We develop interdisciplinary networks that leverage global research capacities to solve pressing constraints in dryland sorghum and pearl millet food systems.
SMIL follows a rigorous priority-setting agenda developed from the needs of our target audiences. This needs analysis translates to hypothesis-driven inquiry to identify promising solutions. Potential technologies are refined and deployed with end users and new opportunities are identified through the collaborative process with farmers, food processers, consumers, and other stakeholders.
Well Ethiopia is actually a center of diversity for sorghum, and yet this crop is just by tradition. It has been so important and it's especially important, more in the more drier areas – in the dry lands, in the semi-arid to arid areas and where they contribute really to the nutritional and food security of the people. So, in West Africa, both crops are staple crops for the rural populations and actually can contribute up to 80% to the daily calorie intake of the people. So even minor changes, for example, in the nutrition and quality of the grains in these crops can make a difference in a good contribution to the reduction of malnutrition in those populations. The status of nutrition is also linked to the development potential of this region and working on the malnutrition reduction of those children. This also can help them to develop and grow in the future much better than without this work.
Research Projects and News
One problem we are trying to solve through our partnership with SMIL is a lack of milling technology for sorghum. If we maximize milling technology, we can increase the good functional food products at the market.
In Ethiopia, we are creating innovative ideas to use sorghum and millet. Cookies have been developed with sorghum, wheat, and sweet potato. These are the types of innovations our younger scientists need to be working on.
Niger has a serious hunger problem. Farmers are saying even if crops grow, we don't have enough food. The best way for me to help the people of Niger was to learn and focus on biotechnology, and the Sorghum and Millet Innovation Lab helped me do that.
The seed ball is a solution for a farmer's problem. Seed balls are very important to farmers. In the Sahel, we are facing climate change. We have a soil fertility problem and financial problems with our farmers. Farmers lack food and they don't have enough resources to buy inputs, like fertilizer. Seed balls and the materials they are using are low cost. They don't need to go far to get them. The seed balls are made from sand or clay, wood ash, and just a small seed with fertilizer. They solve the financial problem and help soil fertility since farmers don't have money to afford all the types of fertilizer.
I am excited to work with farmers, and especially subsistence farmers, who look for a solution to solve their most urgent problems like soil fertility. I especially love to help women farmers. I want the technology to be viewed favorably. We started with pearl millet. When that worked, farmers requested sorghum. I love that farmers are asking for other innovations with technology. So I want the technology to continue to search for solutions for soil fertility, and to give my best to the subsistence farmers.
Our first goal is to support smallholder farmers to get a better yield and support their families. If we are able to support our smallholder farmers, public and private partners, we are succeeding and that is what SMIL does. SMIL helps us be capable to support our different partners and keep us strong and competent in Ethiopia and the region as well. The other thing we have seen is that the SMIL project has published good science in peer-reviewed journals. The output is not only for us, it is for all the sorghum and millet community.
Working with SMIL is an excellent opportunity. Since the start of the project, I have been a partner from my country when SMIL came to initiate the project. I'm excited to see progress and I'm learning so much and communicating with other scientists across the world. The networking from different parts of African countries is beneficial and a pleasure to work with them. It's very interesting for me to be part of this, and I'm very much pleased with that.
The network I built while in the U.S. with SMIL will directly contribute to the role I play in Ethiopia. The research collaboration will continue and also training others and sharing experiences.
We can generate technologies, innovation, and knowledge with the Sorghum and Millet Innovation Lab and share it with other communities who are not directly funded by USAID. So it's a good opportunity for us. For me, as a molecular breeder in pearl millet, the support helped me to push deeper on how we can address our breeding pipeline by using modern tools. How can we accelerate the generation of new crops that correspond with the demand of the value chain stakeholders? It's really a good opportunity for us to have a community working around the Sorghum and Millet Innovation Lab, but also have the funds to go faster and more precisely to address the demand.
Pyramiding the greenbug resistance in Haiti, we were able to identify genes that are responsible for sugarcane aphid tolerance. So we did it, and that is extremely rewarding that we're able to harvest the state-of-the-art techniques that we use routinely in high-income countries and within agribusiness, and apply them to these conditions, which are not optimal for everybody. By creating this network and these partnerships, everybody is engaged and everybody holds each other accountable.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are countries in West and Central Africa that give us the vision to lead at a regional level and be innovative with others throughout Africa; not only for the country of Senegal. Part of that is we bring all the players together to make sure we consider everyone's demands into our innovations. We cannot do it on our own. We have to consult these people for whom we generate the innovation. I think this is really important. The second thing is the importance of sorghum and pearl millet is so deep in our tradition, a staple food in our country and in our ecosystems, that we really need to work in a community. When I studied in Canada, we used to say 'alone you can go faster, but together you can go further.' Alone, we don't have the human resources to address all these challenges in a drought-prone environment for the development of innovation. But in a community like what we have in SMIL, we can address this diversity of demands, the diversity of challenge, the diversity of needs.
