College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Breeding Ethiopia’s Groundnuts to Withstand Drought

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Dr Seltene Abady Tesfamariam is celebrating receiving his PhD in Plant Breeding. Based at his alma mater, Haramaya University in Ethiopia, he pursued his doctoral studies through UKZN’s African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI). His research focused on breeding improved crops for Ethiopia using conventional and molecular tools.

Tesfamariam’s study involved the creation of new breeding populations of groundnut with high yield, early maturity and drought tolerance in response to challenges faced by Ethiopian farmers who utilise low yielding, late maturing varieties that are vulnerable to drought stress caused by erratic rainfall. He focused on developing drought-tolerant, dual-purpose, high yielding groundnut genotypes that farmers would readily adopt.

Tesfamariam conducted participatory rural appraisal studies in two major groundnut-producing districts in eastern Ethiopia to identify major groundnut production constraints as well as farmers’ preferred traits. He phenotyped 100 groundnut genotypes to select drought-tolerant and genetically superior parents for breeding, developing 28 groundnut families for drought tolerance with several recommended for further genetic advancement. He conducted the genotyping, crossing and evaluation of selected lines at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India, and published five papers from his PhD research.

The experience of designing new groundnut cultivars for specific traits of interest contributed expertise and skills to Tesfamariam’s repertoire that will inform his teaching and mentoring of students at a Higher Education Institution and his contribution to Ethiopia’s national groundnut research programme.

Tesfamariam completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in plant sciences at Haramaya University, and was drawn to the ACCI by stories of the Centre’s research efforts and the achievements of the PhD students it has trained via its social media channels.

He found the regular progress report presentations by students facilitated by the ACCI very useful for sharing knowledge and experience, and enjoyed working with ACCI team members and supervisors in writing up his manuscript, which he said contributed to the publication of all of his PhD chapters in high-impact journals.

Tesfamariam was supervised by Deputy Director of the ACCI and South African Sugarcane Research Institute Chair of Crop Science Professor Hussein Shimelis, who commended him for being a highly committed, organised and productive doctoral student.

Tesfamariam expressed gratitude to the funders of his study, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research’s Program on Grain Legume and Dry Land Cereals (CRP-GLDC) through the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries Fund for International Development, the International Foundation for Science and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research.

He thanked Shimelis for his consistent guidance and invaluable suggestions and comments throughout the process of obtaining his PhD, as well as his co-supervisor Dr Janila Pasupuleti, Principal Scientist in groundnut breeding and cluster leader for Crop Breeding, and leader of “Variety and Hybrid Development” in ICRISAT’s CRP-GLDC, for her support and for providing the opportunity to conduct his research at their facilities.

Tesfamariam expressed his thanks to UKZN for the opportunity to pursue doctoral studies in plant breeding, and for leveraging digital platforms to enable communication with his supervisor when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and Haramaya University for study leave.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied