Tribute to Azage Tegegne, leading Ethiopian livestock scientist

It is with as much shock as sorrow that we report the untimely death of Azage Tegegne, a leading Ethiopian livestock scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) who retired from ILRI just last June after more than 30 years of distinguished service to the institute. Azage died after a short illness in his home country, Ethiopia, on 12 January 2020. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Azage’s mother and children.

More than a staff member, colleague and friend of ILRI, Azage was a form of institutional bedrock, seemingly embedded in the very DNA of ILRI, where he spent his entire professional life, serving ILRI not only as an outstanding scientist and project manager but also, as noted by Siboniso (‘Boni’) Moyo, ILRI’s director general representative in Ethiopia, as ‘institutional walking memory’.

Azage received both his bachelor’s (animal science) and master’s (animal production) degrees from Addis Ababa University’s Alemaya College of Agriculture (now Haramaya University), in Ethiopia, and his doctoral degree (animal reproduction) in 1989 from the Graduate School of Tropical Veterinary Science and Agriculture at James Cook University, in Australia.

ILRI’s predecessor, the International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA), which was based in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, first engaged Azage as a graduate research fellow from 1986 to 1988 and then hired him as a post-doctoral research fellow upon completion of his doctoral studies, in 1989, until 1991. In 1992, ILCA promoted Azage to animal scientist, a position he served through ILCA’s merger with the International Laboratory for Research on Livestock Diseases {ILRAD), based in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1995 to form ILRI. From 2000 through 2003, Azage served as manager of ILRI’s Debre Zeit Research Station. From 2004 through 2018, Azage coordinated the livestock work of two large science-based development-oriented research projects, ‘Improving the Productivity and Market Success of Ethiopian farmers’ (IPMS) and ‘Livestock and Irrigation Value Chains for Ethiopian Smallholders’ (LIVES). In 2012, Azage took over management of the whole of the LIVES project until its completion, in 2018. Also in 2012, Azage began serving as deputy director general representative in Ethiopia.

Azage was a prolific communicator, co-authoring more than 350 scientific and professional articles, including 150 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles, abstracts, conference articles, book chapters and working papers. He played an even larger role as a mentor, co-supervising 71 post-graduate students at PhD (17) and MSc/DVM (54) levels enrolled in Ethiopian and international universities. And it is virtually impossible to overstate Azage’s professional stand and the many roles he played in academic research institutions over these decades, with his accomplishments and extensive experience in university teaching, research, development and advisory services hard to match. Azage was, for example, a founding fellow of the Ethiopian Society of Animal Production (ESAP), the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences and the Ethiopian Society for Animal Welfare. He served as editor-in-chief of the Ethiopian Journal of Animal Production (EJAP); was a member of the editorial board of the Canadian peer-reviewed CPQ Nutrition journal; a member of the boards of trustees of both Ethiopia’s Haramaya and Debre Berhan universities; a member of the editorial advisory boards of the international Animal Reproduction Science journal and the Journal of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences of Bahir Dar University; a member of  the Ethiopian Veterinary Association (EVA); a member of the advisory councils for Ethiopia’s Amhara Regional Government and Ministry of Science and Higher Education; and a member of the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture’s Advisory Council and Think Tank Group. In addition, using his considerable expertise in Ethiopian livestock development, Azage contributed to studies and missions organized by, among others, Austria’s Federal Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology; the Finnish International Development Agency (FINNIDA); the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); Irish Aid; the Netherlands Government; the UK’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI); and the World Bank.

Azage received more than 20 national and international awards over his career, including most recently being bestowed the degree of Honorary Doctor of Science (Honoris Causa) in 2012 from Bahir Dar University and the award of Outstanding Alumni from James Cook University in 2013, and an award recognizing his ‘lifetime contribution’ to the Ethiopian Society for Animal Production (ESAP) in August 2019.

It is perhaps fitting to close here with the following remarks made by Boni Moyo on the occasion of Agaze’s retirement from ILRI, in June 2018.

It is difficult to find the right words to express ILRI’s appreciation for Azage’s many and large contributions over the years. On behalf of Jimmy Smith, ILRI director general, ILRI management and the entire ILRI family, we thank you for your hard work, your diligence, your dedication, and your long-standing commitment to sustainable smallholder livestock development. Your high standards and scientific excellence have been recognized by ILRI’s partners as critical to the development of Ethiopia’s livestock sector in particular. You have always gone beyond the call of duty, always putting in extra hours of work and always delivering high-quality outputs.

Thank you very, very much, Merci beaucoup, Asante sana, Muito obrigado, Ameseginalehu.

