David Kalule Okello heads up a national research program, yet he earns less than $6000 per year. He's continually frustrated by the poor lab facilities and paucity of science funding in Africa, yet he won't consider working in the United States or in Europe. He has lived through three civil wars, yet he's only 33. Despite these extraordinary circumstances, Okello is one of East Africa's most promising weapons in the battle against hunger.
It's a responsibility that Okello shoulders with enthusiasm and grace. He's the head of Uganda's national groundnut [peanut] research program, based at the National Semi-Arid Resources Research Institute (NaSARRI) in Soroti. Peanuts have become an important, high-protein food crop in the country, as well as a valuable cash crop because the nuts can be processed into a variety of products from peanut butter and pastes to oil.
Okello is charged with ensuring that the country is adequately supplied with the right quantity and quality of the crop, a job that includes developing drought-tolerant, pest-resistant varieties of the nut, assessing farmers' requirements across the country, and informing them about optimal planting strategies.
"Initially, I wanted to be a doctor or a dental surgeon. But I ended up in the agricultural field and I think that was the best thing that could have happened to me," Okello says. "Our professor used to tell us: 'Look at the doctors; they cannot treat patients if they themselves are hungry. Look at the patients; they cannot recover unless they have food. Look at the lawyers. ... Without food nobody can work, and you are the guys that can provide it.' "
Through war and loss
David Kalule Okello shows off peanuts from his test fields in Soroti, Uganda.
Okello is an unlikely success story. The 12th of 16 children, he was born in Kitgum in the heart of the troubled Acholi province. Money was tight growing up, but his parents instilled in him a love of education that saw him through the country's most turbulent years. Okello entered high school just as the civil war peaked. "From 1986 to '88 I was in hiding the bush. I couldn't study for 2 years. My school was in the middle of a war zone," he recalls. "We were caught in crossfire between government forces and rebels."
During this time, Okello's father became very sick with bone cancer, and so in 1988 they took refuge in the hospital in Kitgum. "I went back to school immediately, [as soon as] there was a cessation of hostilities. I would sleep beside dad's bed, wake up, go to school," Okello says. Although the fighting slowed enough for him to return to school, insurgencies continued. "I never experienced any peace. I lost many of my cousins in that war, and most of my friends didn't make it. Part of me died and was dark," he says, his cheerful countenance clouding over.
Cancer claimed Okello's beloved father within the year, but he left his son with a love of science and the ambition to pursue a career in it. "My dad was a senior medical assistant, almost a doctor, and he was a very popular person in the community. He was answerable to the health needs of over 30,000 people," Okello explains. "Seeing him heal people using medicine made me develop a sense of wanting to go into science."
A few years later, Okello won a much-coveted government sponsorship to study agricultural science at Makerere University in Kampala. "I loved crop science immediately from first year onwards, and genetics was one of my best subjects," he says. "I got interested in the issue of food security in Africa and in Uganda in particular, so I thought if I majored in genetics I could be one of the people who one day helps alleviate the problem of hunger."
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Then in 2003, Okello was awarded a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for a master's degree research project working on an improved corn variety called quality protein maize (QPM). The maize, bred to contain elevated levels of tryptophan and lysine -- two essential amino acids that ordinary cereals lack -- has 82% of the protein value of milk and is aimed at nursing and pregnant mothers and malnourished children. Okello's task was to produce high-yielding, local varieties of the maize.
"The mutation for this amino acid production is on a recessive gene, so if we crossed the QPM with ordinary maize, the gene will not be expressed," he explains. "So the work involved both molecular approaches in the lab and the conventional garden cross-breeding work." It was a success, and the group released a maize variety called Longe5, which is doing well in Uganda.
But the end of his master's degree project meant the end of funding, and the project to further improve the protein levels of maize was abandoned. In 2006, Okello applied for a government research position working on maize and ended up at NaSARRI in the department that oversees oil crops -- sesame plants, sunflowers, and groundnuts. "The groundnut researcher was retiring in a year's time, so I was assigned a kind of apprenticeship to learn as much as possible from him." The following year, Okello was promoted to head the national program for groundnut research.
