Livestock dairy scientist and former director general of ILCA John Walsh: An obituary

Former ILCA DGs John Walsh (left) and Hank Fitzhugh (right) in the 1980s

Former directors general of the International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA), a predecessor of ILRI, John Walsh (left), who passed away in Ireland at the end of Jan 2013, and Hank Fitzhugh (right) in the 1980s; in the middle is B K Johri, ILCA personel manager (photo credit: ILRI).

John Walsh, an Irish dairy scientist and former director general of the International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA), headquartered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and one of two predecessors of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), died on 31 January 2011, peacefully in his home in County Cork, Ireland. He is survived by his wife Marie, sons Brendan and Kevin, daughters Maeve and Emer, and six grandchildren.

John Walsh was appointed director general of ILCA in December 1986, following the departure of Peter Brumby (New Zealand), ILCA’s former director general. Walsh left ILCA in July of 1993, succeeded by Hank Fitzhugh (USA) that August.

Under Walsh’s tenure, a collaborative program between ILCA and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) was established in August 1988 at KARI’s Mtwapa Regional Research Centre, near Mombasa, Kenya. This program went on to play a major role in an award-winning ILRI-KARI-Kenya Ministry of Livestock Development Smallholder Dairy Project, under the direction of ILCA-ILRI scientist Bill Thorpe. ILCA also at this time established strong collaboration with the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Organisation (EARO), such as in smallholder dairy at the Holleta Research Station.

In September 1989, ILCA’s Semi-Arid Zone Programme was established in Niger at the Sahelian Centre of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). In 1991 — the year in which the Ethiopia Government was overthrown — a joint ILCA-ILRAD African Trypanotolerant Livestock Network project, which had begun in 1980, was concluded. In 1992, ILCA launched a project to help conserve Africa’s indigenous animal genetic resources, which became a major program at ILCA and then ILRI under the leadership of ILCA-ILRI scientist Ed Rege.

‘Walsh brought to ILCA a strong emphasis on strengthening national agricultural research systems (NARS) of Africa’, says Hank Fitzhugh. ‘Training African scientists and extension agents and running collaborative research networks were given high priority. Among the collaborative research networks ILCA spearheaded at this time were the Small Ruminant Research Network, the Cattle Research Network and the Feed Resources Research Network. Many consider this emphasis on NARS, acknowledged by the Third External Program and Management Review of ILCA, to be Walsh’s legacy.’

Jean Hanson, a former and long-standing ILCA-ILRI scientist who headed ILRI’s Forage Genebank, and Fitzhugh both remember John’s kind heart, especially his concern for the disadvantaged.

Jean Hanson speaks for the ILRI family in her tribute that follows.

‘John had a strong background in livestock science in Ireland and strong administrative skills. One of the first things that John did when he joined ILCA was to put in place administrative policies and guidelines to bring order into the running of the institute. He liked things to be done in a very orderly way and led by example. He would walk up to the main gate and observe the time that staff arrived to make the point that he expected them to keep the working hours and he would pick up any waste paper lying on the ground and drop it into the bin to encourage others to keep the place tidy.

‘He was very hands on and used to walk around and drop into staff offices for a chat about how the work was going and what the challenges were and if as director general he could do anything to move the work forward. He was very proud of the compound and the image of ILCA and was responsible for the purchase of a sculpture at the front entrance of ILCA, which depicts a calf  being fed a special type of salt bar (‘amole chow’) by a woman, from the Art School at Addis Ababa University just before his departure in 1993.

‘He led ILCA through its period of expansion in sub-Saharan Africa and the difficult transition of power in Ethiopia in 1991. He was out of the country on official travel when things started to unfold and flew back to do what he could to ensure the safety of the staff and continued running of the research. He was very concerned about staff safety directly after the transition. He only gave me permission, for example, to go out to the field sites to pay staff and see how things were doing if I took his personal driver as my bodyguard.

‘John was very egalitarian and was deeply concerned about the rural poverty in Ethiopia. One year he asked the ILCA photographer to go out in the countryside on ‘International Christmas Day’, which is a normal working day in Ethiopia because the Orthodox Christmas falls on 7 January, to document a normal day in the life of poor livestock farmers as a contrast to the excesses on that day in many developed countries. He cared about his staff and instigated an annual thank you lunch for the housing and catering staff where senior management served them on that one day of the year.

‘John was a staunch supporter of ILCA’s Zebu Club and he and the children played tennis there. He was very attached to Ethiopia and was so excited when the Olympian distance runner Deratu Tulu won the first gold medal for Ethiopia at the Barcelona Olympics that he invited her to visit ILRI to meet our staff.

‘After he left ILCA, John returned to Ireland and was active in livestock research there for some time. He was on the organizing committee of the International Grasslands Congress that was held in Ireland in 2005.’

The ILRI family extends its condolences to John’s wife Marie and family.

