The Second Borlaug LEAP Alumni Association Roundtable Discussion was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The March conference was hosted by Addis Ababa University, the oldest and largest institution of higher education in Ethiopia. The Deans of Agriculture from all major universities in Ethiopia attended along with representatives of USAID, the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture and, of course, our Borlaug LEAP Fellows from Ethiopia.
The one-day conference addressed issues of creating an environment for innovation and investments in the future. The conference further explored leadership, higher education, and institution building in Africa. The roundtable also gave the Deans and representatives of the colleges of agriculture from Ethiopian universities the opportunity to learn about Borlaug LEAP and lessons learned about how to support and encourage young researchers and faculty members in their respective institutions to apply and benefit from the opportunity.
The conference brought together more than 60 Borlaug LEAP alumni and their mentors, scientists, policymakers, donors, and other stakeholders.
In his opening statement, Dennis Weller, Mission Director for USAID/Ethiopia recognized the contribution of Borlaug LEAP in training young leaders in Ethiopia. In particular, he acknowledged the research of Fellows Dawd Gashu, Tamrat Degefa, Dawit Kebebe as well as Elfinesh Shikur, one of only two female Borlaug LEAP Fellows from Ethiopia. Mr. Weller concluded by calling on individuals, especially Borlaug LEAP Fellows, to help transform their institutions using the knowledge they gained during their education.
H.E. Professor Takalign Mamo, State Minister and advisor to the Minister of Agriculture, spoke about the mission of Addis Ababa University to train the next generation of change makers. He emphasized how Ethiopia is tracking improvements in agricultural productivity. Professor Afework Kassu, Ministry of Education, noted how Ethiopia has grown from 2 to 33 public universities with a student population growing from 40,000 to 500,000. He further noted that while the Government of Ethiopia is expanding access, improving quality and relevance, the collaboration and support from programs such as Borlaug LEAP have a role to play and provide a meaningful contribution to capacity development in Ethiopia.
The first keynote address was given by Julie Borlaug, Associate Director of External Relations at the Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University. Ms. Borlaug is uniquely positioned to speak about her grandfather's legacy. Her grandfather, Norman Borlaug, instilled in her the importance of education and collaboration. She challenged the Fellows to "Believe in yourselves. Be passionate. Be bold and challenge the status quo. Strive for excellence and shun mediocrity. Know your weaknesses, but do not allow failure to be an option. Keep trying and always be open to the new and the different."
In his keynote address, Dr. Montague Demment, Vice President of International Programs at the Association for Public Land-grant Universities, stressed the importance of higher education and the need to invest in people, with human capital being the key to development. His presentation was an excellent lead-in to the presentation by 2013 Borlaug LEAP Fellow Dr. Dawd Gashu, now a professor in Food Science and Nutrition at Addis Ababa University.
Dr. Dawd Gashu presented his research and spoke about the importance of dealing with “Hidden Hunger” or micronutrient deficient malnutrition. While not as obvious as some other forms of malnutrition, micronutrient deficiencies have been shown to have a significant impact on cognitive performance. Dr. Gashu’s hopes that his work will be used in collaboration with the work that the US government initiative, Feed the Future, is doing in Ethiopia to strengthen food security and improve nutrition.
Ms. Elfinesh Shikur, 2013 Borlaug LEAP Fellow and a PhD candidate at Ankara University in Turkey, also spoke at the event. While her research focuses on pathogen resistance in wheat, Ms. Shikur was head of the gender office at Dilla University and has a strong interest in empowering women in agriculture. She stated that even though women make up around 45% of the Ethiopian agricultural workforce, they tend to have limited access to both information and resources that could help improve both their production and their livelihoods. Ms. Shikur’s talk also helped prompt discussion on one of the central Feed the Future components, gender inequality reduction and integration.
Different models of partnership were explored by presenters including Dr. James Hill, Associate Dean for International Programs at University of California, Davis; Dr. Teshome Alemneh, Program Officer for Africa at Higher Education for Development; Assefa Zegeye, 2013 Borlaug Fellow and Director at the Adet Agricultural Research Center; Taye Alemayehu, 2013 Borlaug LEAP Fellow and Head of Water Resource Management at Oromiya Water Resource Bureau; Dr. Karen Duca, AAAS Fellow at USAID Washington;
The day ended with an in-depth discussion amongst participants. Support and access was a reoccurring theme. There was an eagerness to move forward and open up an atmosphere of change within the higher education realm, but it was tempered by the fact that support from both inside the institutions and from other entities was not always obvious or available. In conclusion, there was a consensus among the Deans that a coalition between them might be the best way for them to start having a stronger voice in higher education.
While all the speakers and the participants provided great insights and contributions, perhaps H.E. Professor Tekalign Mamo, State Minister and Advisor to the Minister of Agriculture, said it best: “We wish that Dr. Borlaug could be alive today to see the continuing 'Green Revolution' in Africa. The seeds that he planted are starting to bear fruit among the rural farmers.”