Participatory research for food innovation by women in Tigray

Fetien Abay, a long-time member of the Prolinnova network, has just published a chapter in a new book Women in precision agriculture: technological breakthroughs, challenges and aspiration for a prosperous and sustainable future (edited by Takoi Khemais Hamrita) issued in 2021 by Springer Nature Switzerland.

The chapter “Women farmer–breeder partnerships in plant breeding, seed and food Innovations: experiences from Tigray, northern Ethiopia” describes Fetien’s work with women farmers in drought-prone rural areas of Tigray Region, who depend mainly on agriculture that uses little or no purchased inputs. As a plant breeder, Fetien and her team from Mekelle University engaged in participatory research with women farmers to compare local and introduced barley varieties. They found that the women preferred local varieties that had been developed by farmers and were well adapted to the local environment. The team from Mekelle University then worked intensively with the women farmers in highly decentralised forms of participatory plant breeding (PPB) to develop six new barley varieties that are drought tolerant, early maturing and highly nutritious. These varieties increased productivity from 2 to 5 tons per hectare and benefitted over 30,000 farmers in the region by increasing their income by 30–50%.

In her chapter, Fetien discusses the scientific basis of PPB and its relevance for location-specific breeding of barley, as compared with breeding for wider adaptation in the national programme targeted to high-input conditions. She gives several examples of how small-scale women farmers in Tigray contributed to PPB and Participatory Variety Selection (PVS), seed production and dissemination. The women helped increase agricultural biodiversity, using different barley varieties for different dishes and also choosing varieties for innovative food products they developed themselves.

The research by Fetien and her team shows that national plant-breeding policies need to give more attention to regional plant breeding with emphasis on location-specific variety development, release, seed production and food processing. The government also needs to invest more in helping local women develop a food industry based on barley for local consumption in Ethiopia and for international markets.

The book contains a detailed biography of Fetien and her achievements – here a summary: Fetien Abay is the vice-president for research and community services at Mekelle University, Ethiopia (and currently acting as President of the University – the first time that a woman holds such a position in Ethiopia). She did her undergraduate studies in agriculture in Ethiopia, a master’s in Rural Resource Management at the University of Wales (UK) and a PhD in plant breeding and seed science at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. She became the first female professor in plant breeding in Ethiopia and has supervised over 60 MSc and PhD students. She is also actively involved in upgrading female diploma students to BSc level (as she herself did many years ago). Her research led to the release of six climate-resilient and high-quality food and malt barley varieties. She has organised 50 seed producer groups that supply the major seed requirements for Tigray Region. She combines her research work with community development, keeping rural women at the forefront. In 2009, at the African-wide Women Professionals in Science Competition, she was recognised among the top five African women scientists for her work in plant breeding. In 2010, the Ethiopian Government gave her the President’s Award to honour her outstanding contributions to linking science and farmers and to furthering women’s development. In 2014, she received the East African Laureates prize of the African Union Kwame Nkrumah Prestigious Scientific Achievement Award. Although she has received these and other awards and recognition, she takes her greatest pride in the support she has given to women in agriculture.