Her Story

Professor Fetien Abay Abera

Professor Fetien Abay Abera was born in Wukro town of Tigray, Northern Ethiopia. She is the last (twin) daughter to a family of 12 and is now married and a mother of three. Saved by her mother from an arranged marriage at a very young age (12) to a much older man (36), she was able to continue her schooling and complete her high school education in Eastern part of Tigray. Professor Fetien then attended Awassa College of Agriculture in southern Ethiopia, where she graduated with a Diploma in Plant Science. She worked from 1985 to 1988 as a development agent in rural areas of Oromia, and Amhara Regions. She took the opportunity to continue her studies for a BSc in Plant Science from Alamaya University, Ethiopia. After graduating in 1991, she worked as a researcher with the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and then joined the newly established Mekelle University in 1993, as the first female lecturer. She continued her studies at the University of Wales (Bangor) and gained her MSc in Rural Resource Management in 1995. After several more years of teaching and development-oriented research with Mekelle University, she went on to study for her PhD in Plant and Seed Sciences and graduated in 2007 from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Professor Fetien is currently the director of IEGDS (Institute of Environment, Gender, and Development Studies), a tenured Professor in Plant Breeding & Seed, an associate editor for the Journal of Dryland Agriculture, a coordinator of the Graduate Programme in Dryland Crop Science, a core team member of the Agro-Ecology in Practice Curriculum and a member of the Agricultural College Council, and is heavily involved in curriculum development for Plant Breeding and Food Science at Mekelle University. She is the first woman in Ethiopia who has reached the rank of Professor in plant breeding & Seed (agriculture) and the third woman professor of the country. As a senior-level woman scientist, Professor Fetien has been quite outspoken on issues of gender equality in science. She has over 45 published articles/ peer reviewed proceedings and booklets, which incorporate the knowledge and wisdom of farmers she works closely with.

no is not for an answer and making a difference

Growing up in a tight knit, religious and closed off community Professor Fetien proved her potential through her excellent academic achievements and maxim of thinking out of the box. Professor Fetien has worked in institutions of agricultural extension, research and education and is a specialized plant breeder with an educational and professional background that helps her to see her specialization in a broader context.  As a daughter of farmer, and having worked with poor smallholder farmers, Professor Fetien aspires to see farmers prospering. She passionately dedicates her time, working with farmers– beyond the tradition of working for them. From 1997 to 2001, she coordinated the second phase of the Dutch-funded Indigenous Soil and Water Conservation (ISWC) research program, which discovered the dynamics of indigenous knowledge, i.e. farmers’ innovativeness in land husbandry. This international program operated in seven countries in Africa, and Professor Fetien coordinated the work in Ethiopia, focusing on Tigray. Through her great ability to see what is actually happening in rural areas and through her good rapport with farmers, she led the way in ISWC-II in recognizing the unique contributions of women in developing new and better ways of practicing agriculture and natural resource management. The ISWC program provided the basis for scaling up to national level in the Prolinnova (Promoting Local Innovation) program, which is funded by multiple donors and involves NGOs and government institutions collaborating in 18 countries in Africa, Asia and South America. As member of the National Steering Committee of Prolinnova-Ethiopia, she brings in her experiences from ISWC and her subsequent research, which continues to be farmer-centered.

Her experience with ISWC strongly influenced her research as plant breeder, specifically as barley (Hordeum vulgare) breeder. Formal scientific efforts to develop improved barley cultivars for Tigray did not take root. Tigray farmers did not adopt the officially recommended cultivars, largely because the selection and breeding was not like the target environment of the farmers. In her doctoral research, she collaborated closely with farmer innovators who were well known locally as plant breeders in their own right. Together with 250 farmers (20% women) in 21 environments in northern Ethiopia, she tested different lines of barley coming from farmers’ informal breeding and conventional plant breeding. 

Her success motivated Professor Fetien and Norwegian colleagues to start a new project, “Seed Safety through Diversity”, funded through a Norwegian program for development, research and higher education (NUFU). The overall goal is to improve productivity and food security through greater seed security and access to quality seed using participatory methods as a model for locally relevant research. This project demonstrated new promising barleys developed through crosses between ‘Himblil’ and the major local variety in Tigray, ‘Saesa’. The adaptive traits in this cross are being studied further with molecular mapping techniques. This enhanced Professor Fetien’s collaboration with ICARDA for field-testing of a wider array of crosses in Ethiopia and for sharing statistical designs that improve experimentation in farmers’ fields. As large commercial seed companies do not buy into truly local varieties, she notes that farmer-based seed multiplication and distribution is important. In 2009, she became the coordinator in a Dutch-funded Local Seed Business Project. She also collaborates in the EC-funded project Strategies for Organic and Low-input Integrated Breeding and Management (SOLIBAM) with ICARDA and 20 other organizations from 12 European, Mediterranean and African countries.

Working alongside her colleagues, she has conducted thorough research to prove that breeding for specific adaptation is a viable approach in low input and mosaic agro ecological makeups. In doing, she has managed to release three climate resilient, high yielding, and high nutrition quality barley varieties. The productivity potential of the varieties is 4.5-5.2 tons/ha, a stark departure from other local varieties by more than 60% production increases.

