PhD Students Graduate from NUI Galway’s Partnership with International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA)

Dr Girum Azmach from Ethiopia has been conducting his PhD research, funded by Irish Aid, on developing more nutritious maize varieties that contain higher levels of vitamin A.
Jun 29 2015 Posted: 10:06 IST

Recent crop research in Africa by NUI Galway PhD researchers has had a specific focus on food security and today sees the announcement of the first PhD graduates from an Africa-Ireland collaborative programme. Through a research and training partnership between NUI Galway and the world leading non-profit research organisation the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), advances have been made that contribute to global efforts to improve crop productivity, nutritional quality and resilience. IITA is one of the world’s leading research partners in finding solutions for hunger, malnutrition, and poverty.

The first PhD Scholars have now graduated from the IITA-NUI Galway PhD Scholars programme. Over the past four years the three scholars have undergone a collaborative training programme and have been conducting their crop research between NUI Galway and IITA research stations in Kenya and Nigeria.

The three PhD Scholars have each researched a particular challenge relating to three important staple crops, and have each made significant advances in their field: 

Maize: Dr Girum Azmach  from Ethiopia has been conducting his PhD research, funded by Irish Aid, on developing more nutritious maize varieties that contain higher levels of vitamin A. Such biofortified crops are being developed by IITA and global partners to combat ‘hidden hunger’ malnutrition amongst the rural poor. Dr Azmach has returned to Ethiopia to contribute to the national maize breeding programme. 


Bananas: Dr Mercy Kitavi  from Kenya focused her PhD research, also funded by Irish Aid, on East African Highland bananas, a staple crop of smallholder farmers in the Great Lakes region of sub-Saharan Africa. The research has revealed that all varieties of East African Highland bananas lack genetic diversity and are at high risk of being wiped out by new strains of the deadly banana wilt fungus. Dr Kitavi now works on capacity building in East Africa for sweet potato research.


Yams: Dr Gezahegn Tessema  from Ethiopia has been conducting his PhD research, funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on understanding genetic diversity of yams, which are an important staple crop in Africa. The research has improved understanding of how yam genetic diversity can be better harnessed in breeding programs to make more resilient and productive yams to meet future challenges such as climate change. Dr. Tessema is currently working with IITA on developing improved cassava varieties for food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The research of the three IITA-NUI Galway PhD Scholars was co-supervised by Professor Charles Spillane of the Plant and AgriBiosciences Research Center (PABC) at NUI Galway and the world-leading IITA scientists Dr Abebe Menkir, Dr Melaku Gedil, Dr Jim Lorenzen and Dr Morag Ferguson. Professor Spillane commented: “The innovative crop research work of these three IITA-NUI Galway PhD scholars contributes significantly to the broader goals of IITA, NUI Galway’s PABC and Irish Aid, of conducting agricultural research for improving food security and nutrition in developing countries, particularly in Africa”.


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