On foreign ground

Tropical problems are best resolved in the tropics, says Kristina Lindström, professor in sustainable development.

Many of us first associate Ethiopia with famine, which is not wholly unfounded, as much of the country’s land has been consumed and worn away by erosion.

“Lots of people and cattle, small plots for cultivation and overgrazing of common land,” says Kristina Lindström, the newly appointed professor in sustainable development, reeling off reasons for the country’s problems.

However, it is possible for the impoverished land to reflourish. Lindström believes that small-scale farmers and their ability to manage plots in a sustainable manner play a key role in addressing climate change and food security in Africa.

Bacteria to the rescue

Kristina Lindström does research on nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which improve the quality of soil. They are found on the roots of legumes, such as clover, beans and acacia.

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria keep the soil fertile by binding airborne nitrogen, and are much cheaper than fertilisers, which many cannot afford. Ethiopian farmers often lack education and have no knowledge of bacteria doubling as fertilisers.

Lindström hopes to look into ways to get farmers in Ethiopia to use nitrogen-fixing bacteria and to see their value as “invisible little assistants” of plants. “I am very excited about this,” she says. “The farmers also know a lot about worthwhile cultivation methods. I am looking forward to collaborating with them.”

Network cropped up by chance

Cooperation between Finnish soil researchers and Ethiopian players began by chance. In the 1990s, Zewdu Terefework left Ethiopia and arrived in Finland as a refugee. He studied microbiology and trained as a researcher in Lindström’s group, and gradually began thinking about ways to help his country. In 2007, a new project was launched to educate Ethiopian postgraduate students and have them complete part of their degrees at the University of Helsinki.

The cooperation also extends to teaching and has resulted in two courses on the sustainable cultivation of tropical soil held in Ethiopia and offered jointly to Finnish and Ethiopian students.

“The birdwatching trip arranged for the course participants was a real eye-opener for me,” Lindström observes. “It made me consider the diversity of birds, humans and bacteria, and I realised I couldn’t just walk up and tell Ethiopians how to cultivate their land. Familiarity with the local conditions is a definite must.”

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Text: Reetta Vairimaa
Photo: Kristina Lindström
Translation: Language Services/Language Centre (University of Helsinki)
University of Helsinki, digital communications

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