A woman in science: Jean Hanson

Jean  HansonJean Hanson leads the Forage Diversity team at the Ethiopia campus of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). Having worked in the fields of genebank management and conservation of forage genetic diversity for over 35 years, later this year she will ‘go on to the second phase’ of her career, as she puts it, when she retires from ILRI. ‘I want to concentrate on sharing the knowledge I gained throughout my career,’ she says. ‘I plan to work on building capacity and training students in my fields and working and learning from them, too.’ Early on, Hanson knew she was not going to follow the traditional path of women of her day. She did not feel like becoming a teacher or a nurse. ‘I was brought up in an age where women were not scientists. But raised on a farm, I was always interested in science,’ she says. ‘When I was 16, I thought women should have the same right to choose their career as men did, and I knew I was interested in science, so I went to university and first studied agriculture.’

After obtaining a PhD in seed physiology, she started a post-doctoral assignment with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, working with curating the maize genebank, in Mexico. She then worked in Indonesia for 5 years with the British Cooperation (DFiD) as a seed physiologist, establishing a legume genebank with a national research institute. Later, Hanson worked in Rome with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, among other organizations. Then, in 1986, she applied for and got a short-term contract with ILRI’s predecessor, the International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA), based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and stayed for…25 years.

Azage Tegegne, an animal scientist colleague of hers, remembers her from those days. ‘In 1986, I was working around Zwai, where Jean had substantial research activities. I was looking at feed, she was working on forages. We then started a very good and long-lasting working relationship,’ he says. ‘She also became a very good friend of mine. I have never known a more hard-working, dedicated person. She also goes the extra mile to make people feel good,’ he adds. ‘And she is very loyal and committed to her work and this institute. If plants need watering at 5 a.m., she is there, always taking responsibility.’

Jean Hanson has been leading ILRI’s project on forage genetic resources since 1989. She was Interim Director of Institutional Planning from 1996 to 2001 before taking up the position of Senior Advisor on matters relating to strategies, technologies and operational procedures for conserving and managing plant genetic resources ex situ on a joint appointment with IPGRI (now known as Bioversity International) and ILRI from 2002–2004. ‘In the field of genetic resources, she is an expert,’ says Alexandra Jorge, Coordinator of the Global Public Goods Project for Bioversity International, who has been working with Jean for the past 7 years. ‘She is well known and respected at the international level and scientists really take her comments into consideration.’

‘I am a hard core genetic resources scientist,’ confirms Jean Hanson. ‘When I started, it was pure science, all about technical things. These days, since the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1994, issues such as access and benefit sharing or the ownership of genetic resources make it more political.’

If Jean is a renowned scientist whose work is recognized and appreciated by the international scientific community, she is also very well liked and colleagues unanimously comment on it. ‘If I have issues I want to discuss, I go to her for advice. She is always there, never says no and finds a way to have time to give,’ says Jorge.

‘Even in times of difficulties, she seems to handle everything so calmly,’ adds Janice Proud, coordinator of a Napier grass project of the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA). ‘She sets high standards and I learned how to run a project thanks to her experience. I trust her judgment because she is good at dealing with the details as well as being able to see the big picture.’

Yeshi W/Mariam, research assistant and seed technologist, who has worked with Hanson for 18 years, confides, ‘We will miss her a lot. We are like a family here in the forage diversity team.’ According to Yeshi, ‘Gender is an important issue for Jean. Thanks to her, I am now taking a day leave per week to go back to university and study to obtain my BSc in biology. She is very encouraging because improving your career matters to her. But it is the freedom she gives me in my work that I appreciate most.’

Gender is indeed an important issue to Jean and she is involved in mentoring through the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development program to enhance the careers of women crop scientists in East Africa. ‘I believe women in science are capable and important. That’s why I agreed to be a mentor,’ she says. ‘You learn skills about how to be a better mentor. We learn from one another and provide support to the generation that will replace us.’  

Coming from that next generation is Esther Gacheru, research fellow and infosystems specialist. ‘She is inspiring people,’ says Gacheru. ‘Working with Jean has been a great start for me; she lets me do what I want to do and at the same time oversees my work to help me learn and progress. I don’t know if I will have that “space” or that type of work relationship later in life.’

About life and work, we will let the last words be from Jean Hanson herself. ‘If you are determined, anything is possible. Don’t give up when the going gets tough. Persevere. And you will end up where you want to be.’

As is said here in Ethiopia, where Jean has spent most of her life as a scientist, Yiqnash (‘May everything turn out to be good for you’), Jean Hanson!