And ILRI’s director general, Jimmy Smith, says:

It is difficult to find words to adequately convey what a loss Azage’s passing is to Ethiopia, to ILRI and to me personally. He personified ILRI’s mission to use science to transform the livelihoods of livestock farmers with unequaled passion that infected all with whom he engaged. He left us far too soon. I will miss him very much. ILRI will miss him. As will the entire development community of Ethiopia.

What follow are other tributes to Azage from ILRI’s large and extended family.

If you would like to pay your respects, please leave a comment in the comment box below this article as posted on the ILRI News blog site (https://news.ilri.org/) and we will forward this article and all the comments posted to Azage’s family later this week.

I have known Dr Azage Tegegne since 1984. When I was a freshman student in the former Alemaya University, he was a student dean and instructor in the animal science department. He was known for putting the interests of his students ahead of his own interests, or even those of the university administration. Dr Azage was an observant, friendly and real scientist. He had extremely rich experiences, which he drew on to contribute a lot to our country. His passing is a great loss for ILRI, for our national research system and for agricultural development in this country. We will all miss Dr Azage.
— Kindu Mekonnen, crop-livestock systems senior scientist in ILRI’s Sustainable Livestock Systems Program

It’s hard to imagine ILRI without Azage. He has been a huge part of this institute for as long as I’ve been here. I never failed to be impressed by Azage’s vast knowledge of livestock and repeatedly told him that he was a walking/talking library. He had an ability to captivate his audience with his knowledge and gained the respect of countless people. Wherever we went together, he would run into someone he knew, and he’d tell me, ‘Oh, yes, I’ve taught him or her’, so I was always unsure of exactly how many students he had in total. He also managed to find humour in everything, so there was always laughter in our corridors. I will miss seeing Azage in his usual smoking spot (we called it his ‘second office’, where we’ve held many impromptu meetings) or at the Zebu Club after hours, where, if I had my kids with me, he’d insist on giving them candy from his seemingly never-ending supply, despite my objections. Azage leaves a huge void here at ILRI and we Ethiopians have lost one of our best, but we will make sure his legacy lives on. May his soul rest in eternal peace.
—Muluhiwot Getachew, program manager of ILRI’s Impact at Scale Program

The African livestock sector has lost its icon. Azage was a colleague, a mentor and a great friend. I hope that we can find comfort together during this difficult time and carry our memories together for the rest of our lives. We know that he still had plans to contribute more to the livestock sector. May he rest in eternal peace.
—Tadelle Dessie, principal scientist in genetics and breeding in ILRI’s Livestock Genetics Program

It is very sad and shocking to know of the sudden death of Dr Azage Tegegne. I have known Dr Azage for over 17 years. He was an external assessor of my PhD thesis defense at the University of Free State, in South Africa in 2003. His constructive comments and suggestions helped me a lot, not only by improving my thesis but also by encouraging me to think different about research in the area of livestock reproductive technology. My supervisors at the University of Free Sate found his academic capabilities amazing. Ten years later, in 2013, I got a chance to work with him as a regional expert in the ‘Livestock and Irrigation Value Chains for Ethiopian Smallholders’ (LIVES) project in Ethiopia’s Amhara region. As a manager of the LIVES project, Dr Azage coached us not in the manner of a ‘project manager’ but rather as an ‘elder brother’. He shared with us his rich experiences in how to plan and implement a research-for-development project. His advice focused not only on the scientific aspects of project implementation but also on how to approach and maintain smooth working relationships with farmers, extension agents and officials. At times when our relationship with some stakeholders got rough, Dr Azage stepped in to mediate and restore a healthy relationship. His talent and personal qualities were appreciated by all our stakeholders. I was proud of working under his leadership. I’m sure my colleagues in the LIVES project would agree with me that Dr Azage was a knowledgeable, humble, friendly and compassionate person. I so enjoyed working with him. Precious memories of Azage will certainly remain in our hearts. May God rest his soul in peace and give his family the strength to bear this irreparable loss.
—Zeleke Mekuriaw—regional coordinator for East Africa of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Livestock Systems

We are all heartbroken!! We have lost an outstanding scientist, Ethiopia’s gift to Africa, a truly social animal, and generally an amazing human being. You will always remain in my heart. Rest in peace, Azi!!!
—Aynalem Haile, small ruminant senior scientist in ICARDA’s Breeding and Genetics Program

 I knew Dr Azage Tegegne when I was undergraduate student and he was student dean at Alemaya College of Agriculture. Dr Azage was known for his great leadership. And for the way he fought hard for the interests of his many students. From 2014 to 2016, I had the chance to work with Dr Azage in a project he was leading named ‘Livestock and Irrigation Value Chains for Ethiopian Smallholders’ (LIVES). I found Azage a strategic leader, collegial and well-versed.
—Amare Haileslassie, IWMI principal researcher

