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The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

In the 1960s, the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) aimed to bring the Green Revolution to new parts of the developing world. Over the past two decades, the Foundation had established several agricultural programs and international research centers in Latin America and Asia, starting with the Mexican Agricultural Program (MAP) in 1943. These initiatives had achieved notable success – they had made Mexico a net exporter of maize and wheat, cultivated rice that helped India stave off a potential famine, and established scientific networks that allowed other developing nations such as Turkey and Pakistan to make similar advances.  

Nevertheless, these programs had largely bypassed Africa, a continent with wide-ranging climates, broad swaths of uncultivated land, poor soil, and a growing population of subsistence farmers practicing shifting cultivation, a system whereby land was cleared, cultivated, and then abandoned until its fertility returned. To meet the specific needs of the African tropics, RF established the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in 1967. Located at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, IITA launched an experimental, interdisciplinary program that sought to expand the strategic and geographic scope of the Green Revolution, foreshadowing RF’s focus on African agriculture at the turn of the twenty-first century.  


The idea to create IITA dated back to 1963, when RF President George Harrar and Ford Foundation Vice President Frosty Hill surveyed Nigeria as a potential site for a new tropical agriculture institute. Shortly thereafter, Richard Bradfield, a member of the RF’s 1941 Agricultural Survey Commission to Mexico, and Frank Moore, a Ford Foundation program officer, made a more extensive visit, touring the country’s agricultural colleges and research centers. This was not the first time RF and Ford had collaborated on food programming – the two foundations had recently joined to create two other research institutes, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), established in the Philippines in 1959, and the Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), formed in Colombia in 1967. 

RF President George Harrar with IITA Board Member Robert K. Gardiner  

When he returned, Bradfield discussed his observations with Harrar, Hill, and officers from the RF Agricultural Sciences Division. Bradfield was encouraged. Nigeria possessed a range of climates and soils representative of the tropics at large and the country already had a solid research infrastructure. In addition, the Foundation had been working with the University of Ibadan since 1953, when it provided a $10,000 grant for the college’s faculty to purchase much-needed medical equipment. Successive grants supported agricultural research programs and the university press, and helped the college establish a research and teaching program in rural pediatrics, as well as an African Studies academic center. By 1962, RF had given the college over $1 million and, one year later, Ibadan received additional grants to establish a new psychiatry and neurology department.

Hill sent Harrar an initial proposal to create a IITA two weeks after their meeting with Bradfield. Unlike RF’s other international research institutes, IITA aimed to increase production of non-cereal crops, including cassava, beans, and yams, and work along interdisciplinary lines – “agronomic, engineering, and economic” – to redevelop entire farming systems.[1]

Political Obstacles

In the mid-1960s, however, political conflict in Nigeria nearly upended RF and Ford efforts to open the Institute. After Nigeria’s independence in 1960, rival geographic and ethnic political factions frequently jostled for power. In December 1964, things came to a head when an alliance of eastern and western parties, citing corruption by their northern counterparts, boycotted the scheduled parliamentary election and threatened to secede from the country. After a series of coups, members of the Igbo ethnic group declared eastern Nigeria independent as the Republic of Biafra in May 1967. A bloody civil war resulted, lasting over two years and heightening geographic and ethnic tensions in the country.

RF and Ford followed these events closely. While the foundations preferred Nigeria as the site for IITA, they worried the country’s political strife would splinter the University of Ibadan, which possessed an Igbo Vice Chancellor even though it was located in a non-Igbo part of the country. During a visit to the university, David Heaps, Ford’s representative in Nigeria, noted the country “was undergoing its most serious political crisis since independence” and that the unrest had caused Ibadan leadership to behave in a “condition of frantic excitement, verging almost on panic.” Worse, Heaps noted, there were already rumors that the competing governments had started to play political football with the college’s financing. As a result, he recommended the Institute not “have an integral, functional, or institutional tie-up with the University of Ibadan.”[2]

IITA researchers discuss corn growth 

Despite continued unrest, however, RF and Ford leaders concluded that IITA had bipartisan appeal and decided to open the Institute in Nigeria. “The situation is at present hopeful,” foundation officials noted after a coup in February 1966. “Foreigners were not disturbed…and there is no indication of anti-foreigner or anti-white feelings.” Even better, the new government remained committed to IITA, having recently secured the land upon which the Institute would operate.[3] RF and Ford remained optimistic even after a countercoup occurred six months later. “Despite two upheavals,” IITA’s president and a future RF Vice President William M. Myers noted, “the government of Nigeria has moved forward steadily with Nigeria’s responsibilities to the IITA project.”[4] Nigerian officials ultimately issued an official decree announcing the creation of IITA in July 1967. Ford support was particularly crucial to launching the Institute – the Foundation provided over $14 million for constructing IITA and shared the Institute’s operational costs with RF.

