Ethiopian president bestows his nation’s highest award on Ethiopian sorghum breeder and 2009 world food prize winner, Gebisa Ejeta

Scientist whose work has enhanced the food supply of hundreds of millions of people
in sub-Saharan Africa is honoured in Ethiopia

Prof. Gebisa accepting a medal from the President of Ethiopia

At a reception at the National Palace in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, following a ‘Dialogue on Agricultural Development in Ethiopia’ on 12 November 2009, Ethiopia’s president, H.E. 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.’

Ejeta, a self-described ‘typical Ethiopian’, said he had spent his life working to serve three principles: humility, integrity and loyalty. ‘I have always tried to remain in check with myself, my own sense of purpose,’ he said. ‘You have to have some cause bigger than yourself. Mine has been to work in service of humanity and the poor.’

Ejeta said, ‘With the money I received from the World Food Prize, I am putting together a foundation. We will use this award money to help meet the educational needs of Ethiopia and other African children.’

He then went on to make a second announcement.

‘Dr Berhane Gebre-Kidan has served as a friend and mentor since I met him at my alma mater, the Alemaya College of Agriculture. I want to establish an annual dialogue, the “Berhane Gebre-Kidan Dialogue”. I cannot think of a better venue to make this announcement, honouring my mentor.’

The 2009 World Food Prize was presented to the Ethiopian-born plant scientist, now an American citizen conducting research at Purdue University, in ceremonies in Des Moines, Iowa, on 15 October 2009. The prize, which comes with a USD250,000 award, is given annually to people who have helped address the world’s food needs. This year’s prize honours Ejeta’s life-long work to improve the production of sorghum, one of the world’s most important grain crops. It also honours his efforts to make his discoveries matter to the farmers who need them the most.

Ejeta’s desire to help others is rooted in his own childhood poverty. He grew up in a one-room thatched hut in rural Ethiopia. His mother’s commitment to his education helped make him a standout. Poor as she was, she found a place for Ejeta to study, and a place to stay, in a town 20 kilometres away. Ejeta walked there. He studied there. He worked hard there. He excelled there.

Lowell Hardin, an emeritus professor at Purdue University who has known Ejeta for 25 years, says, ‘Because he grew up in very, very modest circumstances — a single mother in a remote village in Ethiopia — he knew poverty. He knew hunger. And when he was fortunate enough to get an education thanks to his mother’s pushing, he decided he was going to apply his talents in this direction.’

Ejeta has spent his entire professional life in research to reduce threats to Africa’s food crops. He applied his talents to fighting a weed called Striga, or witchweed, which threatens crops that feed more than 100 million people across sub-Saharan Africa. Ejeta says the parasitic weed can ruin fields of sorghum, a major staple in hot, dry regions of Africa.

‘If you grow a crop susceptible to infection by the parasite,’ he says, ‘and if your soil is contaminated, you have no chance of growing a crop. And most of these soils are becoming contaminated.’

Researchers had tried for years to control the weed without much success. Its seeds can lie dormant in the soil for decades. But Ejeta and his team at Purdue University discovered the chemical signals produced by the sorghum plant that ‘wakes up’ the Striga seeds. They then found sorghum varieties that didn’t produce the signals, and bred a line of Striga-resistant plants that thrived in a broad range of African growing conditions. These new varieties produced up to four times more grain than local types, even in drought-plagued areas.

With this research breakthrough, Ejeta immediately set about ensuring that his disease- and drought-resistant varieties were made available to the African farmers who needed them most. Once the new variety was developed in 1994, he worked with non-profit groups to distribute eight tons of seed to twelve African nations.

Carrying research to the next level is typical of Gebisa Ejeta, who has always understood the importance of getting technology into the hands of African farmers. Just out of graduate school, he bred a high-yielding, drought-tolerant variety of sorghum. When the new hybrid variety was introduced in 1983, Ejeta worked with Sudanese farmers’ cooperatives to scale up production of his drought-resistant sorghum.

