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Ethiopian scientist honoured for enhancing food supply for millions of Africans

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Dr. Gebisa Ejeta of Ethiopia has been named winner of the $250,000 World Food Prize for his monumental contributions in the production of sorghum, one of the world’s five principal cereal grains, which have dramatically enhanced the food supply of hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Dr. Ejeta, whose work has produced sorghum hybrids resistant to drought and the devastating Striga weed, was announced as the 2009 Laureate at a June 11, 2009 ceremony at the U.S. State Department that featured US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, World Food Prize President Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, and World Food Prize Chairman John Ruan III.

Dr. Ejeta’s personal journey (see story below) led him from a childhood in a one-room thatched hut in rural Ethiopia to scientific acclaim as a distinguished professor, plant breeder, and geneticist at Purdue University. His work with sorghum, which is a staple in the diet of 500 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, began in Ethiopia in the 1970s. Working in Sudan in the early 1980s, he developed drought-tolerant Hageen Dura-1, the first ever commercial hybrid sorghum in Africa, which out-yielded traditional varieties by up to 150%.

Dr. Ejeta next turned his attention to battling Striga, a deadly parasitic weed which devastates crops and severely limits food availability. With a colleague at Purdue University, he discovered the biochemical basis of Striga’s relationship with sorghum, and was able to produce many sorghum varieties resistant to both drought and Striga.

In 1994, eight tons of Dr. Ejeta’s drought and Striga-resistant sorghum seeds were distributed to Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Yield increases were as much as four times the yield of local varieties, even in severe drought areas.

Dr. Ejeta’s scientific breakthroughs have been combined with persistent efforts to foster economic development and empower subsistence farmers by creating agricultural enterprises in rural Africa. He has led his colleagues in working with national and local authorities and nongovernmental agencies so that smallholder farmers and rural entrepreneurs can catalyze efforts to improve crop productivity, strengthen nutritional security, increase the value of agricultural products, and boost the profitability of agricultural enterprise – thus fostering profound impacts on lives and livelihoods on broader scale across the African continent.

“Even while he was making breakthroughs in the lab, Dr. Ejeta took his work to the field,” said Clinton. “He knew that for his improved seeds to make a difference in people’s lives, farmers would have to use them – which meant they would need access to a seed market and the credit to buy supplies.”

“Dr. Ejeta’s accomplishments in improving sorghum illustrate what can be achieved when cutting-edge technology and international cooperation in agriculture are used to uplift and empower the world’s most vulnerable people,” said Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, the Prize's founder. “His life is as an inspiration for young scientists around the world.”

The 2009 World Food Prize will be formally presented to Dr. Ejeta at a ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol on October 15, 2009. The ceremony will be held as part of the World Food Prize’s 2009 Borlaug Dialogue, which focuses on “Food, Agriculture and National Security in a Globalized World.”

The Prize, established in 1986, recognizes contributions in any field involved in the world food supply -- food and agriculture science and technology, manufacturing, marketing, nutrition, economics, poverty alleviation, political leadership and the social sciences. Previous laureates have come from Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Cuba, Denmark, India, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United Nations and the United States. The World Food Prize is sponsored by US businessman and philanthropist John Ruan.

This article is adapted from a news release on the World Food Prize website entitled 

Ethiopian scientist named 2009 Laureate: Gebisa Ejeta of PurdueUniversity developed drought- and weed-resitant sorghum, enhancing food supply in sub-Saharan Africa.


Posted on YouTube by PurdueAgriculture June 11, 2009


A mother's belief, a son's determination, fuelled Ejeta's achievements

Born in 1950, Gebisa Ejeta grew up in a one-room thatched hut with a mud floor, in a rural village in west-central Ethiopia. His mother’s deep belief in education and her struggle to provide her son with access to local teachers and schools provided the young Ejeta with the means to rise out of poverty and hardship.

His mother made arrangements for him to attend school in a neighboring town. Walking 20 kilometers every Sunday night to attend school during the week and then back home on Friday, he rapidly ascended through eight grades and passed the national exam qualifying him to enter high school.

High academic standing earned Ejeta financial assistance and entrance to Jimma Agricultural and Technical School, from which he graduated with distinction. He then entered Alemaya College, where he received his bachelor's degree in plant science in 1973. (Both institutions were established by Oklahoma State University and supported by US government programs.)

In 1973, his college mentor introduced Ejeta to a renowned sorghum researcher, Dr. John Axtell of Purdue University, who invited him to assist in collecting sorghum species from around the country and then invited Ejeta to become his graduate student. Ejeta entered Purdue University in 1974, earning his Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics, and later became a  faculty member. Today, he holds a distinguished professorship at Purdue.

Upon completing his graduate degree, Dr. Ejeta accepted a position as a sorghum researcher at the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) office in Sudan, where he developed the first hybrid sorghum varieties for Africa, which were drought-tolerant and high-yielding.

Given the local importance of sorghum in the human diet (made into breads, porridges, and beverages), and the vast potential of dryland agriculture in Sudan, Dr. Ejeta’s drought-tolerant hybrids brought dramatic gains in crop productivity and also catalyzed a commercial sorghum seed industry in Sudan.

