Laureate Dr. Melaku Werede, a geneticist and agronomist who is an internationally acclaimed for building one of the finest Gene Banks of the world, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, has passed away aged 87.
Worede who was highly known for his extensive research on Ethiopia’s genetic resources is also remembered as an exceptional conservationist and for employing science to benefit poor farmers, and saving Africa’s seeds from oblivion.
In 1989, Melaku was bestowed the Right Livelihood Award, an international award conferred to exemplary leaders who offer practical and exemplary solutions to the urgent and pressing challenges facing the world.
According to Right Livelihood Foundation, Ethiopia is endowed with remarkable genetic diversity but it has been under great threat from drought and modern farming method for many decades. “Therefore, in only a few years, Worede and his staff collected and safely stored a considerable amount of Ethiopia’s genetic wealth.”
In the process of storing this genetic diversity, Melaku Worede established not only Africa’s finest facility of its kind but one of the world’s premier genetic conservation systems. Worede built this institution exclusively with Ethiopian staff, training a whole new generation of plant breeders and geneticists in his home country. Also very active at the international level, Worede was the first Chair of the African Committee for Plant and Genetic Resources and has been instrumental in setting up the African Biodiversity Network.
Worede has also engaged in pioneering work on farming-based native seed (landrace) conservation, enhancement and utilisation. Growing without commercial fertilisers or other chemicals, the locally adapted native seeds developed in this way (e.g. durum wheat) have been shown to exceed their high-input counterparts on average by 10-15 per cent and the original farmers’ cultivars 20-25 per cent in yield.
Melaku Worede was born in Ethiopia. After obtaining a PhD in Agronomy from the University of Nebraska, he returned to Ethiopia. He became involved in the planning of the Plant Genetic Resources Centre in Addis Ababa, of which he became Director in 1979. He held this post until his retirement in 1993 to join the Seeds of Survival Programme of Ethiopia, which he founded with the support of a consortium of Canadian NGOs led by the Unitarian Service Committee (USC/Canada).
Ethiopia is one of the world’s eight ‘Vavilov Centres’ noted for their great genetic diversity. This bio-diversity – now under significant threat from drought and modern farming methods – Worede has sought to preserve. Further, the Plant Genetic Resources Centre (PGRC) established ‘Strategic Seed Reserves’ of traditional varieties that could be released to farmers for planting in times of drought when no other seeds were likely to thrive. In only a few years Worede and his staff collected and safely stored a considerable amount of Ethiopia’s genetic wealth. In the process he established not only Africa’s finest facility of its kind but one of the world’s premier genetic conservation systems. Worede built this institution exclusively with Ethiopian staff, training a whole new generation of plant breeders and geneticists in his home country.
Worede retired from government service to continue developing his work on a farming-based native seed (landrace) conservation, enhancement and utilisation. In addition to Ethiopia, Worede is now promoting this to other developing regions of Africa and Asia as a key promoter and scientific adviser of the Seeds of Survival programme. In this connection, he has been active in training several gene bank curators and many other young scientists. Several initiatives to support biodiversity conservation and utilisation in Africa take the Ethiopian experience as their model and are thus attributable to Worede’s path-breaking work.
Worede has served as Chair of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Commission on Plant Genetic Resources and is currently a Board member of (among others) the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) and the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). In 2008 the National Green Award Foundation, headed by the Ethiopian president, gave Worede the Outstanding International Contribution Award.
(This biography of Dr. Melaku Worede was first published by Right Livelihood)