'It is difficult, but if you are convinced, you can do it!'
Ethiopian researcher leads project on crop productivity
Alemtsehay Tsegay is researcher at Mekelle University in Ethiopia. She has been the rising star of the Institutional University Cooperation programme. Starting as a young team member, she became local project leader of the ‘More crop per drop’ project.
We were given the opportunity to interview her a few days after she defended her PhD at KU Leuven. We wanted to know why her research makes a difference, how she became a researcher and what her expectations are for the future of Ethiopia?
“I grew up in a very remote village. My grandparents are farmers. I used to stay with them during holidays, where I worked with my grandmother. So from the beginning I had an interest in agriculture. But it was by chance that the Ethiopian Ministry of Higher Education assigned me to the agricultural university.
I am the oldest of a family of eight children. All my brothers and sisters joined the university. In most cases, if the oldest has a good study attitude the youngsters follow. My parents did not go at all to school. They are illiterate.
What is your research about?
I study the effect of water and soil fertility stress on crop production, particularly in my region Tigray. The research combines both field experiments and modeling. With the field experiments we illustrate the increase in yield that can be created by applying supplementary irrigation and fertilizers. The modeling gives us scenarios on how to minimize the yield gap due to water and soil fertility stresses.
The research involves young researchers, like the Flemish MSc grant students, under the supervision of the professors from KU Leuven. It was good experience, not only for me but also for them. It also included the extension agents who work closely with the farmers, and last but not least the farmers themselves were also involved.
You involve farmers and extension workers in the research. What do they gain from that?
The research was based on the farmers’ root problems. The results can be easily applied in the field with the resources that are at hand. For example, the application of supplementary irrigation from micro dams, river diversions or hand-dug wells was effective in our experiment to minimize the yield loss due to water limitation.
But as irrigating field crops is not common practice in the region, it is not easy to convince farmers to adopt this technology. As seeing is believing, we showed the results in practice to the farmers and the extension agents who work with them. Thus I think they can learn a lot from what they have seen from our experiment by comparing with their own practice.
Has the research changed you?
Yes, I have developed the confidence that I can conduct research independently, interpret the results and publish the research results in peer-reviewed international journals. I think this is good, because it is one of the most important things that has to be done in higher education institutions.
What has been the added value of working with Flemish researchers?
I learned a lot on how a problem can be addressed in different ways, by getting into contact with people from different backgrounds. They were pushing me to take a lead to publish the research results, of course, with lots of input on how to improve and edit the document. We all just work together, professors and young researchers, towards the same objectives, which is to minimize the problems related to crop production in dry land areas. Another important thing that I learned is their patience in guiding people and conducting intensive research at the grassroots level.
Besides being researcher, you are mother too. How do you combine the two roles?
It is very difficult, because the children miss you and you miss them. But if you convince yourself you can also convince your children and your family to support you. You are doing research not only for your own satisfaction but it is also your responsibility to do so as an academician in higher education. You need to develop your knowledge in order to conduct good quality research and teach effectively. So it is difficult to manage being a mother and a researcher, but if you are convinced, you can do it.
How do you see the future of Ethiopia?
The image the world has of Ethiopia is one of famine and malnutrition. But today Ethiopia is changing and developing fast. The country is working hard to meet the Millennium Development Goals. In the last few years the economy of the country has grown by 11% according to government officials. The people are working hard to become a member of the economic middle classes in the future. If this development continues at the same pace there is a great potential to be self-sufficient in food and to be one of the world’s economically competitive countries.