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Establishing an effective plant biotechnology research to transform Agriculture in Tigrai, Northern Ethiopia

Tigrai Online, Sept. 4, 2018

Ashenafi Kiflu1, Michaele Yifter2 and Hagos Mohammedseid2 

  1. Department of Biotechnology, Aksum University, Ethiopia
  2. Department of Biotechnology, Mekelle University, Ethiopia

1Corresponding Author: ashenafiadwa@gmail.com



One of the emerging technologies in this 21st century, Biotechnology, not only improves agricultural production but also links agriculture to industry.Plant biotechnology has wide range of applications ranging from improving plants in terms of production and nutrition to the use of plants for bio fuel production and environmental protection.Ethiopia has embarked on extensive biotechnology research in order to transform agriculture and other sectors throughout the country. The tigrai region, which mainly practices dry land agriculture, is severely hit with abiotic and other stresses that reduce crop production and productivity.In addition to this, agriculture needs to transform itself as an input for agro processing industries and industrialization. There are many researches in the regional, national and international universities as well as agricultural research institutes in the region. However, it should be coordinated in order to produce problem solving research outputs to the society. An effective plant biotechnology research would improve plants for increased production, effective human nutrition and different energy or environmental uses. Therefore, we suggest research directions and workable government systems in order to get effective research outputs relevant for the region.We believe the state government should prioritize projects and support relevant projects in the three universities of Tigrai that are currently working on biotechnology teaching and research (Mekelle University, Aksum University and Adigrat University). In order to achieve this, research teams based on the production problems and research outputs are formed and each university is assigned to coordinate research projects.A Tigrai biotechnology committee (RBC) is established with different sub teams based on their research areas and the progress of each research is monitored by governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders. The research and community linkage team of the TBC is also established to disseminate and monitor the biotechnology research outputs to the community.Furthermore, we suggest the establishment ofTigray DNA sequencing laboratory (TDSL) that will be a hub for biotechnology training and DNA sequence analysis for public research in universities or any other service sectors.

  1. Introduction

Innovation is a critical ingredient for national competitiveness. The world has reached on a time where the level of investment in research and development determines the gap between developed and developing countries (Zhanget al., 2011). Even if Ethiopia has achieved tremendous development in achieving peace and democracy after many years of struggle, the time for science and technology to lead the economy and achieve sustainable development remains yet on the horizon.  Biotechnology is one of the recent life science technologies with a premise of transforming traditional agriculture, health care, industry development and environmental protection in to a modern level.  According to the UN science foundation, Biotechnology is defined as “the controlled use of biological agents, such as microorganisms or cellular components, for beneficial use”. Biotechnology, as indicated in its name, is the application of technology to the biological science where by living things (Plants, Animals (Including humans) and microbes) and their products thereof, are engineered for the purposes of achieving more efficient services to the mankind.

During the past few decades, there has been an enormous breakthrough in decoding and manipulating the genetic information stored in the DNA and a lot of scientific advances have been achieved to improve food supply, diagnose and treat diseases, develop new vaccines, clean up the environment or even bring criminals to justice based on their DNA traces. The rapid development of bioinformatics data sharing in public databases and the availability of high-tech genetic analyzing and sequencing technologies has made the science of biotechnology rapidly developing in the speed of light. It has became already so long since governments of different countries and most importantly, private companies engage themselves in biotechnology research for the purpose of gaining economic return by providing cheaper input costs for stakeholders.

Ethiopia has started realistic biotech initiatives at a national level in order to improve the living standards of its people.  One of the advantages of investing on cross cutting technologies like biotechnology in this time is that, developing countries like Ethiopia can follow the “catch up” system to get the latest technological instruments and achieve return through modern research in short period of time.   Plant biotechnology is very important research area in order to transform plant production using new technologies that increase crop productivity and transform agriculture to industrialization.

2. History of Biotechnology in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is one of the most ancient countries of the world that has an independent, diverse and unique tradition with less external influence from the western world.   One of the main parts of the traditional Ethiopian cuisine, the flat bread “enjera”, is done by fermentation process where it is mixed with water and stored for some days before it is backed.  There are also many traditional beverages like ‘Tella’ and ‘Tej’ that go through the fermentation process and exclusively found in Ethiopia and Eritrea.  The ancient Ethiopians were traditional biotechnologists not only for using fermentation in the production of beverages and foods but they have also been domesticating crops and livestock through selection (Sbhatu, 2010).

