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10 Questions for Gebisa Ejeta

What has Gebisa Ejeta been up to since he became a World Food Prize laureate in 2009? Has it brought changes to his life? Connections Managing Editor Tom Campbell sat down with Ejeta for a few minutes – as much time as he could carve out with the always busy distinguished professor of agronomy – to find out. Here, Ejeta reflects on his past year and his outlook on the problem of world hunger in a Q&A.

Gebisa Ejeta keeps this photo on his desk as a reminder that he once was just another poor kid from a small African village. It helps him sustain the hope that with good education and some assistance, any one of these kids can achieve similar success.

Photo by Tom Campbell

Gebisa Ejeta keeps this photo on his desk as a reminder that he once was just another poor kid from a small African village. It helps him sustain the hope that with good education and some assistance, any one of these kids can achieve similar success.

1. You traveled more than 130,000 miles last year as World Food Prize laureate. What was the most unusual means of transportation?

My means of transportation have all been very conventional. But my last trip of the year was to Norway. I had asked my hosts if they could take me to the Svalbard Vault, which holds the world’s plant seeds in reserve against a global crisis. The seed bank is in a cave above the Arctic Circle. We didn’t get to do it because of scheduling conflicts, but if we had, the final stretch of that trip would have been on a dogsled, which would have been very interesting.

2. 2007 World Food Prize laureate Philip Nelson warned you that this prize would change your life. Has it?

Phil was right. It has made my life hectic but interesting. I have traveled more in one year than I ever have in my life. But it has opened up incredible opportunities for engagement. I’ve had invitations from government officials from several countries, including the United States, from university officials, scientific forums and student bodies around the world. I have participated in hunger projects and development forums in so many different areas, including those where I don’t usually get invited. And those are in addition to the scientific conferences I usually participate in.

The World Food Prize opened incredible opportunities for advancing the cause of science and advancing the cause of the poor. And it put me in the spotlight so that people began to think that I have insights to share. Hopefully, my efforts may have made a difference. It has been wonderful.

But it also added an incredible amount of work. Through the winter I had been doing two speaking engagements a week, all across the United States and Canada before I began the long hauls to distant lands. In just the past year, I have spoken on most of the continents of the world.

To be speaking to thought leaders and powerful government officials of the world so they would better recognize the causes of science and the causes of the poor has been wonderful.

But, yes, Phil was absolutely right. It changed my life.

3. What did you do with the prize money from the award?

I have not collected the money from the World Food Prize yet. I have been so busy running around the world that I have not had to the time to establish my foundation.

The hope is that we will get the money transferred soon. My children decided we should name the foundation after my mother, who passed away recently. We are going to honor my mother, Motu Ayano, because of her vast contributions in my life and, through me, in the lives of my children. I am delighted to honor my mother in such a way.

The goal of the foundation is to advance education and community welfare in rural Africa. The initial effort will be in Ethiopia, beginning with building a vocational school like the one I attended in high school. But this one will be in my small village of Wollonkomi.

4. Of the volumes of correspondence you received, is there one piece you would like to share?

So many wanted to congratulate me or to hold me up as an example for people who have come from as far away as I have, in terms of the economic ladder as well as the causes that I have advanced through my science. But one that stood out was an e-mail that came from a Scandinavian man with a one-word message.

It said nothing else but “Respect.” I didn’t know the person, but I found that to be a very humbling – yet powerful – message. It serves as a reassurance to stay focused on the cause that I have advanced. That meant a lot to me.

Gebisa Ejeta plans to use the $250,000 award from the World Food Prize to establish a foundation to help build a new school for the children of his hometown, Wollonkomi, Ethiopia.

Photo by Tom Campbell

Gebisa Ejeta plans to use the $250,000 award from the World Food Prize to establish a foundation to help build a new school for the children of his hometown, Wollonkomi, Ethiopia.

5. You were the first person to address a Purdue commencement other than the president. Tell us about that.

The fact that President Córdova would ask the board of trustees to make an exception to the long-held tradition at Purdue University to not have anyone other than the president speak was indeed a great honor.

That she would do it for me, I thought, was an exceptional vote of confidence from her. I am thankful the board of trustees accepted her recommendation. That was a statement made by the president and the board. Knowing I will forever be the first person other than the president to speak at a Purdue commencement certainly means a lot to me.

6. How have you been able to keep up with your research during the past year?

Thanks to the many collaborators and my support staff here, we have tried to keep the research going. But I think there is a slight loss of momentum, mainly because I haven’t made the time to write proposals and seek the grant funds to bring in new students and postdoctoral staff to support my research.

My resolution in 2011 is to concentrate on getting some proposals in to get my research going at full speed again. I am down to one student and two postdoctoral staff members, and I would want to build it up again because I am committed to continuing my research.

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