Realising the potential of bioresources to mitigate development challenges in Ethiopia, a centre of wild and domesticated plant diversity

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
Department Name: Natural Capital and Plant Health


This Challenge Cluster aims to enable Ethiopia to realise the potential of its abundant and unique plant diversity to address global challenges in food security, health and nutrition, poverty and displacement. To this end, it will conduct research and capacity-building to identify and manage areas of high plant diversity, develop value chains around currently underutilised plants, and critically evaluate the roles that plant diversity can play in addressing development challenges.

Ethiopia faces multiple interacting development challenges linked to environmental change and degradation, of which food insecurity is central. Over 85% of the population depends upon rainfed agriculture, which is highly vulnerable to climatic, social and political shocks, as demonstrated by severe famine in recent decades. From a population of >108 million, a third of have insufficient food to eat and a quarter live below the national poverty line. Malnutrition is causing stunting and other health problems, impacting the lives of millions of individuals. Food insecurity is also contributing to political and resource-based conflict and human displacement that affects over 2 million Ethiopians. Climate change will exacerbate these problems by reducing agricultural productivity through increased drought and heat stress, creating an urgent need to identify and develop crop varieties adapted to the new conditions.

As a hotspot for plant diversity (both wild plants and domesticated crops), Ethiopia harbours biological resources that could play important roles in solving these challenges. For example, current research within the Cluster is uncovering varieties of enset (the principal starch staple for 20 million Ethiopians) with high content of essential micronutrients zinc and iron that can potentially help to address chronic malnutrition. Further crop varieties possessing resilience to climatic stressors and other valuable traits are almost certainly waiting to be discovered by science. Likewise, wild plant diversity likely contains genetic resources that can be used in crop improvement and to develop value chains that create economic opportunities for poor rural communities.

The opportunity to apply Ethiopia's indigenous plant diversity to address development challenges is rapidly diminishing, however, as wild and domesticated plant diversity is lost to the conversion and degradation of natural habitats and the homogenisation of agricultural landscapes. Research is urgently needed to identify and manage the most important remaining hotspots of Ethiopian plant diversity, and the Ethiopian government has invited Kew to support Ethiopian scientists in this effort.

Building upon a 30+ year history of successful UK-Ethiopia collaboration, the goal of this Cluster is to realise the potential of Ethiopia's plant diversity to address poverty, food insecurity and climate change vulnerability. Toward this goal, we aim to achieve the following objectives:

Objective 1: Identify and map hotspots of Ethiopian wild and domesticated plant diversity and provide recommendations to the Government of Ethiopia for the designation and management of these areas.
Objective 2: Identify and characterise bioresources with valuable traits to enable the development of value chains around currently underutilised plants in a way that benefits the poorest sectors of society.
Objective 3: Evaluate the actual and perceived socio-economic impacts of areas of high wild and domesticated plant diversity to inform sustainable and equitable management of these areas.
Objective 4: Critically evaluate the role that areas of high wild and domesticated plant diversity and associated plant-product value chains play in addressing broader local and regional development challenges.
Objective 5: Enhance the capacity of Ethiopian and UK-based researchers to conduct research and associated activities that support the conservation and sustainable use of Ethiopian plant diversity.

Planned Impact

This Challenge Cluster will build new knowledge, capacity and partnerships that enable Ethiopia to more effectively conserve and utilise its plant genetic diversity and bioresources to address poverty, food insecurity and climate change vulnerability. Specifically, the project is designed to deliver positive outcomes and benefits across overlapping groups of stakeholders from rural farmers to national policy makers.

A central outcome will be delivery of strengthened Ethiopian bioresource conservation network, fit for the 21st Century, through designation of new Important Plant Areas (IPAs) that encompass the most ecologically rich, unique and potentially useful botanical resources in the country. Beneficiaries will be targeted at multiple scales. First, neighbouring communities will be supported through greater involvement in planning and executing the management of these areas, to ensure these are delivered in a culturally appropriate and sensitive manner.

Second multiple case studies on the national benefits of Ethiopian bioresources will be co-developed with neighbouring communities. Over 75% of Ethiopians are smallholder farmers, thus even incremental improvement in bioresource development and ecosystem service provision could positively impact millions of the world's most vulnerable people. We will explicitly ensure that marginalised minority ethnic groups, women and displaced people are involved and benefit by setting targets for 50% participation by women in all project activities, and additional evidence-based targets of participation by displaced and minority ethnic groups. Based on existing research within our Challenge Cluster, the first case study will be development of underutilised varieties of enset with improved nutritional profiles. Through partnerships we will target increased consumption of currently under-consumed essential micronutrients (e.g. Zn and Fe) to improved health in currently malnourished communities in the Southern Nations.

Subsequently, value chain development around currently underutilised wild and domesticated crops will be achieved through biochemical and co-product research to identify valuable compounds. This will be combined with market research and business development support, led by Ethiopian partners in an approach similar to the recent development of Coffee value chains. In addition to benefitting local communities, these case studies will also be targeted towards regional and national policy makers to establish top down support and incentives for bioresource conservation.

Thirdly, through consultation and collaborative prioritisation we will identify opportunities to optimise the ecosystem services derived from protected areas. Protected areas have the potential to contribute to broader aspects of human security and wellbeing, offering the chances not only to enhance agriculture but also to tackle issues of environmental degradation, reduce exposure to hazards such as landslides, strengthen water security in the face of climatic change and reduce pressures that force people to migration and displacement. By critically evaluating and documenting benefits of proximity to IPAs, we aim to encourage community-led requests for IPA designation.
By simultaneously tackling a suite of interacting sustainable development challenges through this interdisciplinary Challenge Cluster, we aim to not only enhance the impact of our individual GCRF projects, but also amplify project synergies to further boost impact.

Finally, considering wider regional sustainable development challenges, we will develop one or more best-practice examples of how a developing country can benefit economically from sharing its plant genetic resources. Such south-south cooperation would ensure that Ethiopian bioresources can benefit Ethiopia and other countries equitably, accelerating progress towards global sustainable development goals.


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