Due to internal conflicts, war and less involvement on science and technology, Ethiopia has been hit by famine and poverty before forty to fifty years.  The problem at that stage was not mainly due to the fact that Ethiopia was exclusively poor country; it was due to the lack of rain in successive seasons that left Ethiopian farmers with nothing to have at hand. We are at a stage where drought can be tackled by developing drought resistant varieties of crops but our struggle to guarantee a sustainable economy that avoids those kinds of perceived risks remains minimum. Even though the current government has come up with alternative policies and strategies in order to fully recover the country in to level of middle-income countries, it has been a challenge to practice workable science - led development. Our economy is mainly dependant on export of natural products and it could be an excellent move to invest on industrial products. No country has developed through export, investing on science and technology by attracting Ethiopian intellectuals and world-class scientists to work in harmony would be unquestionable approach for the renaissance of Ethiopia. The government has prioritized biotechnology, as one of the technologies in which the country needs to be benefited from but a lot needs to be done to practice a fully functional system. 

  1. Biotechnology and the world in the 21st century


Investment on biotechnology is extremely intensive with a highly perceived risk and it takes long time to get an economic return (Zhanget al., 2011). However, it has already been a long time since the developed countries like the United States started to gain astonishing success from this sector.  Any innovation is the result of the following three models i.e entrepreneurial, partnership and developmental state (Cooke et al., 2007).  The United States has achieved a rapid increase in biotechnology firms due to the entrepreneurial model that uses liberal market as the basis in the market (Bognar and Skogstad, 2014).  Therefore, effectiveness and innovation of high technology industries had became a business strategy to maximize benefits in the corporate companies.  Many of the countries in the European Union, starting from Germany to France, Switzerland, and the Nordic countries operate a partnership model of economic organization in which interaction occurs by negotiation and cooperation between different companies, government and the industry (Cookeet al., 2007).  Newly industrializing economies such as Japan and South Korea follow the developmental state model in which the government deliberately and strategically supports large enterprises to raise national competitiveness (Zhanget al., 2011).  Singapore has achieved a huge success in attracting world-class scientists and companies by heavily investing on biotechnology research by following the most aggressive developmental state model.

There are almost 2000 biotechnology companies that get annual revenue of above 240 billion USD in the United States. The United Kingdom, Germany and China have almost 500 companies involved in businesses related to biotechnology.  On the other hand, China invests billions of budgets for biotechnology R&D that is only less than the cumulative investment of both the private and government companies in the United States.  Whether food security is not the problem or they are not supportive of the technology due to perceived risks, almost all countries hasn’t ever slept up when it comes to biotechnology, genomics and bioinformatics research.

Starting from supporting conventional plant and animal breeding schemes to cloning of the “dolly” sheep and from embarking on the new era of stem cell technology and gene therapy to the real time practice of genetic engineering, biotechnology has achieved so many glimpses of bright future in the life science research.  Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), as one of the premiere products of biotechnology has caused controversies and breakthroughs that the scientific community and public haven’t seen it previously in the history of life science.  The United States continues to lead yet again in the advancements of biotechnology like the overall economy but most European countries are still reluctant to accept GMOs with approach of substantial equivalence.  Surprisingly enough, what makes it more interesting in Europe is that, R&D in biotechnology hasn’t lagged behind even for a micro-mile with the stringent precautionary principle and requisite metabolic profiling in the safety assessment of GMOs at hand.  Australia has set exemplary biotechnology R&D that fully supports inland life science companies and attracts international enterprises with the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) being the national competent biosafety authority that monitors and gives permissions in relation to the release of GMOs.

Most African governments contribute little to science and technology either financially or through strong policies and strategies that can be feasibly implemented at the ground level. This leaves the determination of research and development priorities in the hands of international funding agencies in most of the cases. Whereas funding from the United States is generally supportive of GM technology, the opposite is true of funding from European source (Morris, 2011).  There is no question that independent development of inland biotechnology R&D will be the best option to achieve sustainable development and get the benefits that the developing countries has to get from this emerging technology (Diran et al., 2009). South Africa is practicing better biotechnology research and biosafety regulatory systems that can be exemplary for another sub-Saharan countries (Makinde et al., 2010). Recently, Ethiopia has adopted Bt Cotton ( 2017) and field trials for GM maize for biotic resistance.

