RISING voices: Aster Gebrekirstos (ICRAF) scientist for Africa RISING in Ethiopia
Aster Gebrekirstos works for the International Center for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF).
I studied my diploma and BSc in Forestry at Wondo Genet College of Forestry and Haramaya (then Alemaya) University in Ethiopia, respectively. I won the Netherlands Fellowship Program for MSc study in Wageningen (1996-1998) and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) for a PhD study in Gottingen University, Germany (2001-2005).
Prior to that, I worked as Research technician and Graduate Assistant at the Wood Utilization Research Centre and at Haramaya University. After my MSc, I worked as a lecturer at Debub University Wondo Genet College of Forestry. After my PhD I worked as a Post doc in the department of Biophysics and Biochemistry at Umeå University, Sweden (2006-2007) and at ICRAF Nairobi and Göttingen University in Germany (2009-2011).
Currently, I am a global scientist at ICRAF and partly working with Erlangen University in Germany. I have over twenty years of research (in East, West and South Africa and in China), tertiary level teaching and consulting experience. I am the principal investigator of the Africa RISING project (from ICRAF) and have been involved in the project since the inception period. My involvement in the project includes proposing research activities relevant to the Africa RISING project, do research, supervise and work with my ICRAF colleagues and other partners as a team to fulfill our objectives.
Africa RISING is unique because it involves a number of CGIAR centers, national partners, universities to address issues at the whole farming system (crops, livestock, trees, water, markets etc.).
If you look at the Africa RISING sites today, traditional annual crop-livestock land use systems are practiced in these fragile areas and annual crop yields are very low. Most smallholder farmers are facing problems of food insecurity, under-nutrition, land degradation, nutrient depletion, lack of feed and fuel wood, and lack of alternative income, among others. Thus, it needs integrated sustainable intensification approach and the Africa RISING project is just trying to do that. It is holistic.
What we would like to accomplish as ICRAF is that during the local knowledge survey of the farming system and community knowledge groups assessment we identified knowledge gaps and needs which I hope will be the focus of the project in the next phase. There are significant gaps and lack of technical know-how in crops, livestock, trees, markets and others in general. Particularly as ICRAF, we would like to address the gaps on multipurpose trees (fodder, fruit, fuel, soil fertility etc.) and I hope together with partners we will be able to raise awareness on untapped opportunities and contribute to the local needs.
You know most of the farmers in Ethiopian highlands are only familiar with Eucalyptus but there is a high potential to grow other high value crops including apples, pears, olive, plums, Lucerne, shrubs for essential oils and different tree species. However, in addition to the lack of awareness there are challenges such as the inaccessibility and unavailability of quality germplasm at a required quantity, lack of technical know-how in propagation and management techniques, and open grazing systems. Our goal is to establish participatory propagation techniques and train farmers and National Agricultural Research System (NARS) technicians in high value multipurpose trees. With our partners also, we contribute to the land and water, knowledge and capacity and other components of the Africa RISING work plan.
The challenge is that you cannot address all the needs of the farmers in this project and some of the solutions are complementary and some could be competitive so we need to strike the right balance to optimize benefits as we intensify. As scientists we are sometimes focused on our technology or product or respective institutional mission, but we have to change our mindset. We have to think about farmers needs and what is sustainable in a short and long term. Most of the farmers are poor and they might need immediate benefits, but that is not necessarily a long term solution. Addressing these challenges will require integrated system approaches, cooperation with partners and working closely with farmers.
So far I have learned that the importance of effective partnership, and the opportunities we have to make a difference. I have also learned how farmers have changed in the last ten years. They are open and keen to use new technologies. I also remember what a female farmer in Debre Berhan told us during one of our field visits. She said “We do not expect the Africa RISING project to establish on farm demonstrations or reach all the farmers in the village at once, and we also know the project will terminate after few years. But if you could train a few farmers, introduce improved varieties, technologies in the next few years others will follow in adopting the technology, we will have access to purchase seed and seedlings from our fellow farmers so this is what we expect from the project”. In another case in Hosanna, I will not forget how a farmer begged us to provide solutions to their Enset disease in the area. At that moment I wished I was an Enset specialist so that I can help him and I hope Africa RISING partners will help in finding a solution.
Finally, I want to say that the Africa RISING project provide to all of us an opportunity to work together as a team, to improve the livelihoods of farmers and their environment. This is also a model to establish effective partnership among CGIAR partners and with national and regional partners and it is important to appreciate and support each other. I am grateful to all our partners and Africa RISING team and my especial thanks to ILRI and USAID for the opportunity.