sealPurdue News

March 14, 1997

Purdue, World Vision deliver life-saving seed to Africa

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Sorghum seed created to benefit African farmers was just a minor laboratory success story until two Purdue University researchers teamed up with a nonprofit organization to go the extra 8,000 miles to deliver the life-saving seed.

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Purdue scientists, who bioengineered sorghum to resist infestation by a parasitic weed, striga, have delivered seed for the new crop to farmers in 12 African countries, including Rwanda, which is currently experiencing famine and civil unrest.

By 1999, 200,000 farm families in sub-Saharan Africa are expected to benefit from the new seed.

Striga, also known as witch weed, is a parasitic plant that attacks sorghum. Although this isn't a problem in the United States, it is in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, where sorghum is the second most important food crop behind corn.

Striga destroys 40 percent of Africa's annual sorghum crop, which is worth about $7 billion per year. In Ethiopia and Sudan, the losses are as high as 100 percent in some areas.

For the past 10 years Purdue has been working to develop striga-resistant sorghum. The research was conducted by Gebisa Ejeta, professor of agronomy, and the late Larry Butler, professor of biochemistry, who died unexpectedly in February.

Ejeta and Butler successfully created several striga-resistant varieties of sorghum, field-tested them in Africa and found eight varieties that showed promise for production.

At this point the research project was a success. The varieties had been successfully bred, identified and tested. But the farmers in Africa didn't have any of the life-saving crops.

"I realized that if we sent the farmers in Africa five grams of seed that it would take several years for them to grow enough generations of plants to have enough seed to raise crops," Ejeta says.

Ejeta and Butler worked to grow one ton of seed for each of the eight varieties. So now they had eight tons of sorghum seed, but no way to deliver the seeds to Africa. The funds available to Purdue through the U.S. Agency for International Development were for research only.

"Finally I contacted World Vision, which worked with the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Relief to arrange to ship the seeds to Africa," Ejeta says. World Vision is a Christian foreign-relief organization based in Monrovia, Calif.

World Vision picked up the seed at Purdue and shipped it to four sites in Africa. The organization also arranged for Ejeta to travel to Kenya to meet with World Vision agronomists from the various countries to explain the optimum crop management techniques for the new varieties. "That's more than we planned for an organization to do originally," Ejeta says.

He adds that working with World Vision had benefits beyond just shipping the seed to Africa: "As a Christian organization, they tend to be more grassroots than we are. They work with local farmers, while we work only with researchers."

In the 1995-96 crop season, the striga-resistant sorghum seed was sent to 3,750 farm families in nine countries: Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Niger, Mozambique and Ethiopia.

For the 1997 harvest, World Vision is expanding the program to Chad, Kenya and Zaire. "Chad and Zaire have big problems with hunger right now, both because of poor crop conditions and because of political problems," Ejeta says.

According to Mark Hermodson, head of the Department of Biochemistry, the application of the research was a source of pride for the 63-year-old Butler before he died. "Larry repeatedly said that these last years were the happiest and most satisfying of his career, and that he wished that he could be at the beginning of it, not the end," Hermodson says. "This was in large part because he was seeing the results from his years of research being brought to bear on some very daunting problems in the poorest parts of the world. He always had a deep concern for the poor and powerless of the world, and assisting them in a direct way gave him great satisfaction."

Ejeta says: "Larry was an outstanding scientist who had a remarkable ability to focus on research that had the potential to make a difference for many people. I'm sad that he didn't live long enough to see his work have an effect on the lives of the poor in Africa over the next year or two."

Sources: Gebisa Ejeta, (765) 494-4320; e-mail,
Mark Hermodson, (765) 494-1637; e-mail,
Writer: Steve Tally, (317) 494-9809; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

Photo caption

Purdue Professors Larry Butler (left) and Gebisa Ejeta not only developed pest-resistant sorghum for African farmers, they also grew eight tons of seed and arranged for it to be distributed in Africa. The seed is expected to aid 200,000 farm families by 1999. Butler, who died in February, told colleagues that the effort was the happiest and most satisfying of his career. (Purdue Ag Communication Service Photo by Dave King)

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