IPK Leibniz-Institut/ L. Schlehuber
Dennis Psaroudakis (right), Konoutan Medard Thibaut Kafoutchoni and Rodrigue Idohou (left)
Gatersleben, Nairobi, Abomey - and back!

In the fight against the consequences of climate change, an initiative is bringing together African and European researchers. Kerstin Neumann, Dennis Psaroudakis and his mentor Konoutan Medard Thibaut Kafoutchoni from Benin have experienced how this works over the past few months.

It all began with a phone call from Kerstin Neumann in September 2023. "She told me that an African scientist would be coming to the IPK for a few months at the end of the year and that his fellowship would include mentoring a young European researcher," recalls Dennis Psaroudakis of the conversation with the head of IPK’s research group “Automated Plant Phenotyping”. "Are you interested?" The doctoral student agreed, but he did not know the details of the programme, nor did he know that the One Planet Fellowship Programme (OPFP) would take him to Kenya for a week in April 2024 with his mentor Konoutan Medard Thibaut Kafoutchoni from Benin.

The initiative's main aim is to bring together European and African researchers at different career stages. There are two main groups: young researchers such as Dennis Psaroudakis ("learning partners") and experienced scientists such as Konoutan Medard Thibaut Kafoutchoni ("laureate candidates"), who act as mentors. Together, they will look for solutions to the many problems arising from climate change.

The initiative of the "Agropolis Foundation" and the "African Women in Agricultural Research and Development" (AWARD) is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the European Union, among others. The programme has a budget of more than 17 million euros and has been running since 2019. It was launched following the Paris Climate Agreement.

"The consequences of climate change will hit the Global South earlier and harder than us in Europe," explains Dennis Psaroudakis shortly after his return from Kenya. To make matters worse, agriculture is structured differently in most African countries. "There are far fewer large farms in the region, but mainly families who live from small-scale farming. And these families are naturally more helpless and defenceless in the face of climate change than a large farm in Germany." But that's not all.

"The challenges in agriculture in my home country also include declining soil fertility, the lack of high-quality seeds for farmers and the effects of climate change with heat and drought due to insufficient rainfall and the lack of artificial irrigation," says Konoutan Medard Thibaut Kafoutchoni. In addition, there is only limited investment in research in infrastructure and equipment as well as the development of innovative technologies or improved plant varieties."

In April, more than 200 African and European researchers met in Kenya for a "Launch, Training and Networking Week". The meeting in Nairobi aimed to network all participants even better, familiarise them with the programme and draw up individual work plans. "For me, this week was very inspiring, and we built up a robust network of contacts," explains Dennis Psaroudakis. The programme included several workshops on topics such as leadership, conflict management and intercultural work, as well as visits to two research institutes.

After the week in Nairobi, most of the young "learning partners" travelled straight on to their African mentor's country and research institution. A one-month stay is planned. "However, as I am currently at the end of my doctoral thesis, I had to postpone my plan. I will probably visit Medard at his research centre in Benin in August," explains the doctoral student.

However, the young IPK scientist has been working with his mentor at the IPK recently. This was not about a joint paper but primarily about getting to know each other's views, backgrounds and working methods. "Medard can perfectly combine enthusiasm for research with a professional and focused working style," reports the young doctoral student. But Dennis Psaroudakis has also realised something else during their time together. "For us, the consequences of climate change are still mostly very abstract. For African scientists like Medard, their work already has a much more concrete relevance, which is why they are very interested in developing solutions."

"My goal is to develop a drought-tolerant variety of a forgotten legume from Benin, such as Kersting's peanut (Macrotyloma geocarpum), to improve food and nutrition security and the incomes of smallholder farmers," says Konoutan Medard Thibaut Kafoutchoni. He is convinced that modern technologies such as high-throughput phenotyping, which he has familiarised himself with intensively at the IPK in recent months, can play an important role. He received an intensive six-month training programme in the "Automatic Plant Phenotyping" research group headed by Kerstin Neumann.

Before Dennis Psaroudakis travelled to Benin, however, there was a special reunion at the beginning of May: Three generations from the "One Planet Fellowship Programme" came together at the IPK. The IPK doctoral student met not only his mentor, Konoutan Medard Thibaut Kafoutchoni, but also the mentor of his mentor, Rodrigue Idohou - both are researchers at the Université d'Abomey-Calavi in Benin. The three of us had already met in Nairobi in April, and the exchange was great again," explains Konoutan Medard Thibaut Kafoutchoni.  

Meanwhile, Kerstin Neumann, Konoutan Medard Thibaut Kafoutchoni's European mentor, was already in Benin at the end of April. At the Université d'Abomey-Calavi, she exchanged ideas with the scientists there, visited the protected mangrove forests around Lake Nokoué, local farms and the circular model farm of Songhaï, where there are no waste products because everything is recycled and sustainability plays a major role.

"A start-up by a DAAD alumnus was also impressive. Based on the desire to save an old, endangered local tomato variety, a utilisation chain was established around this variety, in which a cooperative of women specifically cultivate this variety - and with such great success that they are considering distributing it as far as Europe," reports Kerstin Neumann. Subsequently, there was an initial discussion with employees of the gene bank at the IPK about including this old variety in their collection. But that's not all: joint projects with the scientists from Benin are already being considered, according to the head of the IPK research group