Azage Tegegne was a true professional who always challenged colleagues to be practical, innovative and impactful. I recall many conversations, with their ‘hybridization of ideas’, that we had with Azage, many of which, despite taking long to gestate, eventually grew into impactful projects. The delays in the realization of these projects were often due to others being less inclined to think ‘out of the CG box’. Among the notable ideas that I attribute to Azage was his constant nagging of me and ILRI’s genetics team in the early 2000s to move from what he referred to as ‘in-silico’-related animal genetics/breeding research to more practical and directly impactful breeding design, implementation and assessment research in development-type projects and programs that would directly benefit poor African livestock farmers. Examples of this kind of more practical work include delivering more productive but resilient dairy cattle to Ethiopia’s smallholder dairy farmers by combining existing and emerging reproductive technologies and the right breed choices; today, this work has been realized in (now-well known) ‘synchronization’, ‘fixed-time’ or ‘synchronized artificial insemination’ programs, which have enabled thousands of poor Ethiopian farmers with their local zebu animals to breed and own more productive and profitable dairy cows. Another example of an Azage-idea-turned-into-reality is ILRI’s flagship African Dairy Genetic Gains (ADGG) program work in Ethiopia, which is applying cutting-edge genomics and information technologies to identify the most suitable breeding animals from Ethiopia’s existing crossbreds and locally adapted commercial dairy breeds. Azage had a sharp and generous mind and shared freely. He had a habit of asking tough questions of scientists proposing new research and infusing his ideas though academic mentorships via the many MSc and PhD graduate students he supervised. In doing so, Azage, true to his reproductive physiology expertise, left behind many academic offspring, for which Ethiopia will always cherish Azage’s life and memory. Azage’s demise has robbed me of a true professional colleague and brother at ILRI. May the Almighty grant his children and family the strength to go through these trying moments and grant his soul an everlasting peace, noting that he duly played his part in life. In his memory, may those of us he impacted recommit ouselves to support millions of poor African livestock farmers to prosper and reap more benefits from their livestock!
—Okeyo Mwai, Azage’s adopted brother from southern Ethiopia and deputy leader of ILRI’s Livestock Genetics Program

Prof Azage was a treasured friend and a dear colleague. Ethiopia has lost a scientific giant and a brilliant man. His passion for his work and country has inspired many. While the grief is inconsolable, fond memories of his subtle laugh and quick-witted jokes remain unforgettable. I will miss you, Prof! May you rest in eternal peace.
—Kumneger Tilahun, ILRI Liaison and Protocol Manager

Every conversation with Azage left you learning something for the day. It could have been about politics, religion or the breakfast you were eating in front of him. His knowledge was deep and covered all subjects. His jokes—smart and funny—will not be forgotten. (Sometimes they were so smart that you got the meaning after a day or so.) He loved kids and always had sweets in his pockets that he gave out to the kids that come to the Zebu Club.
—Coach Berhanu, ILRI Zebu Club

We are all shocked by the sad news of the passing on of Dr Azage. Azage supported ICARDA in many ways, starting from the establishment of our office in Ethiopia. He has always been there to help when needed. I personally had many discussions with him on various issues and I have benefited from his great wisdom and his deep knowledge of animal agriculture. This is a great loss to Ethiopia and to the livestock research community in particular. Azage, you will always be remembered as an outstanding scientist and a very good and wise friend.
—Barbara Rischkowsky, director of ICARDA’s Resilient Agricultural Livelihood Systems Program

On Behalf of CIMMYT, I want to express my deepest sympathies to ILRI family on the sudden demise of Dr. Azage Tegegn . He was an asset not only to ILRI but to the agriculture and livestock sector in Ethiopia and beyond. His contributions , support and friendship will always be remembered by all of us. Our prayers and thoughts will always be there with the ILRI family and his own in these challenging times.
—Bekele Abeyo, CIMMYT senior scientist and wheat breeder/ pathologist for sub-Saharan Africa

It was heart breaking news when we heard the passing of Dr Azage, an iconic scientist Ethiopia lost forever. In his lifetime, Dr Azage contributed a lot to his country in particular and to the scientific community in general. He will be remembered by all his friends and his CG colleagues. We are deeply saddened by this great loss and dearly missing him. May his soul rest in peace!
—Bekele Abeyo, on behalf of CIMMYT’s Ethiopia-based staff

I am shocked and sad to hear of the death of Dr Azage, a long-standing friend and colleague for whom I have had the utmost respect, as a person, as a scientist, as a contributor to Ethiopia, and as an ILRI scientist. What a loss. I send my sincere condolences.
—Brian Perry, former leader of ILRI’s Epidemiology and Socio-economics Program, now visiting/honorary professor at the universities of Oxford and Edinburgh

What a shock and a great loss. Azage has made a huge contribution to Ethiopia—as a development champion, research leader and mentor to many. He will be greatly missed but will live on in his students and many other contributions.
—John McDermott, former deputy director general of ILRI and now director of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health

