African plant breeders Sylvester Oikeh, left, and Stephen Mugo, Ph.D. ’99, on campus for a meeting of the Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows in early October.

Cornellians use their education to serve fellow Africans

Cornellians Stephen Mugo, Ph.D. ’99, and former postdoctoral student Sylvester Oikeh came full circle recently when they returned to the university Oct. 7 to share the story of how they’ve used their education for humanitarian purposes in Africa.

The two scientists have been instrumental in leading the Water Efficient for Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, a public-private partnership that has developed drought-tolerant and insect-resistant maize (corn) hybrids for smallholder farmers in five sub-Saharan nations. Some 300 million Africans depend on maize as their main source of food.

Mugo and Oikeh met on campus with Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows before heading to the Cornell-hosted University Industry Consortium meeting in Syracuse Oct. 10 for a well-received panel discussion on WEMA’s success.

“To me, that was fantastic,” Oikeh said. “I love to have opportunities like this to talk about the WEMA story.”

Mugo agreed. “I was happy because I always wanted to come back and share my experience on what we are doing in Africa with the community,” he said.

Both men credited their Cornell experiences with providing the foundation that supported their WEMA work.

Mugo, a native of Kenya, earned his doctorate in plant breeding and genetics, with minors in plant physiology and international agriculture. “That was the best thing I did,” he said, noting that his studies helped him secure a postdoctoral position at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico. From there, he went on to lead several of the center’s numerous projects in Africa.

“Because of the experience I had with international agriculture, it allowed my employer and colleagues to give me responsibility in overseeing these continentwide projects to develop something with a real impact in Africa,” Mugo said.

Oikeh, a native of Nigeria, was last on the Cornell campus 16 years ago as a postdoctoral fellow, establishing for the first time the link between micronutrients iron and zinc in grain and improved human nutrition. His proof of concept research and expertise informed the work of HarvestPlus, a global partnership that won the 2016 World Food Prize for its efforts to develop biofortified foods to boost nutrition.

“Because of the experience I had with international agriculture, it allowed my employer and colleagues to give me responsibility in overseeing these continentwide projects to develop something with a real impact in Africa.”

Stephen Mugo, Ph. D. ’99

Oikeh joined the African Agricultural Technology Foundation in 2009 as project manager for WEMA, which has now been renamed TELA Maize Project to reflect its foray into genetically modified varieties of drought-tolerant and insect-resistant maize.

Since its inception, the African-led and managed project, financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffet Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development, has bred 104 conventional hybrids and five GM hybrids. The project focused on the maize crop “because a third of the African population depends on it,” Oikeh said. “To most children in Africa, food is what you get from the farm. There is no marketplace. If you have no food, you have hunger.”

Neither Mugo nor Oikeh initially expected Cornell would open so many doors and greatly influence their life’s work. But Mugo soon realized Cornell would allow him to “combine hard science with the tools for developing a system that would be used to benefit somebody. And that is very unique. Some of the science in WEMA was developed [over] a long time. Now we’re grappling with how to get it out to the people in Africa. There is more to making an impact than just conducting science.”

Additionally, Cornell provided financial support to help Mugo’s wife, Fridah Wilumila Mugo, M.S. ’96, Ph.D. ’99, obtain her doctorate in natural resources management. “Most universities do not give you that opportunity,” he said. “We spent four years here. My twin son and daughter went to elementary school and part of middle school in Ithaca. Cornell is a big part of our lives.”

Joan Conrow is the managing editor of the Cornell Alliance for Science.

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