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Alemayehu Seyoum Taffesse

Senior Research Fellow, International Food Policy Research Institute

Ethiopia

What most impressed the professional colleagues who nominated this role model?

Alemayehu Seyoum Taffesse is a leading African scholar and intellectual.  His expansive body of work on agricultural household behavior is well-grounded and highly perceptive.  Drawing from multiple disciplines, he has pioneered work on the role of aspirations and motivation in economic development.  His experience and empirical work lead him to see development as a long term process without any easy short cuts.  He sees development as an organic process through which farmers and private business people not only develop and access new technology but also change their mindsets. 

Development scholars, in his view, must also remain open minded, down to earth, and in the field as a good observers, learning not simply from reading and data crunching but from regular, in-depth interactions with stakeholders in the field.  A passionate student of rural economies, he has devoted much of his career to nurturing young Ethiopian researchers, by helping them to mature and become productive scholars.  Through his engagement with young scholars, he actively contributes to the development of an intellectual tradition in Ethiopia and across Africa. 

What motivated you to pursue a career in agriculture?

  • I never thought of studying economics or agriculture.  I grew up in an urban environment in Addis Ababa.  My father was a teacher and my mother was as housewife. 
  • In high school, I was interested in natural sciences.  At university, I wanted to study physics, but was told that could only lead to a teaching career, and I didn’t want to go into teaching.  So I chose social sciences instead. 
  • When I finished undergraduate studies, I became a graduate assistant in the Department of Economics.  Two things happened then.  First, one of my teachers presented a paper on agricultural surpluses and development. That triggered my long-term interest in the economics of agriculture.  Second, Winrock International offered funding for research on agriculture. This provided me the first opportunity to work with  agricultural household models and survey data.  In short, this coincidence of motivation and availability of funding, launched me early into studies of agricultural household behavior. 
  • As my career unfolded, I had the good fortune of getting significant help and guidance from others.  I can only list a few - my wife Yenework, my teachers and colleagues Eshetu Chole, Taye Mengistae, Andrew Mckay, Stefan Dercon, John Hoddinott, Abebe Shimeles, Tanguy Bernard, and Paul Dorosh.

How can agricultural education institutions more effectively prepare African students for successful agribusiness careers? 

  • African school systems face a general problem of poor educational quality, starting in primary and secondary schools.  These shortcomings lead to required remedial work at university level.  We need to raise quality at all levels in the education system.
  • The long-term solution to low quality lies in primary and secondary schools.  Reform, however, is difficult.  Systemic problems require special attention and significant resources.
  • University education should provide a broad scientific foundation (in basic sciences, math, history, philosophy) as well as a solid local foundation, emphasizing socio-economics, incentives and potential.  Together, this combination of broad foundation grounded in local realities leads to highly specialized people with a human perspective. 
  • Integrate local circumstances with academic content.  Link students with national agricultural researchers, including the Ministry of Agriculture and other professionals. 
  • Develop mechanisms for continuous links between institutions and their graduates.
  • Develop systems for encouraging regular feedback from stakeholders on perceived problems to ensure curriculum relevance.
  • Improve financial support for agricultural education. 

Career Highlights:

  • Senior Research Fellow, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
  • Economic Affairs Officer, Department of Economic and Social Policy, UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).
  • Founder, African Center for Economic and Historical Studies.
  • Assistant Professor, Addis Ababa University.

Educational background

  • Primary school:
    • Menelek II School, Addis Ababa.
    • Weizero Zerfeshewal School, Addis Ababa.
  • Secondary school:
    • Kokeb Tsibah Secondary School, Addis Ababa.                  
  • University:
    • BA Economics, Addis Ababa University.
    • MSc Quantitative Development Economics, University of Warwick, UK.
    • DPhil (PhD) Economics, Oxford University.