We appreciate the opportunities for young scientists to receive training in the U.S. A primary challenge was how we can build a community of young scientists who can take over the research with new priorities and with new tools to advance it. And in the first phase of the SMIL, I think people did great at training young scientists, and those young scientists also are hired in our national agriculture research systems. So, they can take over the research. And I think this was the best investment we have made.
A project in Ethiopia with a large collection of sorghum was an efficient means to adapt sorghum to stressful environments. It's a genetic resource that we were able to make available to other breeding programs.
SMIL is out-performing the promises we were given in the beginning, as far as training local students and young researchers from local regions. We are giving those young researchers a perspective that should be communicated.
What is really exciting to see is the students that have come through the program and their excitement and the passion they bring to the research projects. These students feel a sense of accomplishment as they contribute to scientific discoveries. They reach their full potential and carry that passion forward, wanting to mentor students in the future.
We have to take the needs of women into account with our breeding programs and training. In rural areas of Senegal, women are a large portion of farmers, but they are also scientists. We integrate gender and youth issues into SMIL projects.
Women really took ownership in learning from incubation centers. The women were very generous to later share their knowledge with other women and spread the word and impact of the project. It shows if we follow approaches that develop ownership, they are empowered to take things to a different level.
Women very often do not have access to resources or the right to own land. As a result, women normally get the sites that are most remote. Women have to walk long distances in order to come to the fields. At the beginning of the seasons, they first have to work in the fields of the man, because the man is the one who is responsible for feeding the family. Therefore this technology developed through SMIL is very important as the remote sites get delayed and are difficult to get to. Seed ball technology is a fit for local resources because it is affordable, everybody can do it, and there's not a lot of teaching behind it, except for the depths of sowing.
I want to be able to accept new students with open arms, to have the roadmap already written down with clear objectives so they can come in behind me and continue to push the work forward. As much work as I can do now to help those coming in on the SMIL project behind me is what I'm looking to do.
When I joined the institute, I was one of the few women out of over 100 scientists, so I was always look for other women and learn from their strengths. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to come and study in the U.S. under SMIL.
When you go to various institutions you don't see a lot of female scientists. There is a major gap. I think the problem starts earlier on, at the college level. Addressing that problem would be giving women opportunities and would be exciting and wonderful. I'm excited to see a lot of young people who embrace the opportunities through SMIL.
I commend SMIL for the attention that is paid to capturing lessons learned and packaging them and sharing them with diverse audiences. Without that, all of the research work would not necessarily be applied to improve the human condition. So, it's really important that those efforts are sustained.
Our network of global teams is one of SMIL's strengths. The team is working on research, but is also linked to real developmental outcomes in these countries. Supporting these teams is one of the highlights of working with SMIL.
Working with youth means a great deal to me personally because it allows me to use my skills in research to train people. There is nothing more exciting than training people. The next generation of scientists that go and do research contribute to the development of countries everywhere.
Many of SMIL’s young professionals move through a career to a ministerial level or head of an agriculture institution. We want to help these young leaders have a bright future in their particular countries. Not to mention the energy, fresh ideas and the go-getting attitude a cohort of young professionals brings.
There are a lot of projects in Niger that are working on nutrition, but most of them lack the technology and the approach we're using to do it. We go into the site and make it so they can develop the product locally, sell it, and interact with the rural community health centers. They have a lot of interaction with the women directly and with health centers, and will direct the women who have malnourished children to those centers to come in and buy the product. So it is generating income for the women, and it is saving the lives of those children. And at the same time, it is empowering the local communities to help their people.
So we consider the farmers as key partners and they have responsibilities in the implementation of the trial. Also, they are involved in the extension and adoption of those trials and technology coming in. Sometimes we travel and visit them in the field. And if we have a workshop, a meeting, we also invite them in. Like recently, when we have the SMIL annual review meeting, all of them came to Niamey and they have some lead farmers that were with us also at the meeting. And we exchange feedback, like their concerns and the challenges they are facing in terms of trying some of the varieties and what they have seen. We also give them some responses and also orientation about how to use those varieties in the field.
What really stands out to me is the local capacity development efforts that SMIL does, and then the engagement with stakeholders to make sure that information is being shared. So I really appreciate that SMIL is pairing American expertise and ingenuity with the best and brightest globally and training students in developing countries and the U.S. By doing that, we're ensuring that the next generation of food system leaders are equipped and empowered to address the food security challenges that we know are coming tomorrow as well. So I think that's one of the most inspiring things about the program is we're not only seeing results today, but we're building for better systems in the future.
During my Ph.D., I had the privilege to be enrolled in a very competitive and prestigious program at the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI). This opportunity was made possible through the funding from USAID/SMIL that provided me the resources to get trained, acquire knowledge and apply it while conducting research. Through the USAID/SMIL support, I was able to gain access to a professional network with scientists from across the globe. I was able to attend conferences, give presentations, as well as receive mentorship from other plant breeders. I also had the opportunity to be a visiting scholar at Purdue University, where I worked on part of my doctoral research activities and developed collaborations, which helped to start my career as a plant breeder after graduating. In addition, I was given the opportunity to co-lead a project immediately after graduation. Overall, the support provided by USAID/SMIL was the foundation and catalyst for my career as a plant breeder.