By Teshome Hunduma (Ph.D.) and Bayush Tsegaye (Ph.D.)
We were shocked to learn about the passing of Dr. Melaku Worede. In this contribution to Addis Standard, we want to write a few things about his extraordinary professional life. He was a celebrated geneticist and agronomist who, along with Ethiopian staff, established Africa’s first and largest genebank in 1976. The genebank now holds an impressive collection of over 80,000 accessions, encompassing over 100 crop species. In 1998, the Ethiopian national genebank was ranked among the top best in the world, with a meaningful impact on crop diversity conservation under Dr. Melaku’s leadership.
As a geneticist, Dr. Melaku Worede was among the pioneering individuals who dedicated themselves to altering the global perception of relying solely on scientific knowledge during the Green Revolution era. His deep insight into the long-term conservation and management of crop diversity for sustaining food production led him and his colleagues to design a complementary crop genetic resources conservation strategy. Dr. Melaku strongly believed in considering farmers’ knowledge, emphasizing the importance of putting farmers first. He firmly believed that fostering local research capacity was vital for maintaining crop diversity and enhancing agricultural productivity, especially in the face of challenges affecting agricultural production and global food security.
During his tenure as the director of Ethiopia’s national genebank for approximately 14 years (currently housed by the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute), Dr. Melaku took concrete steps to establish collaboration between farmers and the genebank. His work appeared during the notorious drought and famine of 1984, which led to the loss of crop diversity for many farmers, particularly in areas that were once centers of diversity, mainly for sorghum and durum wheat in Ethiopia. In response to the disastrous drought, Dr. Melaku initiated a national seed collection mission to rescue the existing diversity and devised a strategy that allowed farmers to participate in conservation through continued use. This work was integrated with the formal genebank conservation system, facilitating the reintroduction and restoration of the previously lost diversity. He referred to this work on conservation and use of crop diversity for sustainable agriculture as “the Ethiopian approach.”
In 1989, Dr. Melaku initiated the Seed of Survival program with the financial support of USC‐Canada (now SeedChange). In partnership with colleagues, he facilitated the introduction of a diverse range of crops from the genebank into farmers’ fields across various regions of Ethiopia. Under his guidance, a significant milestone was achieved by bringing together plant breeders, farmers, genebank experts, and NGOs, all collaborating for the conservation and sustainable utilization of crop diversity. He emphasized the importance of keeping diversity alive, guided by farmers’ criteria or their needs and preferences. The results were documented in various publications, in which he himself actively participated in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Dr. Melaku’s impactful work extended beyond Ethiopia through training genebank curators and young scientists worldwide. The Ethiopian approach employed in the Seed of Survival program was the foundation for expanding the initiative to 12 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Several organizations, including USC‐Canada and others such as the Development Fund of Norway, Swedbio of Sweden, and Oxfam Novib of the Netherlands, and many other organizations, began supporting community‐based food and seed security programs by connecting farmers with genebanks in the Global South. Dr. Melaku Worede’s contributions have led to the flourishing of community seed banking systems worldwide, albeit in various evolved versions. The Ethiopian system remains particularly unique, attracting scientists from around the globe who come to Ethiopia to exchange experiences. At the international level, Dr. Melaku became the inaugural Chair of the African Committee for Plant and Genetic Resources and was pivotal in establishing the African Biodiversity Network, a regional biodiversity network. His work was documented by the Man and the Biosphere program for the Expo 2000 event held in Hannover. Additionally, Dr. Melaku was featured in the Seeds of Freedom film, a production by the Gaia Foundation and the African Biodiversity Network.
In collaboration with his Ethiopian colleague, the late Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre-Egziabher, as well as esteemed international colleagues like Dr. Trygve Berg (Norway), Pat Roy Mooney (Canada), Professor Cary Fowler (USA), Henk Hobbelink (Spain), Patrick Mulvany (UK), Dr. Godwin Mkamanga (Malawi), Andrew Mushita (Zimbabwe), and others, Dr. Melaku played an active role in advocating for farmer-based crop diversity management and farmers’ rights during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Their efforts culminated in recognizing on-farm crop diversity management and farmers’ rights by the UN-FAO’s International Plant Treaty in 2004. Through his engagement on the international stage, Dr. Melaku promoted the Ethiopian approach to biodiversity conservation, enhancement, and sustainable utilization. He presented these principles to various bodies, including the then Organization of African Unity (now African Union) and UN-FAO member countries.
Dr. Melaku’s life was truly a life well lived. In addition to the above accomplishments, he achieved remarkable success in the academic world. Dr. Melaku served as the founding Dean of the former Awassa Junior College of Agriculture, which later evolved into one of the most influential agricultural colleges under Hawassa University in Ethiopia. After initially being introduced to agricultural science at Ambo Agricultural College (now Ambo University), where he later worked for a few years, Dr. Melaku pursued his studies and career at various institutions both within and outside Ethiopia. He contributed his expertise to universities in Jimma, Asmara, Haramaya, Nebraska, and Wisconsin and published his scientific work extensively. Notably, he played a significant role in training hundreds of Ethiopians and dozens of other Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans in crop diversity management systems.
Dr. Melaku was honored with the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) in 1989 for his remarkable work in safeguarding Ethiopia’s genetic diversity by establishing a world-class genebank and practically supporting smallholder farmers. He was also conferred with the title of Honorary Professor for his “service to the genetic resources community” by the International Biographical Centre in the United Kingdom in 2016. In addition, he received the National Green Award from the late Ethiopian president, Girma Wolde-Giorgis, in recognition of his outstanding international contributions. In recognition of Dr. Melaku’s contribution, the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute also has named one of the office buildings after him. He possessed a deep passion for people and enjoyed imparting knowledge to the younger generation whenever he had the chance.
Throughout our professional life, we had the privilege of being mentored by Dr. Melaku and engaging in meaningful conversations with him. These interactions provided us with valuable wisdom and knowledge drawn from his vast expertise and extensive experiences. We also had the privilege of being Dr. Melaku Worede’s mentees while working at the Ethiopian national genebank and pursuing our MSc degrees in the Management of Natural Resources and Sustainable Agriculture at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Throughout our studies, we received guidance from him and his close friend, Dr. Trygve Berg. Even during our Ph.D. research on on-farm conservation and plant genetic resources and seed system governance at the same university, Dr. Melaku’s imparted knowledge continued to influence our work.
Thank you, Dr. Melaku, for your great contributions. You are our hero in the field of plant genetic resources management and use. Our heartfelt condolences go out to his wife, family members, friends, students, and colleagues. May his legacy continue to shine brightly and may all those who admired and respected him find comfort in the cherished memories they shared with him over the years.
Teshome Hunduma (PhD) is a researcher at the Department of International Environment and Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bayush Tsegaye (PhD) is a freelance consultant based in Addis Ababa. She can be reached at Bayush email@example.com