IITA’s founding fathers, among others, were concerned with the low and declining land productivity in the face of growing populations and the inadequacy of traditional farming methods to curb this trend. Therefore, early research efforts were on land clearing, soil erosion, and zero tillage, combined with chemical weed control and small or medium level mechanization (Fig. 1). From the mid-1980s, attention began to shift towards existing production systems and their capacity for change and sustainable intensification (SI).
By 1974, IITA was working on a relatively wide range of crops; not only the current “mandate”— maize, cowpea, soybean, banana/plantain, cassava, and yam, but also sweetpotato, rice, cocoyam, lima bean, pigeonpea, winged bean, African yam bean, and velvet bean. A key development was the opening of the Genetic Resources Unit (now Genetic Resources Center, GRC) with a mission to collect, conserve, characterize, and distribute African grain legumes, rice, and root and tuber crops. The “geographical domain” of IITA was agreed to include all humid and subhumid tropical zones. The current focus of mandate crops developed in the early 1990s and included the transfer of sweetpotato work to CIP and the regional rice mandate to WARDA (now AfricaRice).
IITA was established by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations in 1967 to contribute towards global food and nutrition security. It was created based on the need to have an African version of the Green Revolution that transformed Asia through increased agricultural production in the 1960s. It became the first African link in a network of international agricultural research centers.