Dr Azage Tegegne: An acclaimed scientist with Midas touch

Dr Azage Tegegne is convivial, but his gravitas can put you on edge to grab his effortless words indicative of significant import and his recent interview can vouchsafe for his intellect that could easily turn an informal chat on livestock scenario into an eye-opening proposition for many!

On bio-technology, he said, Ethiopia has embraced it as one of the tools to develop the country and making a great headway. The Ministry of Science and Technology including many universities have now established institutes of bio-technology all across.

He further adds, in agriculture sector, the Holeta Agricultural Research Centre is the hub for research on crops, livestock, forestry and microbes; it also has livestock bio-technology program at Holeta with its branch at Debre Zeit looking into feed technology, breeding, genetics, embryo transfer, in-vitro fertilization in cattle. Though the highest end of bio-tech is still being debated like genetically modified organism (GMOs), while other parts of it is already being applied.

Legitimizing his argument, he said, in this regard, the African Union has taken a quantum leap by establishing bio-technology platforms and one of them is Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) Facility at ILRI Campus in Nairobi, Kenya and Holeta serves as the Ethiopian nod.

On what ails livestock sector, he said, primarily absence of proper coordination, leadership and traditionally subsistent management system while principally improper feeding and lack of structured genetic improvement program in the country for different breeds of livestock is the hitch. The local breeds are small in size and produce less milk and meat; and the challenges for our university and research systems is to develop technologies and processes to improve this low productivity.

On breeding, he said, there are a number of breed improvement programs for cattle, sheep and goats. For example, Bagait, Abargale, Fogera, Borena, and Sheko breed improvement programs have been going on in Tigray, Amhara, Oromia and South Nations Nationalities and People’s Region.

Cross-breeding local cows with exotic dairy breeds has also been adopted as an option to improve the dairy sector over the last 50 years, mainly in urban and semi-urban areas where market exit. But still, we predominantly rear indigenous animals, and to stem the rot, we need a structured and coordinated genetic improvement program in the country.

Describing production-consumption ratio, he said, in Ethiopia, the per capita consumption of milk is 19 and meat 10 kg, which is very low compared to even neighboring African nations and against WHO’s standard recommendation of 100 and 50 kg, respectively. We need to take this underserved market as a springboard to improve livestock productivity and increase supply of animal products to the ever increasing human population.

Exemplifying further, he says lack of knowledge in applying right technologies in the right direction, for example the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) has a gene bank in Addis Ababa with over 20,000 accessions of forage crops collected from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Caribbean, but very few of them are used and remaining aren’t even in the farming system.

Flaying improper attitude, he said, there is a serious attitude problem towards our livestock in the country that must change. Although, the production system is mainly subsistent, livestock play important roles in socio-cultural set-up. Poor intervention in feeding, healthcare and overall management of livestock resources is due to lack of market-orientation that needs to be established, then farmers and pastoralists will care more for their animals in terms of feeding and healthcare.

Therefore, we got to be better organized in terms of health, genetic improvement, artificial insemination services, knowledge to farmers and market linkages. In this context, the university has to engage with community and government to show the right direction in transforming the sector.

He also informed that to improve the overall livestock sector and rejuvenate the languishing leather industry, the Ethiopian government has formed the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries in 2015 and developed the Ethiopian Livestock Master Plan to transform the sector and efforts are afoot in that direction, he quipped.

Citing hormonal oestrus synchronization, sexed semen, sexed embryos, superovulation and embryo transfer technology, he said, can be utilized to improve animal genetics. For example, in the last 4-to-5 years, over 650,0000 cows have been cross-bred in Tigray, Oromia, SNNPR and Amhara regions through hormonal oestrus synchronization.

This is a huge achievement compared to the total number of crossbred animals we have produced over the last three decades. Now, the government has set up a target to produce 5 Million cross-bred cows under Growth and Transformation Plan-II period; advanced reproductive and other technologies are being used to improve dairy genetics.

Taking a stand on ‘scientific apartheid’, he emphasized that it has significant implication in terms of what we can develop in our own country; citing the typical case of importation of the indigenous Boran cattle to Australia. He said, now we have to buy semen from them, and if they put IP issue, then we are restricted, and irony is that this is our genetic material and we have not used it appropriately. Unless we apply science and technology in Africa, advanced nations will eventually monopolize these genetics, he exclaimed.

A PhD from James Cook University, Australia, started as a teacher at Haramaya University. Now Dr Azage has over 350 scientific publications to his credit with partners. Presently, he is heading the LIVES Project at ILRI which operates in four regional government and ten zones including Gamo Gofa zone to benefit the community.

(Corporate Communication Directorate)