Above: The 2009 World Food Prize has been given to Dr. Gebisa
Ejeta of Ethiopia, a professor and plant geneticist at Purdue Univ.
(WASHINGTON, D.C., USA) – 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.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was the featured speaker as Dr. Ejeta was announced as the 2009 Laureate at a ceremony at the U.S. State Department on June 11 that also featured Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, World Food Prize President Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, and World Food Prize Chairman John Ruan III, among others.
Dr. Ejeta’s personal journey would lead him from a childhood in a one-room thatched hut in rural Ethiopia to the height of 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 living in sub-Saharan Africa, began in Ethiopia in the 1970s. Working in Sudan in the early 1980s, he developed Hageen Dura-1, the first ever commercial hybrid sorghum in Africa. This hybrid variety was tolerant to drought and out-yielded traditional varieties by up to 150 percent.
Dr. Ejeta next turned his attention to battling the scourge of Striga, a deadly parasitic weed which devastates farmers’ crops and severely limits food availability. Working 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.
“By ridding Africa of the greatest biological impediment to food production, Dr. Ejeta has put himself in the company of some of the greatest researchers and scientists recognized by this award over the past 23 years,” said Vilsack. “The Obama Administration is inspired by the tireless efforts of Dr. Ejeta has demonstrated in the battle to eliminate food insecurity and is committed to employing a comprehensive approach to tackle the scourge of world hunger.”
Dr. Ejeta’s scientific breakthroughs in breeding drought-tolerant and Striga-resistant sorghum have been combined with his persistent efforts to foster economic development and the empowerment of subsistence farmers through the creation of 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.
“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,” added Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, founder of the World Food Prize. “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.” Further information about the Laureate Award Ceremony and Symposium can be found at www.worldfoodprize.org.
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.
Ejeta’s high academic standing earned him financial assistance and entrance to the secondary-level Jimma Agricultural and Technical School, which had been established by Oklahoma State University under the U.S. government’s Point Four Program. After graduating with distinction, Ejeta entered Alemaya College (also established by OSU and supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development) in eastern Ethiopia. He received his bachelor’s degree in plant science in 1973.
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. Dr. Axtell was so impressed with Ejeta that he invited him to become his graduate student at Purdue University. This invitation came at a time when Ethiopia was about to enter a long period of political instability which would keep Ejeta from returning to his home country for nearly 25 years.
Ejeta entered Purdue in 1974, earning his Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics. He later became a faculty member at Purdue, where today he holds a distinguished professorship. Read more at worldfoodprize.org