His Hageen Dura-1, as the hybrid was named, was released in 1983 following field trials in which the hybrids out-yielded traditional sorghum varieties by 50 to 100%. Its superior grain qualities contributed to its rapid spread and wide acceptance by farmers, who found that yields increased to more than 150% greater than local sorghum, far surpassing the percentage gain in the trials.

Dedicated to helping poor farmers feed themselves and their families and rise out of poverty, Dr. Ejeta urged the establishment of structures to monitor production, processing, certification, and marketing of hybrid seed—and farmer-education programs in the use of fertilizers, soil and water conservation, and other supportive crop management practices.

By 1999, one million acres of Hageen Dura-1 had been harvested by hundreds of thousands of Sudanese farmers, and millions of Sudanese had been fed with grain produced by Hageen Dura-1. Another drought-tolerant sorghum hybrid, NAD-1, developed for conditions in Niger by Dr. Ejeta and one of his graduate students at Purdue University in 1992, has had yields 4 or 5 times the national sorghum average.

Using some of the drought-tolerant germplasm from the Niger and Sudan hybrids, Dr. Ejeta also developed elite sorghum inbred lines for the U.S. sorghum hybrid industry. He has released over 70 parental lines for the U.S. seed industry’s use in commercial sorghum hybrids in both their domestic and international markets.

Dr. Ejeta’s next breakthrough, in the 1990s, focused on the greatest biological impediment to African food production – the deadly parasitic weed Striga, known commonly as witchweed, which devastates crops including maize, rice, pearl millet, sugarcane, and sorghum and is estimated to affect 40% of arable savannah land and over 100 million people in Africa.

The tiny Striga seeds germinate and then send out rootlets, which find sorghum roots and work their way into the host plant where it removes valuable nutrients and can cause crop losses of up to 40%. Striga is especially troublesome because the weed's seeds can remain viable for up to 20 years, and farmers had found no way to control the weed.

Working with late Purdue colleague Larry Butler, Ejeta identified the exudate - chemical signal - from sorghum that is picked up by Striga rootlets. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation and USAID, they developed an approach integrating genetics, agronomy, and biochemistry that led to the identification of genes for Striga resistance, which they transferred into locally adapted sorghum varieties and improved sorghum cultivars. The new sorghum also possessed broad adaptation to different African ecological conditions and farming systems.

"The parasitic weed work took nearly 15 years to come to fruition," Ejeta said. "The novel approach that we developed was a totally new paradigm on how to dissect this complex trait into simpler components. After that, we didn't need to go to Africa to do Striga research. We were able to do this work in a laboratory at Purdue University."

In 1994, Dr. Ejeta facilitated dissemination of the new varieties in Striga-endemic African countries, working closely with World Vision International and Sasakawa2000. Those organizations coordinated a pilot program, with USAID funding, that distributed eight tons of seed to Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. The yield increases from the improved Striga-resistant cultivars have been as much as four times the yield of local varieties, even in the severe drought areas.

In 2002-2003, Dr. Ejeta introduced an integrated Striga management (ISM) package, again through a pilot program funded by USAID, to deploy in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Tanzania along with the Striga-resistant sorghum varieties. This ISM package achieved further increased crop productivity through a synergistic combination of weed resistance in the host plant, soil-fertility enhancement, and water conservation.

By partnering with leaders and farmers across sub-Saharan Africa and educational institutions in the U.S. and abroad, Dr. Ejeta has personally trained and inspired a new generation of African agricultural scientists that is carrying forth his work. "The need out there is great, so there is more to do," he said. "We need to extend the results of our work to more programs and more nations. We need to build stronger human and institutional capacity in African nations to help people feed themselves. We need to encourage the development of similar advances in maize, millets and other crops of Africa."

This story is adapted from information about Dr. Ejeta provided on the World Food Prize website, and from a story on the Purdue University website entitled Sorghum researcher wins World Food Prize. The pictures also come from the World Food Prize website, and show, from top to bottom, Dr. Gebisa Ejeta; Dr. Ejeta conducting sorghum research in the field; Dr. Ejeta with Striga-stricken sorghum in Niger; Dr. Ejeta as a graduate student at Purdue University in 1974; and Dr. Ejeta working with students at Purdue University


UPDATE: Prof. Ejeta receives highest Ethiopian honour

On Nov. 12, 2009, at a reception at the National Palace in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Ethiopian president Ato Girma Woldegiorgus bestowed his country’s highest award for achievement on Prof Gebisa Ejeta, an Ethiopian-born sorghum breeder and recent World Food Prize Laureate.

In response, Prof Ejeta announced that he will use his USD250,000 World Food Prize award to establish a foundation that will help meet the educational needs of Ethiopian and other African children and to establish an annual dialogue in honour of his friend and mentor, Dr Berhane Gebre-Kidan, formerly of Ethiopia’s Alemaya College of Agriculture.

At his Palace reception, Ejeta was visibly moved by his country’s honour. ‘To receive from my country the highest recognition any Ethiopian can receive is overwhelming,’ said Ejeta. ‘All other recognitions I have received I have taken on behalf of the causes I have served. But I am happy to take this particular recognition personally.’

For the rest of the story, click here.


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