Dr Abebe Menkir is a maize breeder at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Photo Credit: CGIAR

Dr Abebe Menkir, the maize breeder sowing hope for food security

By Murimi Gitari

Growing up in the countryside in Ethiopia with his sister, and witnessing the joy of farmers producing diverse crops to feed their families and earn an income piqued his interest in pursuing higher education in plant science at Alemaya College of Agriculture of Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. Many years later, he is one of most respected scientists in the African continent for his contribution to agricultural research and maize breeding.

This is the story of Dr Abebe Menkir. While studying for his undergraduate degree, he was privileged to work with senior researchers who allowed him to understand the potential value of seeds of improved varieties on the livelihoods of farmers. After obtaining his BSc degree in Plant Science, he joined the Ethiopian Sorghum Improvement Program (ESIP) as a research assistant.

He would then work closely with the leader of the programme, Dr Brhane Gebrekidan, who exposed him to the diversity of sorghum breeding methods, and fired up his passion for plant breeding. The knowledge and experience acquired under the leadership and supervision of Dr Gebrekidan encouraged him to pursue an MSc and a PhD in Plant Breeding at the University of Manitoba and Kansas State University, respectively.

He began his career in crop breeding in Ethiopia, focusing primarily on sorghum with limited breeding efforts on finger millet. The wide adaptability of sorghum to various growing conditions, the array of races and eco-types within the crop, and the utilisation of breeding methods suitable for both self-pollinated and cross-pollinated crops provided him with the necessary experience and skills to venture into breeding other crops.

While he continued to work on sorghum during his PhD and postdoctoral programmes, he made the decision to move to Africa and work in a different country due to the potential for new opportunities not only for professional advancement but also for making significant contributions towards addressing production challenges encountered by smallholder farmers across the continent. Several years later, he has delivered diverse training courses to young maize breeders and technicians working in national agricultural research system (NARS) and private seed companies in Africa.

“I co-supervised and guided 24 PhD (7 females and 17 males) and 19 MSc students (8 females and 11 males) and made significant contributions to raising the next generation of competent breeder in the NARS and private seed companies capable of effective product development, testing and commercialization,” Dr Menkir says. While nurturing new research scientists through postgraduate training, several of his articles were published in reputable journals, thereby contributing new knowledge and insights in breeding and genetics.

The involvement of postgraduate students in innovative research projects that tackle pressing regional problems has prepared them to address production challenges encountered by smallholder farmers in their respective countries. A significant number of his past students are now teaching at universities and holding leadership positions in national agricultural research institutions and private seed companies in Benin, Ghana, Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and the USA.

Dr Menkir has been the team leader for maize improvement research at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) since 2001 and collaborates with several scientists working in different disciplines. As the team leader, he works with scientists in the national programmes and the private seed companies to promote delivery of improved seeds to farmers.

Dr Menkir has served as an elected member of the research committee of a regional maize network for eight years that reviewed project proposals and progress reports and recommended funding to the NARS through the network. He also served as elected coordinator of the IITA multidisciplinary project on maizegrain legume production systems from 1999 to 2001.

“The significant breakthroughs in our maize breeding programme include the development, release and commercialisation of maize varieties with polygenic resistance to Striga hermonthica, providing durable protection against different ecotypes of the parasite; the successful development of maize varieties combining natural resistance to herbicides with native resistance to Striga hermothica for controlling the parasitic weed using treated seeds with low doses of acetolactate synthase enzyme inhibiting herbicides; harnessing genes from temperate germplasm to boost pro-vitamin-A content in tropical maize by tenfold in biofortified maize varieties and hybrids; mining native allelic diversity from temperate and tropical maize and increasing resistance levels to aflatoxin contamination; development and commercialisation of climate resilient maize varieties that provide yield protection form tropical diseases, droughts and heat stress for sustainable maize production under changing environmental conditions; developed hybrids combining tolerance to drought with resistance to Striga hermonthica for increasing production in areas where these stresses co-occur; and registering inbred lines with resistance to Striga hermonthica, grey leaf spot, and aflatoxin accumulation in Crop Science for global use,” he says.

Being a long-time breeder at IITA, Dr Menkir has observed the structure of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) centres change over the years, including the latest transitioning to One-CGIAR. He has also witnessed the evolution of research and delivery approaches within IITA and other centres. He notes that experience at IITA shows that centre-commissioned reviews promote the establishment of functioning multidisciplinary teams dedicated to creating products that cater to the needs of farmers and consumer.

The introduction of multi-centre consortium research programmes has further encouraged the engagement of various disciplines in leveraging innovative tools and methods to develop and deliver products to clients within and beyond Africa.

He says that while the transition to One-CGIAR was intended to enhance collaboration among CGIAR centres and align research priorities for effective development and delivery of innovations to smallholder farmers and consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, the multiple initiatives launched during the initial phase led to the fragmentation of research areas, thereby compromising multidisciplinary research efforts.

“I am hopeful that this transition will draw upon the knowledge and experiences accumulated over decades within the centers to steer its course, emphasizing participation of diverse disciplines in generating robust innovations that address the significant challenges faced by farmers and consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, including food and nutritional security, poverty alleviation, and resilience to climate change,” Dr Menkir says. His involvement in the maize breeding program at IITA has enabled him to address major challenges affecting maize production across countries in West and Central Africa, share elite germplasm developed through their programme with both public and private sector partners across countries, train the next generation of breeders to enhance the capacities of African institutions, and collaborate with advanced research institutions to leverage cutting-edge tools for the development and delivery of improved products to IITA partners.

As Africa continent continues to struggle with the challenge to produce enough food for its rapidly growing population, Dr Menkir emphasises the need to improve productivity on existing farmland for enhancing food and nutritional security due to the changing climate and rapid population growth. This, he says, requires a significant shift from smallholder subsistence farming practices on fragmented small farms to the promotion of collective farming.

This shift will bring together neighbouring farms as farmers embrace mechanised farming practices, gain better access to high-yielding and climate-resilient crop varieties, quality seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, modern production technologies, and extension services to increase agricultural yields. An optimistic Dr Menkir says that such a strategy will be attractive to policymakers, leading to improved land management and increased investments in irrigation infrastructure, upgraded storage facilities, and transportation.

The resulting increase in production will help reduce the need for expanding cultivation into new lands and thus create opportunities for crop diversification to boost income and dietary diversity for farmers and consumers alike. Collective farming can also improve access to local, national, regional, and global markets, as well as value addition, thereby generating employment opportunities for young people and other stakeholders. An enthusiast of book reading and articles review on food science, nutrition, and human health, Dr Menkir also enjoys walking to appreciate the natural beauty, engaging in regular conversations with family and friends, and watching sports on TV.

“I am very fortunate to work in a profession that not only satisfies my scientific curiosity but also allows me to develop maize varieties that can have a positive impact on food and nutrition security and improving the livelihoods of farmers,” Dr Menkir says.

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