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icipe’s first Thomas Odhiambo Distinguished Research Fellow

icipeAfrican Insect Science for Food and Health has awarded Prof. Zeyaur R. Khan its highest honour, naming him the first Thomas Risley Odhiambo Distinguished Research Fellow in recognition of outstanding achievements in the advancement of agricultural science.

Prof. Khan, TRO DRF, has dedicated his 30-year career as an entomologist and agricultural scientist to advancing the science and practice of entomology by studying and applying chemical ecology, behaviour, plant–plant and insect–plant interactions to improve agricultural production to combat poverty and food insecurity in Africa. Following the original dream of icipe’s founding father Prof. Thomas R. Odhiambo, the work of Prof. Khan is a wonderful combination of scientific creativity and agricultural innovation that provides practical solutions for real problems of thousands of small-holder poor farmers which in turn promotes their food security and sustainable livelihoods.

Prof. Khan, TRO DRF, is responsible for the discovery and wide-scale implementation of a pro-poor scientific innovation for enhancing food security and environmental sustainability in Africa. He has led an international team of scientists from icipe in Kenya and Rothamsted Research in the United Kingdom, in collaboration with other national and international partners, in the discovery and implementation of a unique integrated pest management (IPM) strategy using a “push-pull” approach for managing stemborers, parasitic striga weeds and soil fertility in cereal-based farming systems in Africa (www.push-pull.net).

The ‘push-pull’ scientific innovation

‘Push-pull’ is the first IPM strategy that effectively controls both stemborers and striga weeds, while ecologically improving soil fertility. The technology increases maize yields by protecting the crop against attack by the stemborer moths, Busseola fusca and Chilo partellus. It attracts stemborers to trap plants (the ‘pull’) while driving them away from the main crop using a repellent intercrop (the ‘push’). Preventing losses due to stemborers has the potential to increase maize harvests by enough to feed an additional 27 million people. The intercrop, Desmodium uncinatum, also effectively eliminates Striga hermonthica, a parasitic weed, from maize fields. Prof. Khan extensively researched and discovered new chemical compounds in the desmodium root exudates that stimulate striga seeds to germinate, but inhibit post-germination growth through an allelopathic process, thereby reducing the striga seed bank in the soil.  The companion plants provide high-value animal fodder, facilitating milk production and diversifying farmers’ income sources. Desmodium also helps to improve soil fertility, retain soil moisture and prevent soil erosion. The technology is appropriate as it is based on locally available perennial plants, not expensive external inputs, and fits well with traditional mixed cropping systems in Africa. icipe has been at the forefront of developing “home grown” solutions to local problems afflicting the farming communities in the tropics. To date Push-Pull technology has been adopted by more than 50,000 smallholder farmers in East Africa, who have doubled their incomes and crop yields, providing food security for 400,000 people living in those households. Prof. Khan’s goal is to achieve food sufficiency for 10 million people by extending push-pull to more than 1 million households in Africa.

The ‘push-pull’ technology has been acknowledged by the Royal Society of London as one of the most promising crop management strategies in the next 50 years to mitigate the effects of biotic stresses, and as an integrated pest management strategy that reduces the use of pesticides, neutralises the viability of striga seeds and increases the resilience of the cropping system. It was hailed as a successful ecosystem-based crop and soil management approach that can be introduced widely and applied to many different cultivars without the need for lengthy breeding cycles for each variety of crops.

The technology was also proposed as one of the three ways (together with remote sensing and data-driven crop rotations) in which science will solve food crises (a wired Magazine: issue: http://www.wired.com/special_multimedia/2008/ff_futurefood_1611)
An impact assessment study by the Swiss Foundation for International Cooperation confirmed that ‘push-pull’ technology is widely accepted and adopted by small-scale farmers because it addresses their major production constraints. In addition, the technology is a “springboard” for diversifying the farming system, especially incorporating dairy operations. Increased food security, better income, education of children and health of the family, more knowledge and a higher status in the village are all contributing factors for an overall improved livelihood situation of smallholder farmers adopting push-pull.

Other recent international recognition of Prof. Khan’s work

Prof. Khan’s achievements are relevant and contribute to the attainment of East African countries’ poverty reduction and the United Nation’s millenium development goals. The results of the research work on the different aspects of the technology have been widely published in peer-reviewed international journals and book chapters, presented in national and international conferences and widely recognised in popular media.

On the merit and significance of his work, Prof. Khan was co-winner of the 2011 Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) Prize for Agriculture.  The TWAS Prizes, which are awarded by The Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, honour individual scientists in developing countries in recognition of outstanding contributions to knowledge. In 2011 Prof. Khan also received the designation of Fellow of the Entomological Society of America (ESA), accorded to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the science of entomology, with only 10 such distinctions made annually. In addition he was elected to the Council of International Congress of Entomology, and nominated Distinguished Scientist, International Branch of Entomological Society of America. He also received the designation of Fellow of Royal Entomological Society, London, and was also the 2010 winner of ESA’s Nan-Yao Su Award for Innovation and Creativity in Entomology. In 2009, Prof. Khan was selected the winner of the International Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Excellence Award, which is given to individuals or teams which have made significant contributions to the advancement of IPM, with extraordinary achievement, and in 2008 was a plenary speaker during the XXIII International Congress of Entomology in Durban, South Africa.

Prof. Khan received his PhD in entomology in 1980 from Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi, India, and has served as Principal Scientist at icipe from 1993. Since 2009, he is also a Visiting Professor of Entomology at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA. Before joining icipe, Prof. Khan worked at the International Rice Research Institute, Philippines, University of Wisconsin and Kansas State University in the United States of America. He has extensively published more than 110 refereed journal articles, 12 book chapters and 5 books, and supervised more than 30 PhD and MSc students from more than 12 countries.

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