A conversation with Gebisa Ejeta, 2009 World Food Prize laureate

Oct 29th, 2009 | By | Category: Featured Stories

Madeleine Bair recently caught up with 2009 World Food Prize winner Gebisa Ejeta in Des Moines, Iowa, where Ejeta talked about the bias of academic and commercial investment toward Western crops.

A grass that grows as tall as a farmer and is topped with a bushel of golden grains, sorghum is among the world’s most important cereals. The crop was domesticated in Ethiopia thousands of years ago and disbursed through African and Asian trade routes to become a staple of many diets throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

More recently, though, sorghum’s importance has wilted under global pressures and competition. Beginning with colonial authorities who brought their favored crops to Africa, and continuing with cheap foreign imports into African markets, and current agricultural research funded by Western nations, indigenous grains have lost their luster in the food production and dietary customs of Africa.


Gebisa Ejeta, a Purdue plant geneticist, has developed strains of the grain sorghum that have changed the lives of many farmers in Africa. The sorghum varieties are resistant to drought and a parasitic weed called striga. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)

But if sorghum is, as one book coined it, a “lost crop of Africa,” the work of scientist Gebisa Ejeta has helped resurrect the grain from obscurity and obsoletion. Ejeta grew up in rural Ethiopia, and when his studies led him to the agronomy department of Purdue University, the standout student concentrated his research on the staple of his homeland. For two decades the plant breeder not only developed high-yielding sorghum hybrids that could resist the natural challenges of the African landscapes, but, as Borlaug did his semi-dwarf wheat varieties, Ejeta took his seeds to the fields of East African farmers, and oversaw the planting of one million acres of his variety on Sudanese farms.

This month, at the annual World Food Prize conference in Des Moines, Iowa, the organization founded by Norman Borlaug granted Gebisa Ejeta with its prestigious $250,000 award

After receiving the prize, Ejeta spoke with the Africa Reporting Project’s Madeleine Bair about the bias of academic and commercial investment toward Western crops.

ARP: African indigenous crops like sorghum have generally been underfunded by research organizations and commercial interests, your research being a notable exception. Does this concern you?

Ejeta: I’m concerned that we don’t have a lot of investment in sorghum research. I’m concerned that there aren’t market opportunities for crops such as sorghum. But I’m not against the development of these other crops, because they are equally important. One cannot rely only on native crops, and we need to be available to use these other crops as well. But what we need to be working on is to develop the facilities for the important crops, for native crops like sorghum and others.

ARP: Who is working on that?

Ejeta: We are all working on that. But the problem is getting support has been very difficult. So we are hoping that with the new resurgence of interest, more and more opportunities will be there to address the problems of these indigenous crops.

ARP: Why is it difficult to get support for native crops?

Ejeta: I think it’s just a history in the past that has been the problem. Many of these donor agencies want to cover crops that are important in their homelands as well because there is a mutual benefit that comes out of discoveries that are made. But that’s why we need to push (the idea) that investments in indigenous crops are equally important because if we don’t do that then there will be sectors of our society would be left unattended for. The positive aspect I want to do is not take away from the developments in others, but try to bring these indigenous crops to that level as well.

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