A new niche
Okello initially found the transition difficult going from a cereal crop to a legume. But experts at Makerere University offered training and support to help him through. "Once you understand the genetics of the crop, you can apply that principle to any other crop," he says.
A large part of Okello's job is advising farmers and other stakeholders on how to grow the improved varieties of peanuts he develops at the institute, how to intercrop, what the optimal planting density should be, seeing which varieties suit which particular soil ecologies, and so on. "It's a very big task," he smiles, "and I have only six staff on the payroll, including a pathologist, an agronomist, senior technicians, and an entomologist."
To reach farmers across the country, Okello has become a radio disc jockey. "I have the coordinates of every radio station in Uganda so that when I go to that region I get booked on their agriculture programs and I can pass on the advice and then get the feedback from farmers," he says. It has made him a bit of a celebrity among farmers, who visit his stall at the national agricultural fairs or travel to the research station for advice.
Okello runs a few research projects in parallel to his government job. In 2008, he was awarded a $165,000, 3-year grant from the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (an effort supported by the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations) to develop new varieties of high-yielding, drought-tolerant, rosette virus–resistant groundnut varieties. The new crops are already undergoing final tests in the field.
And he has also landed a grant from the Peanut Collaborative Research Support Program, a U.S. Agency for International Development initiative that supports collaborations with scientists in developing countries. The project, run from the University of Georgia, Griffin, has a number of aspects including the project Okello works on, which looks at the profitability of farming groundnuts at a household level.
The extra funding from the grants enables Okello to employ contract field assistants. "I am trying to empower other people by taking them back to school -- some only have a certificate," he says. "I want to leave the groundnut department running as it is now or better, so it is my legacy -- to build capacity and help colleagues further their careers."
Looking to the future
Meanwhile, furthering his own career has been put on hold. Okello hasn't yet gotten a Ph.D., which is unusual for someone at his level. "What's stopped me is that first I wanted to make sure the groundnut program is self-sustaining and self-running."
But over the last few years, Okello has developed some 500 different varieties of peanut. "With that set, I feel finally it is the right time for me to go back to school," he says. His group won a grant for a groundnut project under the Millennium Science Initiative. Okello will fill the Ph.D. slot, which he will start next month. He will investigate the genetic makeup and diversity of the groundnut rosette virus, which attacks peanut plants, stunting growth, destroying leaves, and causing yield loss of up to 100%.
Working in Africa does put him at a disadvantage compared with his international colleagues, he says. "Being a scientist in Europe or the U.S. is much easier. There are a lot of other scientists, a lot of information flow, a lot more funding, technological advances, the lab standards are higher. Being a scientist here is much harder because of these disparities. If the grounds were leveled, the African quality of science would be the same," he says.
Yet Okello is not tempted by a job in the West. "Not now. I feel that with what I have started here, I could make much more impact in terms of changing people's lives and livelihoods. I can make much more of a contribution to food security and income generation here than if I went outside." He hasn't ruled out the prospect of working for, say, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization or international crop research centers elsewhere in the future. But "at the moment, I feel that I cannot leave here."
Although his job and Ph.D. work will no doubt provide exciting challenges in the coming year, Okello hopes the next year will also bring new developments to his family life. In May, Okello married HIV virologist Naomi Apoto, whom he met at Makerere University during his master's degree program. The couple is hoping for a child this year: "Not 16, like my crazy parents. I think we'll stop at three."
In some ways, Okello already feels like a father. "I am passionate about the work. Every crop that germinates I look at almost like a human life. You create something by crossing parent A with parent B and looking at the offspring, seeing if your dream comes true. That's what keeps me going on."
Gaia Vince interviewed David Kalule Okello in Soroti, Uganda.