Flourishing in her Field
8 March 2021
Eyerusalem Arusi Morka shows what can be achieved when women have the opportunity to develop their talents.
In honor of International Women’s Day, which celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women around the world, the Crop Trust spoke with the trailblazing Eyerusalem, a 29-year-old plant physiologist and assistant researcher at the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute (EBI).
EBI is tasked with conserving the biological resources of the country and holds the national seed collection, with more than 87,000 accessions of crop and forest germplasm. There are about 78 crop species in the genebank. The institute participates in the Crop Trust’s Seeds for Resilience project, which assists five of Africa’s most important genebanks to store their crop diversity for the long term, for use by both scientists and farmers.
This year’s theme of “choose to challenge” urges participants in International Women’s Day to effect change by calling out gender bias and inequality.
Eyerusalem earned a Master of Science degree from Addis Ababa University (AAU) six years ago, after receiving a women’s scholarship from AAU as part of a program supported by the Swedish government. She joined EBI in 2018 and has thrived there.
Statistics confirm a gender imbalance in Eyerusalem’s chosen profession. Less than 30 percent of the world’s researchers working in the field of science are women. In Ethiopia, the figure was just 13 percent in 2015, based on the latest available data cited by the United Nations.
Of the 78 employees at the Crop and Horticultural Biodiversity Directorate at EBI where Eyerusalem works, there are 14 women researchers.
The Crop Trust spoke with Eyerusalem about her work, challenges and hopes.
What led you to a career at EBI?
I grew up in Jimma, which is a city in the southwest of the country, about 350 km from Addis Ababa. The area is covered with forests and is famous for producing coffee.
After high school, it was only by chance that I joined the agriculture faculty at Mizan-Tepi University. It wasn’t my first choice, but it was the first offer I received. I initially wanted to study pharmacy.
I finished my master’s in plant biology and biodiversity management in 2015 after writing a thesis on “stay-green” sorghum and drought tolerance. In 2015, I was a graduate assistant in the Agriculture Faculty at Dilla University for 10 months before defending my thesis. Then, for the next two years, I worked with my thesis supervisor on a project about enset bacterial wilt disease. After that I got the job at EBI.
What is it like being a woman in your profession?
It’s not always a visible thing, but the treatment of women can be subtly different. Sometimes, people underestimate me and are pleasantly surprised if I achieve something relatively small. They may say I’ve done something great, even though I think it’s no big deal. But appreciating women for their achievements is a good thing.
Women may also face more challenges as they move higher in an organization. But if you are good at what you do, you can overcome that. As long as I’ve done my job the right way, the rest doesn’t bother me.
What are the most enjoyable and difficult parts of your job?
I enjoy the feeling that what I do now is about the future. I find that fascinating.
The most difficult part is sometimes not being able to deal with a problem because the genebank case team lacks the authority to do so. This often relates to budgets or involves human resources. Some issues also have to be dealt with externally, not within the institute.
Since working with the Crop Trust project, we’ve been able to do more things, like developing documents, helping with budgets and planning, and upskilling our knowledge. When we officially start the Seeds for Resilience work in the genebank, it will definitely have an impact on what we can achieve.
What’s next for EBI and its collection?
Clearing backlogs of key genebank processes and safety duplication is one of the issues that will be addressed within the Seeds for Resilience program. As long as there’s no conflict with the Plant Treaty or with any other agreement the institute or country has signed, I hope it is something EBI will do, at least for some crops. We have only one national genebank and there is no safety duplication of its contents at all, so this is a big gap and a risk.
With the Crop Trust, we will be dealing with Annex 1 crops, but we have other crops as well. It’s something we should do. From a technical perspective, we need safety duplicates.
Through the Seeds for Resilience projects, we will also identify redundant accessions through information available on Genesys and elsewhere. This will hopefully help us to prioritize our collections. This activity is planned for this year.
Tell us about some of the other challenges and successes EBI has right now.
All of the genetic material in EBI has to be conserved safely for the future. A challenge is that our field genebanks are quite vulnerable to natural hazards, climate change, disease and man-made disasters like fires. Another challenge is the conservation methods and facilities that the genebank currently has don’t address all types of materials. For example, we lack in vitro and cryopreservation facilities for vegetatively propagating plants and non-orthodox seeds. This is a challenge that requires more budget.
That being said, we are seeing some great successes. Our accession holdings are increasing by the thousands and we have cold storage facilities for medium- and long-term conservation. Some of the cold rooms have been there since the genebank was established a long time ago and we now have a plan to assess their efficiency. We have dedicated staff for each of the processes—such as viability testing, drying, distribution and characterization—and also hope to conserve materials released from the national research centers. We are on a good path.
Seeds for Resilience works with the national genebanks of Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Zambia to improve food security in the region by conserving and sharing their seed collections with farmers and scientists. The five-year project is funded by the Federal Government of Germany through the German Development Bank (KfW).