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DENIS GNAKPENOU – IN MEMORIAM

By Arno Maatman, Project Director 2SCALE, with Mathias Ahounou, Cluster Advisor Benin, Lawani Bello, HR Officer, Mahamane Toure, Communication Officer, and Raphaël Vogelsperger, Deputy CoP and regional coordinator West Africa.

“We’ve ended up working in areas that are further away and poorer that we would not have reached otherwise”, says Jan Arie Nugteren from East-West Seed International about the support of 2SCALE. The complete interview with Jan Arie Nugteren, but also with Denis Gnakpenou from 2SCALE, can be read in a special report on the seed sector by Vice Versa, a Dutch-based development-oriented journal (Why are seed companies hesitant to invest in the West African market?). In this article, Denis is introduced and amply cited as the agronomist and innovation specialist of 2SCALE, with over 13 years of experience in small-scale agriculture, in various positions within IFDC (one of the consortium partners in 2SCALE). It was also his last interview. Denis left the office of IFDC in Benin on Tuesday the 14th of February. He passed away in a hospital, after a sudden crisis, on Friday the 17th at 4 AM, leaving his wife and a son of 11 behind.

Denis was not the kind of person that you would notice immediately in the office, nor in the 2SCALE team. But he was there, he was always there. Denis joined IFDC in 1999 as a research assistant, after a few years as agricultural officer in charge of pesticides and phytosanitary treatment with Gyma Cultures, a local company, if I am not mistaken. He must have made an impression to the hard-core agronomists of IFDC at the time as a “field” person. Indeed, he quickly became one of the most enthusiastic advocates of farmer field schools and other more participatory methodologies for knowledge-transfer in IFDC’s natural resource management team. As an enquiring, confident young man, he certainly was one of the most easily accessible agronomists, at least for us, involved in agribusiness development. We often called upon Denis, when we needed agronomic expertise. Denis was, as a result, also one of the first IFDC agronomists to experience, to really feel, the paradigm shift that was happening at the time within the organization. From a rather top-down research organization to a knowledge-based development organization that wanted to work together with smallholder farmers. Just by way of example, one of our first interventions was with tomato producers in Northern Togo, mainly young farmers wanting to develop some new business during the off-season. We had asked Denis to join a visit led by Mariette Gross, back then a young professional in our team, now an experienced trainer with our consortium partner ICRA, to the region. On the way, Denis inquired what they were supposed to do and he apparently looked utterly surprised to hear Mariette answer something like, “Oh, we’re not going to do something specific. We will mainly listen to what ideas they might have.” When I heard the story from Mariette, she was still smiling.

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Denis leading a training for designing solar dryer for tomato farmers in Pampaida, Nigeria.

We are now more than a decade later. Denis joined the “From Thousands to Millions” project, one of IFDC’s first incubator programs for inclusive business, in 2009. He later on continued as 2SCALE’s innovation specialist. Over the years Denis developed into an experienced innovation broker: capable to listen, comfortable to facilitate learning and innovation from the grassroots, and competent to provide agronomic advice, whenever asked.

In a recent exchange with Mahamane Touré, our communication officer, Denis expressed his enthusiasm for the video projection kits that were bought by 2SCALE. These kits run on solar energy and this would help, he argued, to skip the workshops in town and organize all the training in the rural communities. Denis loved the exchanges with smallholder farmers, he enjoyed action-research, and was a strong believer in Africa’s agricultural potential.

We will remember Denis as the skilled innovation broker he was. He certainly played a critical role in many of our partnerships, and in particular in the vegetable ones, as already emphasized by Jan Arie at the beginning of this blog. The support by Denis has been instrumental to implement action-research on the acceptance and use of new (hybrid) seeds, and on all sorts of related issues, like the use of (drip) irrigation kits, the introduction of bio-stimulants and organic fertilizers, the establishment of service sprayer teams, and on marketing strategies for high quality vegetables in the region.

We will also remember him as a very social person, with a lot of integrity. A real team player. You could not visit Benin without having a dinner or a drink together with Denis. He would always try to make you feel comfortable. He was a truly wonderful person, devoted to Africa’s farmers, to his colleagues, and – first and foremost – to his family. Our thoughts are with Nadine and Keith, and all his other relatives and friends. We will miss him dearly.

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