Professor AiyelaagbeA call has gone out to Nigerians to take keener interest in the consumption of fruits and vegetables as an important component of nutrition for healthy living and a boost to their mental health. This call was made by Professor Isaac Aiyelaagbe. According to him, “Whether you admit it or not, as a nation, we are paying a high price for malnutrition; If a man is not properly nourished, even if he is seated at his work station, he is not operating at full potential and not earning his pay. Nutrition has a strong link with mental health and physical health. If I have go to the hospital for four days every month, due to ill-health, who is going to cover my beat or pay for those four days that I leave my work undone and what will be the long term effect on the institution?”

Professor Aiyelaagbe, Humboldt Fellow, former Head, Department of Horticulture in the University and erstwhile Coordinator of the West African Network for Organic Agriculture Research and Training (WANOART)/Reseau Ouest Africain pour la Recherche et la Formation en Agriculture Biologique (ROARFAB), added that as people age, the efficiency of their bodies in extracting nutrients and utilising them declines, thus they need to step up intake of fresh fruits and vegetables and not just the starchy staples.

The Professor of Pomology’s (Fruit Science’s) research spans ecophyisoplogy of tropical fruits such as papaya, citrus, plantain and passion fruit. He has also had the opportunity to work on a temperate fruit-sweet cherry through his collaboration with the University of Bonn, Germany. He is currently working on improving the productivity of pineapple; specifically the ‘sugar loaf’ variety, which is good for the fresh fruit market, because it is very sweet and has a low acid content. He enumerated the benefits of pineapple to include high content of Vitamin A, which aids good eye sight, Vitamin C, which aids healthy teeth and gums and redresses scurvy and other benefits include tackling osteoporosis; a situation whereby human bones are deficient in calcium and become fragile.

While explaining what osteoporosis is, he said a person having the deficiency could just suddenly have his/her legs get broken without any external force applied. “You also have probably heard that people have had sudden heart attacks because of blood clots. Pineapple contains some chemicals that if you eat it regularly, reduces the risk of such blood clots. Other benefits from pineapple, include, juice from pineapples, slices of solar dried pieces which you can pop into your mouth just like candies, bromelain for tenderising meat and bran which can be fed to livestock.

Commenting on the commercial viability of pineapples, he noted that the market for pineapples is not saturated in Nigeria”. According to him, “We don’t even produce enough, talk-less of exporting. Benin Republic produces too much and dumps quite a lot at Mile 12 in Lagos”. He, therefore, wished to see increased awareness and investments in exploiting the inherent benefits of the fruit as a commodity, to be harnessed for food self-sufficiency, job creation and import substitution. He decried the low level of investment in research in Nigeria, especially, regarding hardware (equipment and infrastructure), stressing that technological success is not a happen-stance; it is the fruit of focused endeavour. As part of my own little contribution, I commit to continue to tinker at development-oriented research, until people see the sparks get encouraged and join to fan the sparks to flame”.
On what needs to be done to improve the situation, Professor Aiyelaagbe responded that it should always be remembered that FUNAAB is a Land Grant University, not a classical university. So, our approach should be to redirect our limited resources at solving top priority problems generated from the field, so that our clients in the private sector will court our favour and readily commit funds to help grow the research capability of the university in the face of dwindling public funds. This will require building stronger synergies between the Colleges, IFSERAR, AMREC and DUFARMS”. Refocusing on his research efforts, he stressed that based on his previous studies in FUNAAB, about 15 tonnes per hectare of poultry manure per annum should suffice to get good yield of Smooth Cayenne, the variety of pineapples that DUFARMS grows on a commercial scale. This variety is mainly for processing but is currently purchased largely for the fresh fruit.

“About six years ago I tasted the ‘sugar loaf’ variety of pineapple, considered the taste excellent and look forward to having DUFARMS and other commercial growers also adopt it. So, I set for myself the goal of helping to popularise the variety in Nigeria with the hope of diversifying pineapple production and reducing the need for imports of fruits and products. In line with the surge in demand for organic fruits, I have tilted my endeavours to feed this niche; the new research focus is determining the organic fertilizer needs of the sugar loaf pineapple for optimum yield; especially the potassium requirement. Currently, my students and I, are investigating the potential of ash from oil palm fronds and spent fruit bunches, which are waste materials from FUNAAB oil palm plantations, as a potential source of organic potassium. It is still ‘work in progress’, as he affirmed that in science, you can’t say you have arrived. You solve one problem, and without intending to do so, you create another one. I think the next step is to raise the level of local awareness on another variety of pineapple the MD2 which is the money maker on the international market because it is reputed to be ten times sweeter than the Smooth cayenne and with a higher Vitamin C content too and targets the fresh fruit market. This variety will interest growers interested in exporting fresh pineapple fruits. Fortunately, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and the Food and Agriculture Organisation have a collaborative project, which targets providing six million plants for uptake by farmers in Nigeria. When the project is fully implemented, it will strengthen the pineapple industry in Nigeria and create more opportunities for interdisciplinary demand-driven research. Ultimately, I hope the concerted efforts will lead to having self-sufficiency in pineapples in Nigeria; both for the processors and the fresh fruit marketer”, Professor Aiyelaagbe said.

Reflecting on horticultural research, he said; “When I look back, after 35years of being in the business of research and training. I am grateful to God for the modest achievements made in research and capacity building. It has not been easy, but it has been fulfilling nonetheless. I started as a Research Officer II in Fruits Agronomy in 1982 at the National Horticultural Research Institute (NIHORT), Ibadan and Kano and I left as Chief Research Officer in 1999 to join the services of FUNAAB. I resumed here as a Senior Lecturer and I just kept working, learning new things and inputting my knowledge and skills into building local capacity in fruit science. I must put on record that it was in FUNAAB that I came in contact with organic agriculture and took an interest in it. With support from FUNAAB, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Germany, the UK Government and the EU, the Working Group in Organic Agriculture in FUNAAB, on which I served, helped to increase the visibility of organic agriculture in Nigeria and in West Africa. I look forward in the near future, to seeing some of my former students begin to make significant contributions in the science and business of horticulture and organic agriculture in Nigeria and beyond, then my joy will come full circle. In between now and then, I’ll simply get busy teaming up with my colleagues to increase the diversity of fruits on the offer, all the year through and at an affordable cost, so that Nigerians can reap the full benefits of increased consumption of fruits”, he added.