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Down the memory lane with ICRAF’s first employee

Trevor Chandler conversing with August Temu, Deputy Director General, Partnerships and Impact

During his recent visit to ICRAF, I had the pleasure of talking with Dr. Trevor Chandler who was one of the inaugurating employees of ICRAF during its establishment in the mid to late 70s. Originally born in England but later migrating to Canada after the Second World War, he was very happy to be called a Canadian. Sharing a candid memory of his arrival in Africa, he said “Even though I considered myself Canadian, I had a British passport!” Currently holding an Educator Emeritus position at the British Columbia-owned Thompson Rivers Open University, Chandler spoke candidly about his experiences with ICRAF.

Please share with us your background and how you came to be part of the ICRAF family.
I was born in England but my family moved to Canada after the Second World War when I was a youngster.  So throughout my upbringing to now, I consider myself Canadian.

I originally came to East Africa as a Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO) volunteer in the early 1970s. I came to Arusha Natural Resource Training Institute in Olmotonyi, Tanzania to set up a beekeeping training programme. Later I came to Nairobi and worked for IDRC. While working there, they hired John Bene to investigate the issue of forestry around the world including East Africa. When he returned to Canada, he wrote his forestry report which proposed the setting up of the new council to be later called ICRAF. He said there needs to be an international council that looks after how people interact with forests. I got a call from him saying we need someone to set this centre up and IDRC is putting some funds together, are you interested? Yes I am interested I said. He hired me as the Technical Development Officer and while I was still employed by IDRC, I was seconded to work under John Bene to set up this new organisation.

At this time, the Netherlands government provided a temporary headquarters for ICRAF located at the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam and the only staff were the secretary and me. It was the most beautiful office made of tropical hardwoods!

My job was to support the newly appointed international board by compiling literature about people’s interaction with forests. I collected colonial literature from all over Europe, from places like Germany and France. I collected any literature that was somehow related to this thing that was later to be called agroforestry. In fact I was in the board meeting that decided how to define agroforestry.

The three places selected for hosting ICRAF were Turrialba in Costa Rica, Poona in India and

Nairobi. By this time I was in Amsterdam and visited those places and put together the necessary documentation and the board hired Dr. Kenneth King as the first Director General.

When Nairobi was selected, IDRC sent me back to Nairobi to move ICRAF into an IDRC office-space called Bruce House. That is where I wrote the first research programme for ICRAF and set up the beginning of the documentation service.

Regarding the concept of integrated farming, was Dr. Kenneth King a major supporter of the concept?He was a Minister of Economic Development in the West Indies, Guyana. Then he was administering the forestry program at FAO too. He had good ideas and good vision no questions about that but he also had his own cultural attitude which was in conflict with the ways the board wanted to operate. This conflict caused me to leave ICRAF in 1980. After I left, Dr. King was replaced with Bjorn Lundgren, after whom one of the lecture theatres at ICRAF was named. Prior to returning to Canada after leaving ICRAF, I did some jobs with FAO in Mozambique. I don’t think I would have left ICRAF at all but then I realised children needed to be raised in Canada and I had a career at university there. I was heading the science division in the Open University there.

Do you feel that the role ICRAF plays in agroforestry has changed since 1978 when it moved to Kenya?
It has changed lots because the original vision we had was not going to be a place that produced research and technologies. John Bene’s original vision did not have a physical centre. The idea was that it was going to create international networks working on various topics, it was going to be a major centre for communications about agroforestry and a major library putting together documentation…documentation was a major part of the original vision. I came to know John Bene very well and we were very close friends until he passed on.

CGIAR has also gone through many changes; do you recall how it used to function?
I can recall that it didn’t value the opinion of the smallholders the way it now does. They had very little connection with the people they were serving. Their lack of connection with the people made some ICRAF board members reluctant to join the CGIAR system.

The smallholder farmer was so important to ICRAF; the Wasted Lands document [wasted lands refers to lands that were not being utilised fully for one reason or another. Les Terres Gaspillé in French] had the word ‘smallholder’ in the definition of agroforestry. I remember seeing the definition of agroforestry about ten years later with the reference to smallholders removed.

In what ways were you particularly suited for the role at the newly established ICRAF?
Prior to ICRAF, I was working in beekeeping and beekeeping was in the forestry ministry. The interesting thing was that beekeeping was developed as an integral part of a farming system. The system had to have many interrelated components. It was never about just training people to be beekeepers. So regarding ICRAF, my thinking and writing at the time was about interrelated systems of farming that included trees. The trees came into it because most of the honey in East Africa came from trees. Although my knowledge of forestry from Canada was very good, John Bene told me he wanted me to be involved in setting up ICRAF because I was not a forester but someone who understood the importance of farming systems. The team was looking for somebody like me who had this vision of systems instead of a specific forestry technology.