Today, Ejeta is working with local partners to connect brewers, bakers, and flour millers with farmers growing the improved sorghum. By working along the entire chain, from farmers’ seeds to consumers’ plates, his work is helping to lift people out of poverty—and providing a powerful weapon in the war on hunger.


The 12 November 2009 ‘Dialogue on Agricultural Development in Ethiopia’ was organized by the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in Ejeta’s honour. Supported by the International Livestock Research Institute and other organizations, the Dialogue was opened by H.E. Ato Girma Woldegiorgis, President of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia.

President Woldegiorgis called Ejeta ‘an Ethiopian champion whose prize is a commitment to others. Through much of our history, we have made scientific discoveries. With this recognition of Dr Gebisa, we reclaim that history.’

In his welcome address, H.E. Ato Teferra Derebew, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, noted how much the Ethiopian Government has emphasized agriculture in its development program and said, ‘Gebisa represents a new generation of agricultural researchers. The farming and pastoral societies of Ethiopia are grateful.’

Ejeta on Ethiopia’s challenges and opportunities

In his presentation, Prof Ejeta spoke about Ethiopia’s role in enhancing science-based development in Africa. Whereas most African governments have invested too little to create impact, he said, Ethiopia is an exception.

‘No other African country has committed more internal resources to agricultural development,’ Ejeta said. ‘I have grown positive about Africa lately. Ethiopia is at the cusp of a major agricultural revolution. Ethiopians are among the most resourceful people I know. They can focus and get it done.’

He extolled two great examples of technology transfer in Ethiopia: the Chilalo Agricultural Development Unit in 1970s and the work of Sasakawa Global 2000 in 1990s. ‘Neither,’ he said, ‘was sustained.’ Why not?

‘I am defined,’ Ejeta said, ‘by the modest background that I come from and the great education that I have received in both Ethiopia and the United States.’ In his experience, he said, both Alemaya College of Agriculture and Purdue University shared a ‘land grant university model’ that takes the results of research and delivers it to communities.

‘More buildings and more students don’t make a college,’ he warned. ‘The quality of education in Africa needs to be improved. We need to go back to the model we used 40–50 years ago. We need to get our colleges linked to outstanding universities overseas. The most significant mark that we can make is capacity strengthening.’

Among his worries, Ejeta said, were an uncoordinated national agricultural research framework and what he called the ‘seasonality and fragmentation of development efforts.’

‘For too long we have relied on external funding,’ he said. He warned of the tendency of non-governmental organizations to lobby for boosting social service spending and the susceptibility of donors to embracing paradigm shifts, from sustainable agriculture in the 1990s, for example, to today’s integrated value chain approach. Such frequently changing paradigms, he said, ‘have led to a series of failed starts and are partly responsible for our lack of traction on the ground in agricultural research for development.’

‘African science-led agricultural development needs to be country led,’ he said. ‘Our country programs must be front and centre, with international agricultural research institutes and non-governmental organizations working to support them.’

Ejeta advised the Ethiopian agricultural research-for-development community to ‘Loosen up, be open and take risks’ and to focus on three things: accelerating technological development, investing in institutions and pushing for policy and ownership.

Panel on climate change and African agriculture
Three other presentations on the achievements and future of Ethiopian agriculture and agricultural research were followed by a panel discussion. Several of the panel members spoke on the new challenges Ethiopian and African food producers face with climate change. Dr Mata Chipeta, working for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in its Ethiopia sub-regional office, said, ‘Climate change is likely to worsen our food security problems. Climate change could become just the latest excuse for Africa not to be food sufficient. Last year’s fuel price hikes and then fertilizer, food and financial crises are all interlinked. Africa must become master in its own house. It must stop feeling entitled to free assistance. It must invest its own resources. Only then will we get a future that we drive.’

Dr Carlos Seré, director general of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), whose principal campuses are located in Ethiopia and Kenya, spoke of the need to enhance the capacity of societies to learn quickly and respond to climate and other changes. ‘I don’t think there is a trade-off between climate change and food security,’ Seré said. ‘Our agricultural and climate challenges have much in common. Agriculture has to be central to climate change discussions.’

