Dr. Gebisa Ejeta
Gebisa Ejeta of Purdue University and ICRISAT was awarded the 2009 World Food Prize for increasing the supply of one of the world’s principal grains by developing the first high-yielding hybrid sorghum plants, resistant both to drought and attack from Striga—a parasitic weed plaguing 40 percent of Africa’s arable land. His achievement enhanced food security for hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa.
Born in 1950, Gebisa Ejeta grew up in a one-room, thatched hut with a mud floor in the rural village of Wollonkomi in west-central Ethiopia. His mother’s deep belief in education and her commitment 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. She made arrangements for him to go to school in a neighboring town. He walked 20 kilometers every Sunday night to attend school during the week and walked back home on Friday. The young Ejeta 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 in Ethiopia, which had been established by Oklahoma State University (OSU) 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 the eastern part of the country.
He received his bachelor’s degree in plant science in 1973, at which time his college mentor introduced Ejeta to a renowned sorghum researcher, John Axtell of Purdue University. Axtell invited him to assist in collecting sorghum species from around the country, and was so impressed with Ejeta that he invited him to become his graduate student. 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 turned down an opportunity to play on the Ethiopian Olympic basketball team and instead entered Purdue in 1974, earning his Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics.
He later became a Distinguished Professor of Plant Breeding & Genetics and International Agriculture at Purdue. Upon completing his graduate degree, Ejeta accepted a position as a sorghum researcher at the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) branch in Sudan.
At ICRISAT, Ejeta developed the first hybrid sorghum varieties for Africa, which were drought-tolerant and high yielding. With the local importance of sorghum in the human diet (made into breads, porridges, and beverages), and the vast potential of dry-land agriculture in Sudan, Ejeta’s drought-tolerant hybrids brought dramatic gains in crop productivity and also catalyzed the initiation of a commercial sorghum seed industry in Sudan.
Ejeta’s Hageen Dura-1 hybrid sorghum was released in 1983 following field trials in which it out-yielded traditional sorghum varieties by 50 to 100 percent. This hybrid’s superior grain qualities contributed to its rapid spread and wide acceptance by farmers, who found that yields far surpassed the percentage gain in the trials. 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 this grain.
Ejeta’s dedication to helping poor farmers feed themselves and their families and rise out of poverty propelled his work in leveraging the gains of his hybrid-breeding breakthrough. He urged the monitoring of production, processing, certification, and marketing of hybrid seed, as well as farmer-education programs in the use of fertilizers, soil and water conservation, and other supportive crop management practices.
Ejeta’s next breakthrough came in the 1990s and was the culmination of his research to conquer the parasitic Striga weed, which had been one of the greatest biological impediments to food production in Africa. Previous attempts by African sorghum farmers to control this deadly weed, including crop management techniques and application of herbicides, had failed until Ejeta and his Purdue colleague Larry Butler formulated a novel research paradigm for genetic control of this scourge. With financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation and USAID, they developed an approach that integrated genetics, agronomy, and biochemistry and focused on unraveling the intricate relationships between the parasitic Striga and the host sorghum plant. Eventually, they identified genes for Striga resistance and transferred them 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 dissemination of the new sorghum varieties in Striga-endemic African countries was initially facilitated in 1994 by Ejeta, working closely with World Vision International and Sasakawa Global 2000. 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 were as much as four times the yield of local varieties, even in areas of severe drought.
In 2002 and 2003, 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 he and his colleagues had developed at Purdue. 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.
For both of these major breakthroughs, which dramatically improved the production and availability of sorghum, one of the world’s five principal grains, Ejeta was awarded the 2009 World Food Prize. Less than a month after receiving the Prize, Ejeta received his home country’s highest honor. Ethiopia’s President, H.E. Ato Girma Woldegiorgis, awarded Ejeta the National Hero Award; it was the first time the nation’s highest honor had been given to an Ethiopian for work in science and technology.
In response to the Ethiopian National Hero Award, Ejeta established an educational foundation aimed at assisting Ethiopian and other African children, funded with his $250,000 World Food Prize.
Ejeta has served on various science and program review panels, technical committees, and advisory boards of major research and development organizations. These include the international agricultural research centers (IARCs), the Rockefeller Foundation, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and numerous national and regional organizations in Africa. He was a member of the team that launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and has served as a member of the Science Council and Consortium Board of CGIAR. In 2011, he was appointed a board member of the Sasakawa Africa Program, and served as special advisor to USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah.
Ejeta was elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Fellow of the Crop Science Society of America, and a Fellow of the American Society of Agronomy.
By partnering with leaders and farmers across sub-Saharan Africa and educational institutions in the U.S. and abroad, Ejeta personally trained and inspired a new generation of African agricultural scientists that is carrying forward his work.
His scientific breakthroughs in breeding drought-tolerant and Striga-resistant sorghum fostered economic development and the empowerment of subsistence farmers through the creation of agricultural enterprises in rural Africa. He led his colleagues in working with national and local authorities and nongovernmental agencies so that smallholder farmers and rural entrepreneurs could 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 a 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,” said Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, founder of The World Food Prize. “His life is as an inspiration for young scientists around the world.”