Livestock researchers in Nairobi honour Heifer President JoLuck, co-winner of the ‘Nobel for Food’

From ILRI with love

The World Food Prize, known as the ‘Nobel for Food’ (no Nobel Prize exists for agricultural science), was created in 1986 by Norman Borlaug, who himself won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work creating high-yielding crop varieties estimated to have saved more than 1 billion lives from famine. The World Food Prize honours those who improve the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world. A co-winner of this year’s World Food Prize, announced on 16 June by US Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton, is Jo Luck, president of the popular American charity Heifer International, which provides farm animals to needy families, who then ‘pass on’ the gift of subsequent offspring to others in need.

Speaking in a seminar held in her honour at the Nairobi campus of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), where she served as a member of ILRI’s Board of Trustees between 2002 and 2005, Jo Luck reflected on her life that was a preparation for the role she now plays. ‘All the time I was learning what has brought me to this road. My experiences as a teacher and as a parent taught me how to recognize both the strong and the weak and how to bring people together and empower them by listening and learning from them,’ she said.

‘I represent many people who are receiving this award through me and I hope to honour and represent them properly,’ she said.

Those lucky enough to meet Jo Luck are struck immediately, and almost physically, by the depth of her energy and passion. Her ability to quickly tell a moving story that inspires people to make a difference in the world has more in common with, say, Oprah Winfrey (who has interviewed Jo Luck on her show) or Bill Clinton (who Jo Luck used to work for) than with other heads of charitable or development organizations.

The results of much of Jo Luck’s life’s work can be seen in communities in the developing world. Since joining Heifer in 1992, she has vastly up-scaled Heifer’s programs, which provide food- and income-producing animals to poor families, and helped broaden Heifer’s agenda, which now includes improving livelihoods through education and community development as well as animal husbandry.

With skilful management and superb communications abilities, Jo Luck built innovative educational initiatives that link grassroots donors in rich countries to recipients in developing countries. This not only brought new (and renewable) resources to poor farmers in developing countries but also gave Americans much better understanding of global hunger and poverty issues. As a result of her efforts, both the scope and impact of Heifer International have grown throughout Africa, the Americas, Asia, the South Pacific and Central and Eastern Europe. At least 10 million families, including 1.5 million families in 2009 alone, have been helped both to put nutritious food on their own tables and to feed others.

Carlos Seré, ILRI’s Director General, said that recognition of Jo Luck’s work with Heifer International ‘shows not only that a committed individual can make a difference in addressing global poverty and food insecurity, but also how much livestock matter and to how many people—animals help some one billion people to sustain their livelihoods and helps many of those to escape poverty.’

‘Jo Luck has impacted world poverty through gifts of livestock’, Seré said. ‘Cows, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, camels and other farmed animals provide poor households with a means of livelihood, with sustenance and with the regular income needed to educate their children, enabling them to finally escape the poverty trap.’

But Jo Luck emphasized that gifts of animal stock, however welcome, are not enough. ‘Livestock production cannot be made sustainable without understanding the environment,’ she said. And this is where she believes researchers, policymakers, government officials and others need to come together. ‘We need to ensure not only that the animals poor people depend on are healthy and productive but also that this livestock productivity can be sustained over the long term without harming the environments of poor communities.’

Jo Luck has worked with ILRI and other groups to bring about closer collaboration between experts and local communities. Such collaboration, for example, is at the heart of a Heifer-run East African Dairy Development Project being conducted in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. ILRI works with Heifer on this project along with TechnoServe, ABS-TCM and World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). ILRI researchers are providing technical advice on such matters as improved breeding and feeding and are monitoring and evaluating the project as it goes along. This project, which is creating dairy ‘hubs’ in the three countries, is helping 180,000 households to participate in, and profit from, a booming dairy industry in East Africa. By joining forces, the partners in this project aim to help one million people, mostly poor rural farmers, double their incomes in the next few years.

The key to such collaboration, Jo Luck says, is simple. ‘We work directly with the people we mean to serve. We listen to them and learn from them. They make their own decisions about what works best for them. We then seek the resources that will let them fulfil their goals.’

Jo Luck will receive the 2010 World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa, on 14 October this year. Both she and her co-winner, David Beckmann, President of Bread for the World, another American grassroots organization working to end world poverty and hunger, will make presentations at the event, as will ILRI Director General Carlos Seré and other leading heads of international development work.

For more information about Jo Luck’s work with Heifer please read this related article.

In the following two short video interviews, Jo Luck discusses 'how livestock catalyze community development' and 'delivering livestock research that makes a difference'.

The World Food Prize website has further information about the Laureate Award Ceremony and Borlaug Symposium.

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.

Dialogue on Ethiopia’s Agricultural Development honours World Food Prize Laureate Gebisa Ejeta

Gebisa Ejeta On 12 November 2009, Prof Gebisa Ejeta, winner of the 2009 World Food Prize, contributed to a ‘Dialogue on Agricultural Development in Ethiopia’.

Organized in his honor by the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Dialogue was opened by H.E. Ato Girma Woldegiorgis, President of Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, with a welcome address from H.E. Ato Teferra Derebew, Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development.

The program included the following presentations.

  • ‘Enhancing Science-based Development in Africa: Where Does Ethiopia Stand? – Prof Gebisa Ejeta
  • ‘Achievements and Challenges in Ethiopian Agriculture’ – H.E. Dr. Abera Deresa, State Minister, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development
  • ‘The Role of Agricultural Institutions of Higher Learning in Producing the Next Generation Agricultural Leaders in Ethiopia – Dr Solomon Assefa, Director General, Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research
  • ‘The Role of Agricultural Universities in Creating the Next Generation of Agricultural Leaders in Ethiopia’ – Prof Belay Kassa, President, Haramaya University

These presentations were followed by a panel discussion with contributions from H. E. Tumusiime Rhoda Peace (African Union Commission), Dr. Mata Chipeta (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations); Dr. Carlos Seré (International Livestock Research Institute); and Dr. Yilma Kebede (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).

The Dialogue closed with remarks by Dr. Connie Freeman (International Development Research Centre), Dr. Bashir Jama (Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa), and Dr. Berhane Gebre Kidan.

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 Prof Gebisa Ejeta, this year’s World Food Prize Laureate, please go to: World Food Prize Laureate.

See presentations and photos from the dialogue.