by one of our kind particularly being on the world stage. I was expecting all the newspapers and the radio stations in the country to carry this story as much and as far as possible. In my view, such an accolade deserves a place on the national news and front pages of all our newspapers. Dr Jones’ achievement and recognition should assure all Sierra Leoneans that we have the potential to make a positive contribution to Sierra Leone and the world. We should be developing confidence and strive to rediscover in our selves the fire of love for our fellow brothers and sisters and indeed Sierra Leone.

It is highly likely that there are many more Montys out there with their achievements begging to be shared by fellow Sierra Leoneans to further paint a more positive picture of mother Sierra Leone. I will therefore implore all Sierra Leoneans to make conscious effort in recognizing and promoting individual and collective positive efforts of our compatriots so that many more will be encouraged to strive towards this direction, which will surely help in moving our country in the right direction. I believe the exemplary virtues of SIERRA LEONESS will be the envy of other nations.

How Sierra Leonean Monty Jones became one of the 100 most influential personalities in the world: Sierra Leone News