Azage was one of those people who had an ability to see things differently, to bring new ideas and to challenge old ones, and at the same time, to get everyone to agree with him! I’ve been in countless meetings where Azage had challenged us and helped us to arrive at a much better end result. When I first moved to Ethiopia, in 2004, Azage was manager of ILRI’s Debre Zeit Research Station, and I had the privilege of working directly with him for several years, benefitting immensely, as have many others, from his wise and deep knowledge of Ethiopian livestock.  Azage will be sorely missed but always remembered by many. With deepest condolences.
—Shirley Tarawali, ILRI Assistant Director General

Azage had a way of changing people. For the better. And for the longer term. Almost 20 years ago, when Azage was managing ILRI’s Debre Zeit Research Station and I was ILRI’s science writer, Azage asked me to cover an open day he was holding at our research station an hour south of the ILRI campus. He explained that he had organized for many ILRI partners to set up, on a large field of grass, bulletin boards of information about their livestock work. I begged off; I had many urgent writing deadlines and was sure this would entail a dreary afternoon of scientific poster sessions. Azage, being Azage, insisted on my going. In the end, I went, reluctantly. On arrival, I found tacked up on the first bulletin board I came across a story that seared my heart. I wrote it up as follows. I copy it now in Azage’s memory. Because it changed my professional life. And my heart.
—Susan MacMillan, ILRI communications and public awareness team leader

‘Kalkidan’: Where starvation and salvation are in our hands
Here is a story no longer written in societies of the industrialized world. The story is told in eight sentences and two snapshots pinned to a bulletin board erected in a grassy field in the highlands of Ethiopia. The story is about starvation and salvation.

This is an ‘open day’ at the Debre Zeit Research Station of the International Livestock Research Institute. A small middle-aged Ethiopian woman stands in front of a bulletin board titled ‘Center for Mentally Retarded Children’. A table displaying a few homemade stuffed animals is in front of her. I walk over to her stand and she introduces herself as the coordinator of the centre. She talks me through the picture storyboard behind her.

At three years old, a child named Kalkidan was brought by her mother to her church-run centre for mentally retarded children in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa. Kalkidan was starving and stunted as well as mentally and physically impaired in several ways when she arrived at the centre. She could not walk, for example, and spoke only gibberish.

Staff of the Center for Mentally Retarded Children took Kalkidan in, put her on an intensive feeding program of milk and vegetables, and cared for her. The staff taught Kalkidan’s mother how to care for her: she must give her daughter better foods, they said, and lots of love and patience.

Kalkidan thrived on the food and care. Within weeks she began to talk sense and she was walking within a few months. One year later, Kalkidan was physically and mentally robust. A team of doctors pronounced her ‘fit’ in all ways and her mother enrolled her in a nursery school for normal children.

What had happened? Starved of sufficient nutrients, Kalkidan’s mind and body had started to shut down; provided a healthy diet, her mind and body returned to health.

The misdiagnosis of Kalkidan turned out to be her salvation. Had she been merely another hungry Ethiopian child, staff of the Center for Mentally Retarded Children could not have attended to her needs, and she almost certainly would have grown up both mentally and physically handicapped.

Kalkidan was doubly lucky to be both misdiagnosed and found by the centre, which started operations in 1986 with 8 children and today cares for 350. . . .This year, ILRI was asked to help the centre coordinator obtain two ‘grade’ dairy cows to help the centre feed its children.

That gift of a cow was important. Milk is ‘white gold’ in Africa. Drunk fresh or sour, eaten as butter or cheese, dairy foods are foods of life here. They are especially important for children of poor households subsisting on poor starchy diets. For these mal- and under-nourished children, even little additions of milk and other animal foods will help prevent stunting of their physical and mental development.

In July 2001, ILRI provided two crossbred cows from its research station at Debre Zeit, an hour south of the capital. A month later, ILRI’s Debre Zeit station manager, Dr Azage Tegegne, visited the Addis children’s centre. He saw a fine dairy barn the centre staff had built. He watched as the staff and the children in their care fed and milked the cows. Everything was clean and organized.

Some of the mentally handicapped adolescents who were trained at the centre have returned to their homes, where they work with farm animals to help their families make a living. The centre has given chickens to one of its graduates, a young man who is now busy selling eggs, and it gave a local cow to a 20-year-old woman who sells the surplus milk and was recently gratified by the birth of the cow’s first calf.

What these children need, says the centre coordinator, is lots of love and patience from their families and communities. Those commodities are free.

The milk and other high-quality foods these children need are commodities we in the international community can help Ethiopians produce.

To help or to obtain more information, please contact: Dr Azage Tegegne, manager of
ILRI’s Debre Zeit Research Station.