4.  Modern Biotechnology for Tigrai, Ethiopia

4.1 Current status of Biotechnology Research in Tigrai,  Ethiopia

Tigrai is one of the 12 regional states in Ethiopia. It is found in the northern part of the country. Dryland subsistence agriculture is practiced in the region and agricultural production is very low. The region recorded the national lowest poverty rate i.e 29% in 2017 and hence science technology based intervention is required to transform agriculture in the region and beyond.  The development of biotechnology is still at infant stage in Ethiopia.  Even if it was in 1993 when the national science and technology policy was designed and recognized biotechnology as emerging tool to support agriculture and health care sectors, it was already 2000 when the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) drafted a biotechnology strategy, which was implemented later in 2008 to establish the national agricultural biotechnology laboratory (Sbhatu, 2010, Abraham, 2009).  The Federal Environmental Protection Authority drafted a national biosafety framework in August 2007. However, the biosafety policy proclamation was amended in 2015 that led to the introduction of Bt Cotton and Bt Maize in 2017.  Three universities in Tigrai ( Mekelle University, Aksum University and Adigrat University) and the Tigrai agricultural research institute (TARI) are working on plant tissue culture practices (Seid, 2013) and plant molecular breeding research.  Aksum University and Mekelle University has set up molecular biology laboratories starting from 2014.

4.2. Opportunities of plant biotechnology research to improve agricultural production in Tigrai, Ethiopia

Agricultural research in Ethiopia hasn’t transformed subsistence agriculture in to a modern way of production that utilizes less input and produces higher outputs (Dereje, 2011). Ethiopia is one of the 13 centres of biodiversity in the world as mentioned by Vavilov(1995).  However, the overall Agricultural production is average and traditional. The Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) has made remarkable efforts to achieve yield increases through traditional breeding programs and modern value-chain management researches (Abraham, 2009).   University based research has resulted in the availability of crop varieties and improved animal husbandry practices but their implementation at the ground farmer level remains very minimal either because those varieties are nothing different from the local landraces or there has not been appropriate technology transfer in place.

In densely populated countries like Ethiopia, where the population mainly depends on subsistence agriculture, the land per farmer is only few hectares and that makes it very difficult to improve production and productivity through improved management and chemical inputs (Azadiet al., 2010). In recent years, erratic distribution of rainfall and persistent drought had become realty in the northern Ethiopia and it’s conceivable that they will only get worse in the decades to come due to climate change and other factors. Therefore, research shouldn’t only be done on the husbandry management and traditional breeding programs but also it should effectively use biotechnology tools and products in order to increase the overall production (Jansen and Gupta, 2009). It is not only increasing production at the farmer’s level, biotechnology has the capacity to promote commercialized agriculture and industrialization (Hall and Dijkman, 2006).

4.4. Opportunities of plant biotechnology research to develop agro processing industries in Tigrai, Ethiopia

One of the advantages of biotechnology in improving life science led services is that it changes production of outputs in to a market oriented production system. Biotechnologies can have multifaceted benefits in industrial food and beverage production, leather and textile factories, paper and fibre production plants, and plastic and chemical industries (Sbhatu, 2009). It is extremely good deal to invest on Bt. Cotton today so that the textile industry can boom tomorrow. Biotechnology offers a lot of opportunities for the industry ranging from the production of enzymes and antibiotics to biofuels. It is interesting that biotechnology keeps the industry in a middle of business flow where the products of agriculture enter in to the system and the outputs could be as important as commercial foods or drugs prepared from GM medicinal plants. Besides this, biotechnology can be the integral part of pharmaceutical industries.

  1. Establishing efficient biotechnology administration and research structure in Tigrai, Ethiopia

The administrative and research structures are one of the main factors that determine the innovative capacity of a nation. Bureaucracy may block or ease innovative performance; it may scare away skills and expertise or may reverse brain drain and waste, it may yet attract and retain investment or lead to relocation of investors to other parts of the country or other countries. It is not only investing huge budget on technology firms but also easing the system in to workable and efficient manner that brings back the scientific dignity and competitiveness of a nation in to an advanced level (Demissie and Muchie, 2014). Therefore, the administrative structure of biotechnology research in Tigrai is outlined below:

Suggested administrative and research structure in Tigrai
Figure 1. Suggested administrative and research structure in Tigrai,  Ethiopia.