The ILRI director general remarked on Ethiopia’s rare agricultural, biological, human and institutional diversity: ‘There will be a lot of variability in how the climate changes. Ethiopia has greatly diverse farming regions. It has great biodiversity. How can we use cutting edge science to understand that diversity and use it better? Lessons learned in one place may be valuable in another. We need to empower people at the local level to provide solutions. Science can quicken this work. The centres of the CGIAR have been working side by side with the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research and other institutions in this country. We stand ready to deepen our cooperation with the diversity of institutions in Ethiopia.’

Regular dialogue begins

Fittingly, the person whose remarks closed the Dialogue was Prof Ejeta’s mentor, Dr Berhane Gebre-Kidan, who had attended the October World Food Prize ceremony in Iowa, where he watched his protégé be honoured.

Recalling that Ejeta had attended Jimma Agricultural Technical University, Alemaya Agricultural University and then Purdue University, Gebre-Kidan said that each of these institutions shared the land grant philosophy, which combines education, research, and extension, all involved in the development of its local communities.

‘I wait for the day,’ Gebre-Kidan said, ‘when this triangle is recognized in each of our colleges of agriculture. We are recognized as a country unable to feed itself. We have to change that image. We have a world-class scientist in the person of Prof Gebisa Ejeta, which we can exploit. We need to establish a think tank that will think outside the box about Ethiopian agriculture. We need to institute a regular dialogue to move Ethiopian agriculture forward.’

It appears from Gebisa Ejeta’s announcement at Ethiopia’s National Palace that that ‘regular dialogue’ is about to begin.

Support for the Dialogue honouring Prof Ejeta was provided by the Ethiopian Government as well as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the Canadian International Development Agency, the International Development Research Centre (Canada), the International Livestock Research Institute, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, OXFAM America, OXFAM Great Britain and the United States Agency for International Development.

For more information about the 12 November 2009 Dialogue in Addis Ababa, go to:

For more information about Prof Gebisa Ejeta, go to: World Food Prize Laureate.

New dual-purpose sorghum: Food for people and livestock

New varieties of food-feed sorghum are meeting the basic needs of India?s 208 million crop-livestock farmers, as well as feeding its growing human population.

India, Andhra PradeshThroughout the tropics, farm animals are kept underweight and underproductive due to lack of feed. This constraint is stopping some 600 million poor farmers from meeting a fast-rising global demand for milk and meat. But a new partnership, developing dual-purpose food-feed sorghum varieties is helping to meet the basic needs of India’s farmers and leading to similar work in other crops and other countries.

The single most important ruminant  feed resource on many of the small crop-livestock farms of Asia and Africa is not grass but rather the stalks, leaves and other remains of crop plants after harvesting. In India, for example, 44% of the feed annually sustaining all the country’s cattle, buffalo, goats, sheep and camel populations is made up of such crop ‘wastes’. The rest comes from planted forages and a shrinking area of pastures and other common lands. Expensive concentrates—the mainstay of livestock production in rich countries—are used only very occasionally.

While crop residues (straw and stover) have become a main feed for farm animals of the South, crop breeders until recently continued to focus solely on increasing grain yields. But a research partnership between India’s National Research centre for Sorghum (NRCS), the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and ILRI is redressing this oversight in India’s all-important sorghum crop, grown on nearly 10,000,000 hectares on the country. The research partners incorporated fodder quality traits in India’s crop breeding trials and in doing so, led breeders to identify sorghum varieties with high yields of both grain and stover as well as improved stover quality.

 Partners in the sorghum food-feed collaboration

India’s National Research Centre for Sorghum (NRCS) leads the All-India Coordinated Sorghum Improvement Program mandated to test and release new cultivars. It also assesses the socio-economic importance of sorghum-based livelihoods.

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) provided conventional and molecular sorghum breeding, global crop economics and assessments of the impacts of crop interventions for the poor.

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) conducted the livestock nutrition work and provided expertise in global livestock economics and assessments of the impacts of livestock interventions for the poor.