Professor Fetien believes that technological innovations are of no use if they are not disseminated for greater public impact, addressing both technology and real needs of communities. The technologies have reached over 30,000 farmers in just three years proving that participatory plant breeding approach is a panacea for greater technology adoption among farmers. As a strong advocate of technology dissemination for common good, she took the opportunity of over 30 national and international arenas in promoting technological innovations to reach millions of farmers, academia and development researchers all over Africa.

Professor Fetien has also been instrumental in securing funding for a number of large and small projects, which she coordinates alongside her regular work as University lecturer. To highlight a few:

  • Integrated Seed Sector Development (ISSD) – operating in four regions (Tigray, Amhara, Oromia & Southern) of Ethiopia. The project seeks to see a pluralistic and a vibrant seed system in Ethiopia. She is coordinating the Tigray project. Currently, she is overseeing over 50 farmer based seed producer cooperatives. The membership size of the seed producer cooperatives is over 2800 households and 14,000 direct beneficiaries.
  • Network Project: SOLIBAM (Strategies for Organic and Low-input Integrated Breeding & Management) EC-funded project with ICARDA and 22 organizations from 12 European, Mediterranean and 2 African countries (Mali & Ethiopia). EU FP7 funding
  • South–South–North Network Project on Women and Food Science (2009–12) with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Sokoine University (Tanzania) and Hawassa University (Ethiopia); this includes establishing a nutrition laboratory; developing a new BSc curriculum (already approved); opening a Department of Food Science & Technology; supporting 30 BSc (all female), 6 MSc and 4 PhD students (including one woman from Tanzania); and establishing two women’s cooperatives for “kollo” marketing.
  • Supporting Women Entrepreneurship in Food Product Commercialization in Tigray Region, Northern Ethiopia (2012-2014) through IDRC grant. This project focuses on product promotion by women, commercialization and income generating activities. One PhD and three MSc postgraduate students involved in the project. 6 women cooperatives established, new product developed (from sorghum, millet and barley) with private food company NAS.

Professor Fetien has proven to be a pioneer in recognizing ‘farmer breeders’ and arguing that it is possible to engage in participatory and decentralized plant breeding even in drought prone environments. When she decided to conduct her research in Tigray and barley (this crop is sensitive to environmental variations), she knew it would be difficult to achieve immediate results as many renowned researchers, breeders, and other fellow countrymen felt that it is a waste of time to even try it.  As time passed by and at times when things did not go her way, she still did not give up. After a painstaking effort and farmers’ involvement in the research, exploiting the GxE interaction, it turned out that it is rather possible. As a result of farmers’ participation in varietal selection and ranking, she has proven that decentralized plant breeding is indeed a panacea for diverse agro-ecological breeding given the diversity of farming system. She is proud that the approach is now adopted by the regional agricultural extension unit. She is also known to have released three climate resilient, highly nutritious (with their betaglucan, iron, and zinc contents), drought resistant, early maturing barley varieties which have reached over 30,000 farmers in three year time since 2011, covering over 500 ha. The variety release on barley is new for Tigray. Until the variety released by MU, no improved barley variety have been incorporated on the extension package of agriculture.  The varieties submitted for release are transgressive segregants of a single cross made between two local varieties of Tigray region. The varieties are registered to Mekelle University the names of the varieties are felamit, hiriti, and fetina.’ Fetina is named after herself. This has resulted in increase in crop productivity from 2 to 5 ton/hectare. Moreover, the beneficiary farmers including women have increased their incomes by about 30-50%.

Other Contributions

Women must be assertive, believe in their potential and strive for greater heights. We should not victimize ourselves, but rather build our capacity in all our fronts

Professor Fetien’s level of community activism is undeniable. She is a member of the National Technical Advisory Council in the Ministry of Science and Technology, Ethiopian Crop Sciences Association, member of national PROLLINOVA (Promoting Local Innovations)-network, co-founder of Tigray Women Agriculture Professional Association (TWAPA), Family Guidance Ethiopia and is a Chair Person of the Araya Women and Children Charitable Organization, AWUCCO and Chair of the Managing Regional Board of the Red Cross Tigray. Through the network of her global and national connections and membership, she has used every platform to promote the cause of gender in development endeavors.

She is a member the regional women Soroptimist group that serves in bringing together women of excellence from various walks of life with the purpose of providing mentorship to young girls who seek to achieve higher goals. She has shared her experiences with hundreds of young high school students (e.g., SOS school girls, 2015). Her institute has been an active women empowerment agent within the auspices of the university’s social responsibility. In due course, women have been given sponsorship to various projects, M.Sc. thesis mentorship and advice, facilitating for the employment of outstanding university graduates, capacity building grants to female students (PhD and M.Sc.).

Award & Recognitions

People at various levels have honored Professor Fetien, showing how widely appreciated her contributions to science and development has been. For example, farmers in Eastern Hararghe named a water point after her; communities in Tigray involved in barley improvement work gave her a traditionally valuable prize for the impact of this work on their lives; she received a prize from the young school leavers to whom she had introduced ICT, and private entrepreneurs were so impressed with her capacity-building work at community level that they donated computers for the local Knowledge Management Centre. At the same time, in the 2009 African Women Professionals in Science Competition, she was recognized among the top five African women scientists for her work in plant breeding, and the Ethiopian Government honored her outstanding contributions to linking science and farmers and to furthering women’s development with the President’s Award in 2010. Professor Fetien also received the “East African Laureates” prize of the African Union Kwame Nkrumah Prestigious Scientific achievement Award, in 2014 for the years of scientific contributions in the areas of plant breeding & seed.

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