New Challenges

From the start, RF and Ford believed IITA would help meet the needs of an increasingly hungry and overpopulated developing world. Despite alarmingly high hunger rates, too much tropical land was left uncultivated or underutilized, yields were low, and the region’s population was growing, stretching its food resources even further. Things needed to improve before the situation became even more dire. IITA promised to meet this challenge using programs similar to those established at IRRI and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) – it would conduct research on yield, train scientists, and develop a library of scholarship on tropical farming.  

IITA agricultural officers weigh cassava

However, IITA was different from the other international research institutes in several respects. The African tropics grew a wider variety of crops than maize, wheat, and rice, including cowpeas and soybeans, as well as root crops such as cassava, sweet potatoes, and yams. IITA would thus have to prioritize which crops to grow first. The IITA board decided it would initially work with IRRI and CIMMYT to increase rice and maize yield before developing new breeds of grain legumes and root crops, a process that required more knowledge building and experimentation.

Even more notably, IITA’s central goal was to redevelop tropical farming systems. Most African farmers practiced shifting cultivation, a system whereby land was cleared, cultivated, and then abandoned until its fertility returned. RF and Ford estimated that this system produced crops every 3-5 years out of a possible 15-25, a rate insufficient to meet tropical population growth. While the Institute focused on maize and rice yield in the short-term, IITA planned to take on a broader range of crops in a systems-based approach that created interdisciplinary teams comprised of plant breeders, soil experts, engineers, and economists who worked within each of IITA’s four core program areas: Farming Systems, Cereal Improvement, Grain Legume Improvement, and Root, Tuber, and Vegetable Improvement. This new strategy was a dramatic shift, one that deemphasized work on increasing the yield of a single staple crop and instead embraced an ecological approach to farming. Though this strategy might not produce immediate results, IITA leaders reasoned, it was the key to improving tropical food security in the long-term.

Taking Stock

A review published ten years after IITA’s founding concluded that “the research problems addressed by the Institute are probably the broadest, most complex and challenging among those encountered” by the international research institutes. There had been clear successes – IITA had developed new high-yield varieties of cassava, made new advances on other tropical crops, and created an emerging body of knowledge relating to African farming. The Institute had also developed modern facilities and built a body of knowledge for tropical researchers. For these reasons, the review stated that IITA had become “recognized as a center of excellence in tropical agricultural research in Africa.”[5]  

The IITA Awba River Irrigation Dam

Nevertheless, the review conceded that the Institute’s systems-based research had yielded slow results. IITA’s work had demonstrated the challenges of bringing the Green Revolution to the tropics and, more specifically, to Africa. Reforming farming systems for local subsistence farmers was no easy task. It required an interdisciplinary program that accounted for indigenous cultures, a host of local political, economic, and environmental factors, and adequately-trained extension personnel. These issues would be at the forefront of RF thinking as it targeted a “second Green Revolution, aimed squarely at Africa” in the coming decades. In that sense, IITA helped lay the groundwork for RF’s new agricultural strategy at the turn of the twenty-first century.

[1] “Proposal for an International Institute of Tropical Agriculture Located in Africa,” Rockefeller Foundation Records, RG 1.3, Series 115, Box 35, Folder 207, Rockefeller Archive Center (Sleepy Hollow, NY) (hereafter RAC).

[2] David Heaps to F.F. Hill and George Harrar,” “International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and the Nigerian Political Situation,” November 13, 1965, Rockefeller Foundation Records, RG 1.3, Series 115, Box 36, Folder 211, RAC.

[3] “Meeting on February 3, 1966, regarding continuation of development of IITA in view of recent happenings in Nigeria,” February 11, 1966, Rockefeller Foundation Records, RG 1.3, Series 115, Box 36, Folder 212, RAC.

[4] William Myers to George Harrar, September 9, 1966, RG 1.3, Series 115, Box 36, Folder 212, RAC.

[5] William K. Gamble, “Evolution of the Program of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, 1967-1980,” Sterling Wortman Papers, Series 1, Box 2, Folder 12, RAC.