Former Borlaug LEAP Fellow, Dr. Charity Mutegi has been named the 2013 recipient of the Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application. The award is endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation and recognizes exceptional, science-based achievement in international agriculture and food production by young scientists who have clearly demonstrated intellectual courage, stamina, and determination in the fight to eliminate global hunger and poverty.
Dr. Mutegi will be formally presented with the $10,000 award on World Food Day, October 16, 2013, in Des Moines, Iowa, as part of this year’s World Food Prize international symposium.
Dr. Mutegi is being honored for her efforts to identify the cause of, and solution to, a deadly outbreak of aflatoxicosis in 2004-05, fatal to 125 people in eastern Kenya who consumed contaminated grain. Her diligent research led to innovative solutions to avert future outbreaks and safeguard the region’s staple crop of maize. Dr. Mutegi is leading efforts for the development of a biocontrol product in Kenya that can be used to significantly reduce aflatoxin levels in maize.
This works by introducing naturally occurring non-toxic strains of the fungus, which have a competitive advantage over the strains that produce the deadly aflatoxin, a technology that was developed by the US Department of Agriculture – Agriculture Research Service (USDA-ARS), and locally adapted for use in several African countries by IITA and partners. The non-toxic strains outcompete the toxic strains, thus reducing aflatoxin contamination in the maize crop. The microbial bio pesticide she and her team are developing – “aflasafe KE01” – is affordable for farmers, is natural and environmentally safe, and once applied to a field, the effects last multiple growing seasons, making it extremely effective.
“Dr. Mutegi is an inspiration to other young scientists around the world. She tackled a critical problem, and has effectively transferred her own scientific knowledge to farmers and policymakers to help improve food safety for the entire region,” said Amb. Kenneth M. Quinn, President of The World Food Prize. “Like Dr. Borlaug, she has put the needs of people first, and has shown persistence, innovation, effective communication, contribution to science, and application of that science to improve lives and livelihoods.”
Dr. Charity Mutegi received her PhD in Food Science in the Food Security Program at University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa in 2010. During her Borlaug LEAP fellowship in 2008, she traveled to Pennsylvania State University to work with Dr. Henry Ngugi in the Department of Plant Pathology. She was also mentored by Dr. Richard Jones at ICRISAT. Mutegi's research focused on the extent of aflatoxin and Aspergillus section Flavi, penicillium, and Rhizopus speceies contamination of peanuts from households in western Kenya, and causative factors of contamination. She was also a recipient of the Gender and Diversity Fellowship (now known as the AWARD fellowship) in 2006. On completion, she was nominated under the same program to become the official mentor of two upcoming scientists.
Dr. Mutegi credits her success to her “supportive work environment, guidance from senior scientists, mentorship and my personal work ethics. I do share the United States Marine Corps’ perspective that ‘no one ever drowned in sweat,’” she said. “An extra effort towards a worthwhile course as to save the lives of numerous non-suspecting citizenry is indeed worth the effort.”
After completing her PhD, Mutegi returned to her native Kenya and continued working for Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). She was also co-Principal Investigator on a Peanut CRSP project which looked at the aflatoxin and gender-related constraints in peanut production, processing and marketing in eastern Africa. In June 2011, she took a leave of absence from KARI to work on a project spearheaded by IITA, and led by Dr.Ranajit Bandyopadhyay, a well renowned plant pathologist with accumulated experience on aflatoxin management in food crops. Currently, she serves as the Kenya Country Coordinator for the Aflatoxin Biocontrol Project funded by USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The innovative project utilizes biological tools to fight aflatoxin in maize and other strategic staples. It provides farmers with a natural, safe, and cost-effective solution to prevent contamination and is expected to benefit approximately 65,000 farmers in Kenya.
Dr. Mutegi said she has dedicated her life’s work to food security because she has seen the effects of contamination firsthand.
“The devastating effects of maize grain contaminated with aflatoxins on many Kenyan households cannot be understated. Several lives have been lost, tons of staple food destroyed, millions of shillings worth from the livestock sector have been lost; and by extension, several livelihoods have been destroyed through death and/or economic disempowerment,” she said.
“Having studied and understood the subject matter on aflatoxins, I was confident that the solutions were not far-fetched, but rather required a dedicated course. In addition, my desire to engage in identifying lasting solutions for the aflatoxin problem was propelled by the fact that I come from an area that suffers perennial risk to aflatoxin contamination and exposure. I therefore could not overlook an opportunity to be part of the solution.”
The Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, and administered by the World Food Prize. An independent jury of experts chaired by Dr. Ronnie Coffman selected Dr. Mutegi from an impressive group of more than 40 candidates who were evaluated based on the attributes and accomplishments that reflect those demonstrated by Dr. Norman Borlaug during his work at the Rockefeller Foundation in developing high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat in Mexico and introducing adaptable wheat varieties into India and Pakistan during the 1950’s and 60’s, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. The first recipient of this award, named in 2012, was Dr. Aditi Mukherji, a social scientist and water expert from India. More details at www.worldfoodprize.org/borlaugfieldaward.