Can the world continue to provide enough food?

An interview with Dr. Segenet Kelemu: Boris Mints Institute webinar honors Food Planet Prize winners

DR. SEGENET KELEMU, director-general, International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology. (photo credit: BORIS MINTS INSTITUTE)
DR. SEGENET KELEMU, director-general, International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology.
 Dr. Segenet Kelemu has a vivid memory of the moment she decided to dedicate her life to making a difference in people’s lives through agriculture.
Kelemu grew up in a small farming village in rural Ethiopia with no running water and electricity, where the main concern was having enough food on the table to survive.
“When I was young,” she recalls, “one day, we got up, and a swarm of locusts came in and completely wiped out the grass and vegetation in the village.”
The villagers prayed, assuming that the locusts had been sent as a punishment from God. Young Segenet, however, reacted differently. That devastating episode provided her with the impetus to excel in school, dedicate her life to science, and help her people.
“I’ve always carried that with me in my mind,” she says.
Kelemu became the first woman from her region to attend Addis Ababa University and graduated first in her class in 1979. She then moved to the United States, earning a master’s degree in plant pathology and genetics and a PhD in molecular biology and plant pathology. In 1992, she moved to Colombia, where she worked at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture until 2007.
Explaining her decision to move to South America, she says, “I moved from the United States to Latin America because I didn’t want to do only what academics do – to do research, to publish a paper and then move to the next one, and so on. I wanted to do good science, and I wanted to publish, but I wanted science to be implemented to actually solve society’s problems.”
During her sojourn in Colombia, Kelemu became fluent in Spanish and mentored students from many countries, including China, Japan and Brazil.
In 2006, when the Chinese government presented her with China’s highest civilian award to foreigners for the positive influence that she had made through her teaching of Chinese graduate students, she decided that the time had come for her to return to Africa.
“I was happy to receive the award,” says Kelemu, “but I was embarrassed at the same time. Here I was, a person from a poor country, and I was given recognition in China for making a difference in China, when China, in actuality, didn’t need my help.”
Kelemu realized her childhood dream and returned to Africa in 2007 with her family to become the director of the Biosciences eastern and central Africa Hub at the International Livestock Research Institute. In 2013, she was appointed director-general of the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, Kenya.
This year, ICIPE was named one of the winners of the prestigious Curt Bergfors Food Planet Prize, which identifies, recognizes, and rewards important initiatives to reinvent the food chain and helps establish a sustainable food system that supports the resilience of the biosphere and the stability of the planet.
ICIPE has done groundbreaking work in introducing insect-based protein in food and animal feed and has pioneered insect science for sustainable development to alleviate poverty, ensure food security, and improve the well-being and resilience of communities in Africa.
“Insects,” explains Kelemu, “are the most abundant animals on the planet. Of the 1.4 million animal species, a little over 1 million are insects. The vast majority are very helpful to us.”
Introducing insect-based protein into food and animal feed is an important road to reducing the environmental effects of traditional livestock farming.
She adds that two billion people consume insects, which are a source of protein and other nutrients. Kelemu and her team designed methods to allow for efficient, year-round harvesting of insects, which are not only eaten but are made into nutritious oils as well.
Beyond her efforts with insect-based protein, Kelemu has been very active on other fronts.
“We are the only organization in the world that combines human health, animal health, plant health and environmental health, using insects as an entry point,” she says.
ICIPE has developed products to counter the tsetse fly, which has caused significant damage to livestock in Africa, and tropical diseases that affect humans, such as malaria.
As an international research center, ICIPE collaborates with top universities around the world, including Tel Aviv University, through the Boris Mints Institute at the Faculty of Social Sciences.
ON MARCH 25, the Boris Mints Institute celebrated the synergy between research and practice, through its researchers and the winners of the 2020 Curt Bergfors Food Planet Prize, in a special Zoom webinar focusing on research and development for a better world.
The forum, which was broadcast on the Jerusalem Post website, featured four of the winners of the 2020 prize who discussed their award-winning projects.
Representatives from ICIPE, Blue Ventures, Sanergy Ltd., and The Land Institute summarized their projects. Following each presentation, researchers from TAU presented their studies related to the awardee’s research.
 RACHEL STROER, acting president, The Land Institute. (Courtesy) RACHEL STROER, acting president, The Land Institute. (Courtesy)
One of the highlights of the event was the presentation of Kelemu and Prof. Itai Sened, dean of the Gershon H. Gordon Faculty of Social Sciences and head of the Boris Mints Institute, who discussed the collaboration between the two institutions. Dr. Kelemu is a member of the International Academic Committee at the Boris Mints Institute.
PROF. ITAI SENED, dean of the Gershon H. Gordon Faculty of Social Sciences and head of the Boris Mints Institute. (Courtesy)PROF. ITAI SENED, dean of the Gershon H. Gordon Faculty of Social Sciences and head of the Boris Mints Institute. (Courtesy)
The Boris Mints Institute, following its vision of finding strategic policy solutions for global challenges, has partnered with ICIPE in producing impact assessments of some of their technologies that are being adopted by farmers across Africa.
Kelemu explains that the Mints Institute’s impact assessments are used to measure the adoption of products that ICIPE has developed to control pests in mangoes and avocados. “We have many technologies that are being used, but we go back and assess the impact that has been made, in terms of the impact that the product has made, and what we need to do to improve it and change lives.”
In addition, the two institutions maintain exchange programs with students from both institutions. Kelemu, who received an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University in May 2016, says that ICIPE can serve as an entry point for TAU into Africa.
Blue Ventures is a conservation organization that exists to protect the life in the oceans and works to reduce overfishing to reverse marine extinction.
Prof. Eran Bacharach, a member of the TAU Faculty of Life Sciences, presented on the significant mortality of wild and cultured tilapia – one of the most important species of farmed fish – that has been observed in Israel and other countries, the identification of the novel Tilapia Lake Virus, and means of treatment.
Sanergy builds affordable sanitation products designed specifically for urban slums and franchises them to community members to serve all residents.
Prof. Hadas Mamane, head of the Environmental Engineering Program, Faculty of Engineering, TAU, discussed the critical importance of water, sanitation and hygiene for protecting public health, and surveyed implementation of UV disinfection technologies at the community level in villages, suggesting recommendations for adaptation and design of UV-based disinfection technologies.
The Land Institute is a world-leading institute that focuses on developing perennial grain crops and polyculture farming solutions as part of its vision to feed humanity within ecological limits.
Dr. Ram Fishman, from the department of public policy, TAU, presented the NITSAN program, which he heads. The program – a first of its kind in Israeli academia – enables Israeli technology and its innovation system in agriculture, water, energy and other fields to realize their potential to assist sustainable development in low-income settings.
A crucial element of the NITSAN model is the involvement of Israeli fellows (graduate students from the engineering, agricultural, social, computer, management, economics, and policy sciences) through deep and prolonged immersion in local field conditions. Guided by experienced faculty and technical experts, the NITSAN fellows form a bridge between the Israeli innovation ecosystem and the complex realities of developing countries.
Summarizing her work with plants and insects, but perhaps encapsulating the value of all scientific efforts that help humanity, Kelemu says, “It’s extremely rewarding when you use science to solve problems of society, and it is an extremely noble profession now.”
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This article was written in cooperation with the Boris Mints Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions to Global Challenges.