Texas A&M student looks beyond classroom, lab
Writer: Kay Ledbetter, 806-677-5608, email@example.com
Contact: Dr. Shuyu Liu, 806-677-5600, SLiu@ag.tamu.edu
Dr. Amir Ibrahim, 979-845-8274, firstname.lastname@example.org
Silvano Ocheya, email@example.com
AMARILLO – Silvano Ocheya is a long way from home. But it won’t be long before he returns to Kenya or another developing countryin need of the new skills he’s learned in the U.S.
“I hope to work in a developing country; not necessarily my country, but I have a passion to help make change in people’s lives. That’s my focus,” said Ocheya, a Texas A&M University doctoral student in College Station.
Ocheya spent the summer in Amarillo harvesting wheat and gathering data for his dissertation project, which he will complete in about 18 months under advisors Dr. Shuyu Liu, Texas A&M AgriLife Research small grains geneticist in Amarillo, and Dr. Amir Ibrahim, AgriLife Research wheat breeder in College Station.
He grew up in Kenya near Kisumu on a farm run by his mother after his father’s death in 1990. There are five boys and three girls in his family, and all of them advanced to the college level. But Ocheya will be the first with both a master’s and a doctoral degree.
His undergraduate degree was earned at the University of Nairobi, followed by an internship at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, or CIMMYT, in Kenya. He pursued a master’s degree in genetics and plant breeding at the same university and returned to the center for four years.
“My mentor was Dr. Dan Makumbi, an alumnus of Texas A&M University,” Ocheya said. “He encouraged me to pursue my education further, and recommended I apply for Monsanto’s Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program.”
Ocheya worked on corn with Makumbi. But he said Makumbi urged him to work on wheat while in the U.S. so he could learn something different. Wheat, corn, cassava and sorghum are the daily food staples for most farmers in Africa.
“Working on those crops will make the biggest impact,” he said. “With these crops, the farmers can have food and make surplus to sell, so they can buy other things or take the kids to school. Beyond primary school, education costs money in Kenya.”
Ocheya’s project addresses issues dealing with drought and rusts, which are major problems for wheat in the U.S. and many African countries, including Kenya.
“We import two-thirds of the wheat consumed in Kenya,” he said. “So production-wise, we need to pull ourselves up. But there are many issues with drought. Farmers rely solely on rainfall. We need to breed wheat that is drought tolerant but also disease resistant. Stem rust is the primary yield-limiting factor for us.”
Ocheya said in his doctoral studies they are combining drought tolerance and rust resistance from U.S. and Kenyan wheat cultivars to find traits that will work under the Kenyan conditions. He said the training here is different, because the combination of coursework and research “trains you to be a more well-rounded scientist. And, the availability of facilities completes your training.”
It is that well-rounded education that will be needed in the future, he said.
“We just need to do simple things,” Ocheya said. “The U.S. has improved their yields by doing simple things: breeding in resistance and taking it to the farmer. We need to do that in these developing countries – take the technology to the farmer.”
Ironically, “take it to the farmer” was the last thing the late Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and wheat breeder at both CIMMYT and Texas A&M, said, according to Ibrahim.
“The time is ripe for this generation of outstanding African scholars, such as Ocheya, to carry on that legacy and fulfill Borlaug’s dreams,” Ibrahim said. “This is very befitting as Ocheya is a Monsanto Beachell-Borlaug Scholar.”
Liu said Ocheya, in addition to the three-year scholar program, was selected this year as one of 14 graduate students worldwide recognized as a “Borlaug next generation delegate.”
“His success in his research is built on the success of the wheat improvement team at Texas A&M AgriLife Research,” Liu said. “His advising committee is a strong team, including wheat breeders, geneticist and stress physiologist.”
Ocheya said in the U.S., the system works right. The government helps the process instead of hindering it and everyone seems to work together.
He said there is a time lag in technological advancements in the developing countries, adding, “the technology people in these countries are trying to implement now has already been replaced in the U.S. We need current technology to address current problems.”
Often in developing countries, he said, the problem is a failure to get new technology to the fields. There is a missing connection between the scientists and Extension agents. While phone app use is growing, most farmers still don’t have knowledge of computers and don’t know where to get information.
The Ministry of Agriculture operates the Extension program in Kenya and everycounty has an agent. But it is different from the U.S. where the agents travel and there is a lot of contact, Ocheya said.
In Kenya, the agents have limited capacity to visit the farms, he said. The farms are small, averaging 1 acre, so there are many more people to educate. And many are run by women, like his mother, who rely on what they produce to feed their families and provide a livelihood.
Ocheya knows he wants to breed new varieties to respond to the issues of climate change, such as drought. But he also knows he can only be successful if there are more people involved to ensure the varieties he develops get to the farmer.
“If they don’t, it is a waste of time,” he said. “I know if I go back and try to work alone, I will fail. I will need everyone to be on board. Extensionists, pathologists and entomologist – everyone has to be on board to make sure the technology reaches the farmer.
“We need varieties that respond well to enhanced agronomic practices; but the farmer, at the end of the day, needs a full complete package of education. If he or she grows the best variety, but doesn’t know how much fertilizer to apply, it will fail again.”
Ocheya said technology such as Round-up Readywould allow intensive farming systems. Additionally, the farmers need high density crops that provide more plants per acre to increase the production, since the farm size is so small. The farmers also need to learn to prioritize the use of their resources to make an impact.
So while his work may not take him home when he graduates, Ocheya is sure it will take him where he is needed.
“I believe my skills are not needed in the U.S. at this time,” he said. “The yields in the U.S. are over 5 tons per hectare. But in Africa, for instance, it is 2 to 3 tons per hectare. So every year they have to import wheat. And with oil prices going up, that is not sustainable at all. This is where I am needed.”