The Tigrai Biotechnology Committee (TBC) will be comprised of all members of plant biotechnology scientific committee (PBSC),   Animal biotechnology scientific committee (ABSC),   microbial biotechnology scientific committee (MiBSC) and   Medical biotechnology scientific committee (MeBSC).

  The Plant Biotechnology Scientific Committee (PBSC) will be comprised of the research team leaders from each research group i.e. Drought/Salt tolerance from and NUE from MU, Human Nutrition and Biofuel leaders from AkU, Biotic stress and Phytoremediation from AdU and PTC research team leader from the tigray Biotechnology Center.  The PBSC assigns researchers from regional, national or international universities/organizations in to each research groups and monitors the progress of each research project. The members of PBSC residing in the university where the research is undertaken leads the rest researchers in each research group and reports it to the PBSC in a regular basis. The leader of the PBSC communicates the research progress and outputs to the TBC. If the TBC finds the research findings relevant, the TBC advises the president of the regional state.

The Research Groups (RG) in each university should specialize on the subjects of research and have experience on solving the indicated research problem or related traits in the past. A research group will be formed from the scholars in different universities but it is coordinated in one of the universities as described above in Figure 1. For example, in order to develop a drought resistant teff, all tef researchers employed in regional, national or international organizations should participate. Participation of researchers from different organizations not only make the research effective but also helps in the acquisition of materials and chemicals needed for the project. Even though, research projects are preferred to be done by postdoctoral researchers, PhD students may be part of the research. The research groups should be comprised of PhD and Masters holders in the areas of biotechnology.

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), currently under the ministry of Forestry and Environment, is a national competent authority that organizes all categories of risk assessment i.e. Human Health, Animal Health and Environmental Effects (Abraham, 2013). Therefore, research groups should communicate with the EPA for regulatory interventions in biotechnology research. On the other hand, the Ethiopian Biotechnology Institute (EBTi) can be helpful in financial grants and solving bureaucratic hurdles at the national level.

  1. Establishing a high-tech DNA sequencing Laboratory  (TDSL) in Mekelle, Tigrai 

It is obvious that the universities and research institutes have their own molecular biology laboratories but they will not be able to have latest DNA sequencing technologies. Therefore, we need to have one state of the art functional genomics lab in the state capital, Mekelle.  At the same time,it could be a hub for training of biotechnology tools to researchers and analysis of biological samples based on the available sequencing technologies.  Since it would be under the suggested Tigrai biotechnology council (TBC), it will have benefits for coordinating different research institutes, universities and hospitals that use DNA based analysis systems for their research and diagnostic services. The laboratory must have at least two major teams i.e. DNA sequencing and Bioinformatics Teams. The incorporation of modest IT both in the laboratory and outside the laboratory that will be organized and managed by the bioinformatics team is necessary. Furthermore, despite being a core hub for the promotion of biotechnology research, it can be helpful in the detection and analysis of genetically modified organisms that are produced in the country or that come from the international market.

Apparatus and teams of the TDSL
Figure 2. Apparatus and teams of the TDSL


7. Conclusion

“Responsible biotechnology is not our enemy; hunger and starvation are. Without adequate food supplies at affordable prices, we cannot expect world health, prosperity, and peace,” said Norman Borlaug, a research laureate.  On another note, the former Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, who was exemplified as vibrant and visionary leader by his compatriots, was quoted saying“Should we rule out GM crops or biotechnology as a weapon in our arsenal? No. Why should we rule out any technology? GM technology is like every [other] technology. It could be used well, or it could be misused. The issue is how to use it well. I think it can be used well if it is used safely and if it does not increase the already big power of huge multinationals at the expense of the small-scale farmer.” Of course, the benefits that biotechnology research can give to this poor nation are unquestionable. The major question resides on how to use it well.  However, the research system needs a restructure in order to incorporate the use of biotechnology tools effectively.

  1. Conflict of Interest

The ideas and views presented in the paper are only the Author’s and they don’t represent any affiliated third parties or employers.

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