Inauguration of a new forage diversity lab at the International Livestock Research Institute in Ethiopia

A new forage diversity lab was inaugurated yesterday afternoon, Monday 12th April 2010, at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the presence of the ILRI board members, the forage diversity staff and guests. Jean Hanson, forage diversity leader, looked pleased at the result, and with emotion she spoke of the lab achievement. “It is an ILRI Ethiopia lab” she said, “it will give us and students much more space to work and has now allowed all the equipment that was previously scattered to be centralised. This will also help us and our National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) partners to be cost effective.” The construction work started in December 2008 and the building was actually ready for the board meeting which took place in Addis in November 2009. The finishing touches, supervised by Jean Hanson, were added and the spotless lab is now ready to use. Prior to the visit to the lab by participants of the inauguration, was a very symbolic planting of two Acacia Tortilis trees which will, in a few years, give shade to the molecular lab. The Chairman of the board, Knut Hove, put on his gardening gloves and efficiently planted this indigenous, dry land tree, commenting that it was “the best possible tree we could have for this lab”. Dr Hanson then emphasized that the genebank not only works on conservation of forage diversity but also on improved use of diversity for better forages which requires more molecular work with newer techniques. “The lab will allow us to work more with our sister centers of the CGIAR”, she stated, “and the nicest thing would be to bring a group of students together, who will energize the group, emulate each other, share and learn, because a major role of CG centers is capacity building.” According to Dr Ananda Ponniah, in charge of capacity strengthening at ILRI, “there is now space for more students and therefore we can also diversify students, have them coming from Ethiopia but other countries as well.” After the official cutting of the ribbon by Knut Hove and applause, the visit was led by Janice Proud, Project coordinator of the Napier grass smut and stunt resistance project, and Alexandra Jorge, Global Public Goods Project Coordinator (SGRP/CGIAR). Janice Proud explained how the new lab would help the work on Napier grass diseases, smut and stunt, which cause feed loss in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. “The new facility will allow us to use PCR techniques in real time. We also have some students looking at milk proteins. The beauty of a molecular lab is that you can use it for different projects”, she concluded. Alexandra Jorge talked about tissue culture and how the space would now allow the Centre “to have one dedicated area for tissue culture and therefore avoid contamination”. She also feels that the new lab will help to link better with ongoing projects such as the Napier grass project because “vegetatively-propagated crops like Napier grass can greatly benefit from production of clean plants and distribution of in vitro materials”. “We hope that a lot of publications will follow!” added the Chairman of the board. Mr Traoré, board member, also expressed that “the lab nicely complements BeCA (Biosciences eastern and central Africa) in Nairobi. Students in Ethiopia will be able to do the preliminaries here then go to BecA to make use of more sophisticated equipment.” As a final word, the board Chair summed up the achievement by stating that “the whole building smelled of a brand new lab which is exciting for new students to come and work, get their hands dirty and green!”

Explosion in livestock products and livestock feed

An 'explosion' in milk and meat consumption in developing countries is being predicted, which will, in turn, lead to an 'explosion' in demand for nutritious livestock feed. ILRI Director and economist Christopher Delgado, addressing 1,500 scientists at the 20th International Grassland Congress conference in Dublin this month, predicted an “explosion” in consumption of milk and meat in developing countries over the next 15 years, which, he says, is already causing a “livestock revolution”. Irish Times (Ireland) news article, 28 June 2005 - Explosion forecast in consumption in developing world This, ‘explosion’ will, in turn, create an ‘explosion’ in the demand for livestock feed in developing countries. Imports of livestock feeds are expected to grow exponentially to meet this demand, but it also presents opportunities for poor farmers to explore markets for ‘home-grown’ forages. ILRI researchers are assisting in the identification of grasses and legumes for tropical climates that have the greatest potential as nutritious feeds. Poor-quality feed and fluctuating feed supplies place huge constraints on livestock productivity in developing countries. Nutritious grasses, that are readily accessible and affordable, can play a key role in alleviating poverty. But, knowing which grasses best suit the particular climate and conditions is a prerequisite. At the Grassland Conference, ILRI and partners launched a new interactive decision support tool which will help growers in developing countries select the best forage grasses for their local environments. The new decision support tool has captured 50 years of documented knowledge on grasses and legumes for livestock food, suitable for tropical and subtropical climates. But this is not just a collection of papers. It has also captured decades of tacit knowledge – expertise and know-how – garnered from the world’s most experienced scientists in tropical forages, and made this available as a public resource. According to ILRI’s Forage Diversity Project Leader, Dr Jean Hanson “There are a diverse range of grasses that could be grown as new forage resources for livestock in the tropics. Growers need to know which grasses are going to be the most productive and most nutritious in relation to their particular environment and livestock. To a great extent, this software has removed much of the trial and error as it will help select the ‘best-bet’ options. Ultimately, this is going to be of great benefit to thousands of small farmers in developing countries." Tropical Forages Decision Support Tool Tropical Forages Decision Support Tool The Tropical Forages Decision Support Tool has been developed by an international team of forage experts led by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization/Queensland Department of Primary Industry/University of Queensland, Australia, the Centro Internacional Agricultura Tropical (CIAT) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) with financial support from ACIAR (the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research), BMZ (Germany), DFID (UK). The new information and selection tool is available online at: http://www.tropicalforages.info/ ILRI undertakes a host of forage diversity activities, with the purpose of identifying tropical grasses and legumes that have greatest potential as nutritious livestock feed in developing countries. ILRI Briefing Note - Forage diversity activities at ILRI