In the early days, the activities at ICRAF where divided into core activities (research) and field activities (trials on wasted lands’), which one where you involved with?
I was working with every part of the early ICRAF. We also brought in people like the very influential agroforester, Dr Peter Huxley. One of his latest books published in 1999 is called Tropical Agroforestry. Dr Huxley became the Director of Research Development when he joined ICRAF in 1979. He moved to Oxford after leaving ICRAF in 1992.

During those early days at ICRAF and during the establishment of the new science of agroforestry, what was the mood like? There was frustration sure but everybody was determined to get this concept up and running. The people very much believed in the mission and what this thing (later to be called agroforestry) was going to achieve. They also thought eventually the financial problems would be pulled together. There was frustration with Dr Kenneth King because the people there could see that he was not a hands-on leader.  I also recall we had a very good writer with us. His name was David Spurgeon. He was a very good Canadian journalist and a good man. I am sure that many early documents in the ICRAF Library will have his name on it.

When did your love of baobab’s start?
It started at ICRAF when we were investigating multipurpose trees. You see, when we looked at farming systems on the smallholder scale, we realised they needed to have multipurpose trees in their systems.  We got this idea from farmers themselves and we just wanted to spread those ideas. As an example, we saw living fences [boundary planting] in South America farms which we wanted to introduce here in Nairobi. The Forest Ministry nursery didn’t have multipurpose trees. They only had trees for timber production, etc.

So what we tried to do was begin trying to find out what were the different multipurpose trees to use in the different ecological zones. And I wanted to write something about multipurpose trees, so I chose baobab because it has all kinds of cultural and mythological features, and you cannot use it for firewood! It gives a lesson that you can have trees that you don’t use for firewood but you can use it for many other purposes. You can use it for rope, storing water, eat its leaves and fruits and you can leave it in the middle of the ‘shamba’ because it loses leaves and therefore doesn’t shade your ‘mahindi’. So it was a perfect example of a multipurpose tree. So that is how I became interested in baobabs. At that time, there was an artist who did fantastic work on baobabs who said, “A friend and I are really interested in writing a story about baobab trees”. You see, this friend was collecting information on cultural connections and mythologies concerning baobabs. And so she said “Why don’t you two meet?” So we met in the Italian restaurant in Nairobi and that woman is now my lovely wife. So she and I began collecting more information on baobab trees. We discovered that in Madagascar there are seven species yet in the whole of Africa there is only one!

Why would such a small Island have seven species?
That was the burning question we had too. So I went there to discover what caused that speciation. So after I retired from the Open University, I began collecting more information and now we know there are good distribution maps of the seven species in Madagascar. One of the species called Adansonia digitata is the same one as here in Africa. We know that Adansonia digitata fruit was used by the Arab dhow trade because they used it to prevent scurvy…the English must not have known about that obviously. That is why you find Baobabs (digitata) around the coast of Arabia and India. The other six are all indigenous to Madagascar.

What is your opinion of the current interaction between the scientific and the sociological arms of ICRAF?
Our original vision was that we should be working much more with the individual smallholder farmers and one of the things I have always known is that you can learn so much from them.

In those early days, I disagreed with some of the things being done in the CGIAR centres where they would develop a new technology say at that time was high lysine maize then they would hire some sociologists to go out to convince the small holders to adopt the technology.

You need to start with the people because culture is such an important part of food and life and everything. Then you need to ask; what are some of the things that are getting in the way of these people? For example if researchers found that smallholder farmers had difficulty growing baobab trees, they would do research to see how to grow them in a nursery. The process finishes when the researchers give the whole process to the smallholders to maintain and own.

So the science is important but the science part must come from the real needs of the people – the smallholder farmers. And those real needs can only be found by knowing the farmers themselves really well. So if you have a social scientist involved, they need to begin with the farmers then they can advise the scientists. In my opinion, ICRAF should be congratulated for going down this path of letting the smallholder farmers’ needs guide the science.

After finishing your term at ICRAF, did you join other forestry organisations?
I eventually ended up at the Open University of British Columbia in Canada. There, the challenge I had to address was distance education. So that was what I was doing and didn’t have much time to keep in touch with agroforestry even though to this day, I still have a passion for it. Currently I am an Emeritus Faculty  member at Thompson Rivers University which now operates the Open Learning program.

What do you enjoy most about retirement?
What I really enjoy is the ability to now do research on baobabs without worrying about publication deadlines. I don’t have to answer to anybody? No publish or perish for me anymore.


Christopher Mesiku

Chris Mesiku is a science communicator volunteering at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. In the last 5 years, he has worked as a communicator for various scientific institutions. He holds a Bachelor of Science, Graduate Diploma in Science Communication (ANU) and a Masters in Philosophy of Science (UQ).

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