Summary of results from the sorghum trials
The research partnership began in 1999 by assessing the potential impacts on India’s smallholder livestock productivity of planting sorghum and millet varieties with genetically enhanced stover fodder quality and quantity. Remarkably, results indicated that a 1% increase in just one livestock productivity-related parameter—stover digestibility—would result in increases in milk, meat and draught power outputs ranging from 6-8%. The net present value of the research was estimated to range from US$42-208 million, with predicted high rates of return to the research investment of 28-43% and corresponding high benefit:cost ratios of 15 to 69:1.

ILRI then proceeded to establish facilities for animal nutrition studies using large and small ruminants at ICRISAT’s Patancheru headquarters, close to the NRCS. These facilities enabled the research partners to make a stepwise evaluation of the relationships between fodder from different sorghum lines and livestock productivity—and to find a simple way of assessing these. Animal experimentation, while itself impractical as a routine screening tool, quickly laid a sound basis for developing and validating simple laboratory assessment methods and for quantifying potential impacts on livestock productivity.

In 2001 work began with combined feeding and laboratory trials of stover obtained from a wide range of sorghum varieties and hybrids. The trials simulated diverse on-farm circumstances, including those where stover is scarce, abundant and supplemented with other forages, because fodder qualities depend on a farm’s total feed resources. Across India’s great drylands, for example, where insufficient feed prevents animals from eating until they have satisfied their appetites, a fodder trait for ‘voluntary feed intake potential’ is likely to be irrelevant while another for ‘feed digestibility’ is critically important.

Sorghum varieties were investigated for their morphological characteristics and structure (leaf blade:leaf sheath:stem proportions, plant height, stem diameter, residual green leaf area), chemical constituents (protein, fiber, sugar) in the stover and in vitro fermentation characteristics (true and apparent digestibility, rate of fermentation, partitioning of fermentation products). Results showed that fodder quality traits measured in the laboratory could be used to predict and account for at least 80% of the variation in relevant livestock productivity traits, such as digestible organic matter intake and nitrogen balance.

Traits were chosen also for the ease with which they could be measured (e.g. plant height, stem diameter) and/or be accurately predicted by near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). Importantly, use of NIRS technology allowed all the partners in the project, including those with no livestock feeding facilities, easy access to developed and validated NIRS prediction equations and consequently phenotyping for stover fodder quality capability. NRCS staff seconded to ILRI’s livestock nutritional facilities on ICRISAT’s Patancheru campus used the facilities and NIRS equations to comprehensively assess all newly submitted sorghum cultivars.

Breaking new ground in food-feed crops
Identification of superior dual-purpose food-plus-feed sorghum varieties is now helping India close its livestock feed gap as well as feed its growing human population. By increasing the country’s livestock productivity, this research is improving the livelihoods of some 100 million mixed crop-livestock farmers —and doing so in ways those small farmers should be able to sustain over the longer term. This partnership also led the way for similar work on millet, groundnut, rice, maize and cowpea and new collaborations are about to begin on wheat and various leguminous crops.

By generating superior dual-purpose sorghum varieties suited to India’s millions of smallholder farmers, this collaborative research has been path-breaking in demonstrating that traits for stover fodder quality and quantity can be incorporated into existing breeding programs to improve grain yields—and with minimum investments in equipment, staff and labour and minimum transaction costs for the collaborating institutions.

It further offers a practical two-step approach to development of food-feed crops. First, exploit dual-purpose traits in existing cultivars by complementing traditional crop improvement programs with information about the quantity and quality of expected yields of crop residues for livestock feed. Second, target dual-purpose crops for genetic enhancement. The first approach, comparatively cheap and logistically feasible, promises quick benefits for resource-poor farmers. The second, more strategic, approach requires more investments and benefits farmers later and over the longer term. In a world of scarce and rapidly diminishing land, water, fodder and other natural resources, both approaches merit the world’s attention.

