‘I Havent Forgotten Where I Came From,’ says Yvonne Pinto, Incoming IRRI Chief — Global Issues

Yvonne Pinto, the incoming Director General of the International Rice Research Institute, at the 5th All Africa Horticulture Conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, February 26 to March 1, 2024.
Photo Credit: Supplied by Yvonne Pinto
  • by Neena Bhandari (sydney)
  • Inter Press Service

Ethiopia in the late 1970s and 1980s was ravaged by a terrible famine, drought, civil war, and international conflict. It became clear to Pinto from the outset that such exigencies could rapidly deteriorate everyday life and the absence of food could decimate a population. These events instilled in her a deep appreciation for the role agriculture and food systems play in human survival.

“I haven’t forgotten where I came from,” says Pinto, the incoming Director General of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). A second-generation Kenyan by birth, she feels privileged to have been brought up in Ethiopia, a country that was never colonized and where she felt fortunate to grow up as an equal, a rare experience then.

The small farming station in Holetta, about an hour’s drive from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, is now the National Agricultural Biotechnology Research Centre. She says, “My father was its first director. From the mid-1960s, he was instrumental in the establishment of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research and the creation of the Ethiopian Seed Corporation in 1978. I’m undoubtedly a product of those institutions and influences. My father has been my champion.”

She has continued to work with people from those institutions, and while it’s important for her to add value and make a contribution where she can, Pinto affirms, “It is also very important to enhance the contribution of others because having bright and capable people contribute to ideas, approaches, and solutions is often the difference between success and failure.”

On April 22, 2024, she will take over as the Director General of IRRI, where she started her working life as a visiting research scholar in 1985, when eminent agricultural scientist and geneticist Dr M S Swaminathan, was the institute’s director general.

“My time at IRRI, which is referred to as the jewel in the crown of the CGIAR system, and encouragement from my supervisors clearly influenced my decision later in life to do a PhD in rice,” adds Pinto, who will be the first woman to lead the institute which is dedicated to abolishing poverty and hunger among people and populations that depend on rice-based agri-food systems.

She says, “There are opportunities now for girls and women that weren’t present in the past. There’s an interesting societal transition happening in the world, gaining momentum through the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement to the growing focus on equity, inclusion, and diversity. I’m actually a product of that change and thinking.”

Out of the hundreds of congratulatory messages she received on her appointment, “One-third of them were girls and women. All I can say to them is that if I can do it, you can do it,” says Pinto, who also drew inspiration from her mother, a medical surgeon.

In Africa, where rice cultivation is the principal source of income for more than 35 million smallholder rice farmers, women provide the bulk of the labour, from sowing to weeding, harvesting, processing, and marketing, according to the Africa Rice Centre.

Acknowledging the challenges faced by small and middle-income rice farmers, she emphasizes the need to ensure that farmers receive fair returns on their investment.

“Smallholder farmers are reliant upon the private sector or non-governmental organizations to receive the material, such as seeds and other agriculture inputs. In rice and rice seed systems, for example, there are a number of private sector players who are involved. We have to have very intelligent Intellectual Property (IP) arrangements with the private sector to ensure that our farmers have affordable access to these materials and they are not disadvantaged in the process,”  says Pinto, who will also serve as the CGIAR Regional Director for South-East Asia and the Pacific and Country Representative for the Philippines.

Unlike in most Asian countries, where economic growth and increasing urbanization have led to a decline in rice consumption, in African countries, consumption has significantly increased. Demand for rice is growing at more than 6 percent per year, which is faster than for any other food staple in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Africa Rice Centre.

Looking ahead, Pinto envisions IRRI playing a pivotal role in promoting circular agricultural practices in rice production and underpinning the importance of rice in human health and nutrition.

She says, “We have tremendous opportunities to create more nutritious and resilient rice varieties capable of withstanding climate change, benefiting both farmers and consumers alike. There is an opportunity to enable IRRI’s germplasm, not only to influence and impact the Asia-Pacific region but to support other rice producing and consuming countries, notably in Africa”.

Rice is now the second-most important source of calories after corn in many sub-Saharan Africa countries. The region’s total rice consumption is projected to grow to around 36 million tons by the end of 2026, and the region is expected to import over 32 percent of globally traded rice by 2026, mainly from India, Pakistan, Thailand, and Vietnam, according to a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) report.

Reflecting on her extensive experience chairing boards and committees worldwide, she says effective leadership hinges on “fostering connections, building trust, and nurturing partnerships and collaboration, as leadership is a collective responsibility within an interconnected ecosystem.”

Pinto is poised to drive impactful change in agricultural research, advancing food security and sustainability.

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© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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