Dr. Kassahun Tesfaye

Born and raised in the central highlands of Ethiopia, often called “the wheat belt of Ethiopia,” my interest in crop production and breeding was spurred by a diverse range of crops that breathe life to the highlanders. 

But in the course of chasing my dream of becoming a leading crop biotechnologist in the region, I recognized enormous potential in “orphan” crops of Ethiopian origin. These include nutritional security and other traditional value for rural households. However, these crops remained hugely underutilized.

Thanks to Ethiopian crop scientists, these crops currently get more popularity in the highlands due to their food enriching ability to the locals. Together with other scientists, I have successfully carried out research on improvement of finger millet, emmer wheat, enset and “Oromo dinch”. Others include Arabica coffee and “dekoko”; crops that have endowed the Ethiopian people with happiness and glory owing to their improved characteristics.

At the core of crop development research in the country is crop biotechnology research. So alive is this science in the Horn of African country that the government has identified biotechnology as one of the areas to enhancing the country’s economic development, and wellbeing of its citizens.

With this recognition, two Bt cotton hybrids – JKCH1050 and JKCH1947 – were approved in 2018 for commercialization.  Moreover, a permission to carry out confined field trial (CFT) for WEMA maize (with stacked traits for drought tolerance and insect resistance) was granted at the end of 2018, a project carried out by Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) in partnership with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) for five consecutive years.

Arguably, Ethiopia has one of the best thriving agricultural biotechnology environments in Africa. In place is a National Biotechnology Roadmap that sets the direction the country has to follow in modern biotechnology research and development. The Roadmap has been the driving force behind the latest crop biotech development in the country.

Also at the success of agricultural biotechnology development in the country is an EBTi initiative to establish a competitive research grant scheme of five million birr (approximately US$ 180,000) per project. A call for proposals is announced annually for eligible institutions and researchers to apply. 

The Institute has also set up an Annual Research Review forum in which all the biotech research and development institutions present their completed, ongoing and new research for discussion. The Institute takes leadership in establishing research groups and consortia with the aim of planing and conducting joint research.  

A strong government goodwill is the fulcrum of science development in any country. Ethiopia presents a classic case of this premise. As the country transitions from a largely agrarian economy to a strong knowledge-based industrialized bioeconomy, the government has identified safe applications of modern science and technology, more specifically biotechnology, as key to achieving this.  

The government is banking on biotechnology to improve the efficiency of various sectors to make the country food self-sufficient and become middle income country by 2025.    

The thriving biotechnology environment in Ethiopia can also be attributed to the existence of a functional biotech and biosafety communication framework. In October last year, EBTi launched its communication strategy whose overarching goal is to improve knowledge and awareness on the technology among different stakeholders and members of the public.

Sadly, from an overall perspective, Africa has not done enough to establish effective mechanisms that facilitate access of accurate information about the benefits, risks, and impacts of crop biotech. For effective mechanisms, each country needs to have appropriate biotechnology policy associated proclamation, directives, guidelines and institutional setup. 

Moreover, appropriate communication and awareness raising strategies involving all key stakeholders should be developed to communicate and establish networks among each other. Synergizing efforts is also crucial in promoting the use of biotechnology and making it count in growing our country’s economies. 

Dr. Tesfaye is the Director General, Ethiopian Biotechnology Institute (EBTi)
Email: kassahuntesfaye@yahoo.com or kassahun.tesfaye@aau.edu.et