Silvano Ocheya is a long way from home. But it won’t be long before he returns to Kenya or another developing countryin need of the new skills he’s learned in the U.S.
“I hope to work in a developing country; not necessarily my country, but I have a passion to help make change in people’s lives. That’s my focus,” said Ocheya, a Texas A&M University doctoral student in College Station.
Ocheya spent the summer in Amarillo harvesting wheat and gathering data for his dissertation project, which he will complete in about 18 months under advisors Dr. Shuyu Liu, Texas A&M AgriLife Research small grains geneticist in Amarillo, and Dr. Amir Ibrahim, AgriLife Research wheat breeder in College Station.
He grew up in Kenya near Kisumu on a farm run by his mother after his father’s death in 1990. There are five boys and three girls in his family, and all of them advanced to the college level. But Ocheya will be the first with both a master’s and a doctoral degree.
His undergraduate degree was earned at the University of Nairobi, followed by an internship at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, or CIMMYT, in Kenya. He pursued a master’s degree in genetics and plant breeding at the same university and returned to the center for four years.
“My mentor was Dr. Dan Makumbi, an alumnus of Texas A&M University,” Ocheya said. “He encouraged me to pursue my education further, and recommended I apply for Monsanto’s Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program.”
Ocheya worked on corn with Makumbi. But he said Makumbi urged him to work on wheat while in the U.S. so he could learn something different. Wheat, corn, cassava and sorghum are the daily food staples for most farmers in Africa.
“Working on those crops will make the biggest impact,” he said. “With these crops, the farmers can have food and make surplus to sell, so they can buy other things or take the kids to school. Beyond primary school, education costs money in Kenya.”
Ocheya’s project addresses issues dealing with drought and rusts, which are major problems for wheat in the U.S. and many African countries, including Kenya.
“We import two-thirds of the wheat consumed in Kenya,” he said. “So production-wise, we need to pull ourselves up. But there are many issues with drought. Farmers rely solely on rainfall. We need to breed wheat that is drought tolerant but also disease resistant. Stem rust is the primary yield-limiting factor for us.”