22) Effective leadership turns ICRISAT around (9 June 2004)

It was the late 1990s: a turbulent time for the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). A financial slump, low staff morale, unfocussed research objectives, donor fatigue, and an unusual turnover in its Board and senior management plagued the once prestigious research center. The center was going through difficult times.

Taking over the reigns at this juncture was no enviable task. But Director General Dr William D Dar saw in this an opportunity to restore the Institute's past glory. And his advantage lay in his ability to step back and say, “Here's what's going on and here's what I've got to do.”

Fast forward to 2004. There is much to celebrate. ICRISAT has turned over a completely new leaf and is once more the leading center of scientific excellence for agricultural research in the dry tropics of the world, thanks to the distinction and panache with which Dr Dar stirred the course of events.

Dr Uzo Mokwunye, Chairman, ICRISAT Governing Board, aptly describes this: “If I did not know Dr William Dar any better, I would declare that he has come of age as the Director General of ICRISAT. But each time one decides that he has reached the pinnacle, Willie Dar raises the bar and continues to grow and metamorphose with the ever-evolving Institute that he leads.”

Dr Said Silim, ICRISAT's regional representative for eastern and southern Africa, remarks, “Ever since Dr Dar's appointment, things have turned round; morale has gone up, discipline is in place, funding is increasing.” In this light, it comes as no surprise that Dr Dar has been given a new five-year term of office, starting 1 January 2005.

The man himself dismisses these laurels with great modesty. “I believe we must do the right things the right way. My 10-point formula  -- chart a clear vision, communicate it, get qualified staff, build a strong team, make sound decisions and take risks, admit mistakes, be trustworthy, humble yet firm, never give up, and have a sense of humour – is the recipe for effective leadership.”

The icing on the cake has been the half a million surplus budget that ICRISAT reported through the last financial year, after years of nail-biting tension regarding a financial crunch.

However, the Institute's transformation didn't come by easily. It was the leader's ability to provide a clear vision of a transformed future and his passionate commitment to bridge the gap between the present and the desired future that led to the change. A new vision and mission were put in place. Research strategies had to be redefined with emphasis on a demand-driven and participatory approach.

This meant, among other things, doing Science with a human face, exploiting the most modern tools of biotechnology, marker-assisted breeding, integrated pest and disease management, natural resource management, and information and communication technology.

Team ICRISAT – this was the mantra, the galvanizing force that Dr Dar used to boost staff morale and enhance efficiency at the workplace. The idea was to build the social and intellectual capacity of the organization by cultivating a culture of collaboration and decentralized decision-making.

Apart from fostering excellent ties with the host country India, ICRISAT has linked up with a diverse set of research agencies, strengthened ties with NARS and regional/subregional organizations, leading to more impacts in the farming communities of the semi-arid tropics.

The institute is now more outward looking. It has established partnerships with the private sector and foundations (ie, Tata trust, Sehgal Foundation) that are mutually beneficial to the parties involved and the community in general.
The Institute's ties with the Government of India via the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) are at its best. Several joint and collaborative research projects were developed. Bilateral funding from ICAR and the Government of Andhra Pradesh increased significantly during the period.

Speaking about the partnership, ICAR's Director General Dr Mangala Rai opines, “These research partnerships signify the spirit of partnership and our common goal to address poverty and hunger in the SAT areas of India and sub-Saharan Africa.” There are 23 new partnership projects with ICAR for 2000-04 in the areas of genetic resources, crop improvement, natural resource management, socioeconomics and policy and sharing of information resources.

Since the year 2000, ICRISAT has been the recipient of no less that 46 awards, reflecting the excellence and relevance of research executed by its internationally recognized scientists. Of these, the biennial King Baudouin Award given to the CGIAR institute that achieves the most visible impact has gone to ICRISAT an unsurpassed three times. Besides these, 9 awards have been personally bestowed on Dr Dar by renowned institutions and universities. Such is the institute's repute that its representatives and individual staff members have been asked to serve on several advisory boards and expert panels of national and international standing.

Strategic finance has ensured that ICRISAT's mission is achieved by aligning its strategies around that of research. In addition, it has explored avenues for generating income, such as seed multiplication, biomasss production, developing fruit orchards, etc.

It must be mentioned here that ICRISAT went through rigorous External Program and Management Reviews in 2003. The reviews lauded Dr Dar for his leadership initiatives, the strengthened sense of optimism, and his effectiveness in ”creating a team that wants to support each other and to excel.”

The verdict was clear. A period of stability had been ushered in with fortified financial, human resource, information and support systems in place. The Institute's high quality of science and its sound management came in for praise.
ICRISAT's research strategy is now founded on five global research themes, addressed through problem-based and impact-driven regional and local projects. These projects reflect specific strategic priorities for Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. ICRISAT's focus in Asia is on biotechnology and crop improvement (BCI), by re-engineering and expanding the Institute's breeding program while concentrating on the generation of biotech-assisted germplasm enhancement and new breeding methodologies. In Africa, the focus is on market-driven integrated genetic and natural resource management, which will foster dynamic interventions such as market-oriented production and value addition for small farmers.

As a part of the biotechnology initiative in Asia, ICRISAT signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Andhra Pradesh Government in December 2003, to establish an Agri-Biotech Park, a part of the Andhra Pradesh Government's Genome Valley Project.

Another initiative was the commissioning of an Agri-Business Incubator, is an effort to help agri-business ideas bloom. The Incubator project was initiated with corpus funding from the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, and infrastructure provided by ICRISAT. Entrepreneurs can use the ABI to test technologies, before they can be commercialized.

In the last two years, ICRISAT has also initiated the contained field trials of two transgenic crops. In 2002, it was for transgenic groundnut resistant to the Indian Peanut Clump Virus. In 2003, the trials were launched for transgenic pigeonpea, resistant to the pod borer, Helicoverpa armigera.

ICRISAT has also obtained successes in collaborating with a consortium of private sector seed companies, to use biotechnology tools for rapid crop improvement. The success of this project can be measured from the fact that the companies agreed to double their annual investment to the consortium.

ICRISAT is now reaping the fruits of these successes. Donors are once again putting their trust (and their money) in ICRISAT, confidently recognizing that it is sincerely performing Science with a Human Face to infuse a sense of purpose, mission, and responsibility towards the poor of the semi-arid tropics whom it serves. In fact, ICRISAT now stands second among the 15 CGIAR centers in terms of financial health indicators for 2003.

Director General Dar will be the incoming chair (2005) of the CGIAR's Center Directors Committee (CDC), another feather in his cap. Yet he is not the one to rest on his laurels. “We must move forward if we are to win the Grey to Green Revolution in the semi-arid tropics,” reiterates this humble son of the soil, whose vision and sagacity have infused greater determination in Team ICRISAT.

by ICRISAT. All rights reserved.