ILRI Top story 22 August 2007 
Sweet sorghum: utilizing every 'drop'


For further information about this project contact:
Michael Blummel
Patancheru 502 234AP India

For further information about ILRI’s activities in Asia contact:


Iain Wright
ILRI’s regional representative in Asia


Sweet sorghum: Utilizing every ‘drop’

Poor livestock keepers in the drylands point to feed shortages as one of their biggest animal production constraints. Research in India is demonstrating that sweet sorghum's traditional use as a dual-purpose food and feed crop and its modern day use as a bio-fuel need not be mutually exclusive

Sweet sorghum: utilizing every 'drop'

Sweet sorghum (Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench) is well adapted to the semi-arid regions of the tropics. One of its main advantages is that it is very water-use efficient  It has long been used by farmers as a multi-purpose crop from which they extract grain for human consumption and stover for livestock feed. Today, sweet sorghum is becoming increasingly used in industrial bio-fuel production in India. It is one of the most efficient dryland crops to convert atmospheric CO2 into sugar and is therefore a viable alternative for the production of ethanol.



Sweet sorghum’s role in India’s bio-fuel plans
‘All countries, including India, are grappling with the problem of meeting the ever-increasing demand for fuel within the constraints of international commitments, legal requirements, environmental concerns and limited resources. In this connection fuels of biological origin have drawn a great deal of attention during the last two decades.
‘India wishes to consider the use of bio-diesel and ethanol for blending with petro-diesel and petrol. Oil provides energy for 95% of transportation and the demand for transport fuel continues to rise. The extract from the third assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that global oil demand will rise by 1.68% from 75 million barrels per day (mb/d) in the year 2002 to 120 mb/d in 2030. Energy input in agriculture is also increasing. Part of this energy should come from bio-based fuel, which is short term renewable.
 ‘Ethanol is used as a fuel or as an oxygenate to gasoline. In India, raw material used for producing ethanol varies from sugar, cereals (sweet sorghum), sugar beet, and molasses. Brazil uses ethanol as 100% fuel in about 20% of vehicles. Use of a 5% ethanol gasoline blend is already approved by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) and is in a progressive state of implementation in India.’

Excerpted from: ‘Development of Value Chain for Bio-fuel in India’, National Agricultural Innovation Project (NAIP). NAIP website:


Win-win situation
Increasing industrial usage of sweet sorghum for ethanol production does, on one hand, provide important income for dryland farmers, but it can also divert biomass away from livestock, thus adding to the feed scarcity problem being faced by livestock keepers. However, scientists are demonstrating that full use of all parts of the sweet sorghum plant can meet both industrial and livestock feed needs.
Collaborative work between the International Crop Research Center for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), the Rusni Distillery in Sanga Reddy Medak District, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s National Research Center for Sorghum (NRCS), in Hyderabad, and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) is demonstrating the feasibility of manufacturing marketable sweet sorghum feed blocks using the stripped leaves and the crushed stalks (bagasse) remaining after juice extraction for ethanol. A bagasse-based feed block has been manufactured in collaboration with Miracle Fodder and Feeds in Hyderabad and is currently being tested with large and small ruminants with very promising results.Sweet sorghum: utilizing every 'drop'
Full utilization of crops and their by-products in the balanced production of food, feed and industrial products is likely to become increasingly important in developing countries. Total utilization of all parts of the sweet sorghum plant for use in the manufacturing and food industries would help compensate for fodder loss and provide an additional source of income for farmers.

Value-added products from by-products

Surveys of fodder markets in Hyderabad showed that stover from ordinary grain sorghum is widely traded as livestock fodder. This stover is sourced from several Indian States, transported over distances of more than 350 km and fetches retail prices that are about half the value of the sorghum grain. Higher quality stover fetches premium prices ranging from 3.1 to 3.9 Indian rupees per kilogram of dry stover.
  The fodder quality of feed blocks made from sweet sorghum leaf strippings and bagasse is similar to premium stover made from grain sorghum. Scientists estimate that this feed could fetch prices of 6 rupees per kg and more. The manufacturing of feed blocks could therefore offer attractive additional income along a sweet sorghum utilization chain. The feed blocks could be made more nutritious by adding sorghum grain distillery by-products—where the grain is used for biofuel production—and/or by targeted fortification with other supplements. The end product would be an attractive sweet sorghum by-product based feed block of good quality and with a high density, making