Tiginesh Beyene, MA SID'20 (Ethiopia)

Tiginesh Beyene, MA SID'20

A decade ago, Tiginesh Beyene, MA SID’20, was entrenched in the fast-paced world of computer programming, and feeling burned out from constant competition with her fellow engineers.

Today, she’s relishing the collaborative atmosphere of the Heller School, where she’s learning to turn her passion into policy that will transform food production in her home country of Ethiopia. 

“People don’t ask, ‘Where does my food come from? How does it affect my health and the environment?’” she says.

She first came to the United States from her hometown of Addis Ababa for her undergraduate degree and to find a lucrative profession in computer science. But nothing about the daily grind, not even the salary, fulfilled her.

Instead, it was the thriving local food culture in Seattle that reinvigorated her. Growing up, she’d never given a second thought to where her food came from. But in Seattle, she learned about the raw food movement and the importance of organic and sustainable farming practices—and that planted the seeds of a major career shift.

Returning to Ethiopia after a decade in the U.S., she was horrified to find that the food being produced at the time of her return was often grown with polluted river water and treated with industrial pesticides that had been outlawed in Europe and the United States.

She started researching ecological food production methods in order to develop her own garden and studied with a permaculture teacher from Zimbabwe, who got her involved in a project at the historic Taitu hotel (the first one built in Ethiopia). For years, the hotel had done nothing with the lands surrounding it, choosing only to dump its food scraps in the back lot. She and her teacher convinced the owner to let them plant vegetable and herb gardens, which thrived due to years of inadvertent composting. The owner even launched a new vegan buffet based on the garden.   

Despite her success, “I never had the idea that this would be my career path,” says Beyene, who had volunteered her time to develop the community garden at the hotel.  

But soon after, her efforts attracted the attention of Slow Food International, a global organization dedicated to protecting local food cultures and promoting biodiversity. They hired her to join one of their initiatives, called “10,000 Gardens in Africa.” With the resources of Slow Food, Beyene’s reach grew. She helped develop hundreds of community and school gardens, promoting agroecological practices to rural farmers and educating students about where their food comes from and how to produce it.

“Too often farm work was used as punishment in schools throughout Africa, which resulted in youth turning their backs on agriculture,” Beyene says. “I wanted to make it likeable and fun, to get young people interested.”

At Slow Food, she worked with Roba Bulga, MA SID/MBA’19, who introduced her to the Heller School. When he left for Heller in the fall of 2017, she took over his role, working with beekeepers, coffee farmers and camel herders across the country to help develop the quality of their products and create market links. Criss-crossing the country, she saw how the lack of development in rural areas was a major problem.

“Small-scale rural farmers are in trouble. Climate change means rain isn’t reliable, so they need irrigation, infrastructure. And they need policies to change, like ones that force them to buy expensive chemical fertilizers and go into debt.”

She realized going back to school was the best way to gain the necessary skills to create large-scale change. She considered programs in agroecology and natural resources management, but Bulga convinced her that Heller, which focused on policy, would help her make the biggest impact.

“My experience is at the grassroots level,” says Beyene, who’s excited to learn about responsible development practices. “But if we don’t fix policies, the effects of our work are easily reversed.”

Watch this short documentary about Tiginesh Beyene’s work on the Awra Amba Community Garden, part of the 10,000 Gardens in Africa project.