Habte Jebessa Debella (PhD)

Dr. Habte Jebessa Debella has a strong background in limnology and biodiversity conservation. Following experiences in laboratories in Austria, Germany, the United States, the Russian Federation and the Czech Republic, and working on quality control and the mass culture of Aphanizomenon flos-aquae for Cell Tech International, he is now working with the Ethiopian Biotechnology Institute on setting up the country’s first state of the art microalgae lab.

For starters, what hashtags best define who you are and/or your ambitions in the microalgae space?

#CultureMedium #LakeMicroalgae #Ethiopia #Spirulina #Bioprospecting #Astaxanthin #LakeChitu 

I am developing a new, bio-inspired approach to culture media, based on the ecology of local microalgae-rich lakes…

Can you tell me a bit more about Ethiopia’s microalgae environment and what potential it holds?

Ethiopia is both ground zero in terms of the commercial development of microalgae production and a place of exceptional potential as some of the Rift Valley lakes are of exceptionally high-nutrient-ich water that is particularly suitable for microalgae mass culture. The chemistry of the waters of Lakes Abijata and Chitu is almost perfect for the cultivation of spirulina, which makes them ideal low-hanging fruits. Lake Chitu, in the central Rift Valley of Ethiopia, contains an almost pure culture of Arthrospira fusiformis with blooms covering the full lake surface at times. It is very close to being a bioreactor for spirulina: it is characterized by the right mix of nutrients, very alkaline water (with a pH of 10.5), warm temperatures (surface temperature of 28°C), and access to a hot spring (80°C), which would make temperature control very easy. Thanks to the lesser flamingos that feeds on Arthrospira, removing the biomass preventing anoxia. In a bid to avoid impacting the ecology of the lakes and their surroundings, water would be pumped out of the hot springs, UV-treated and pumped into raceway ponds for the purpose of cultivating spirulina. We expect the Lake Chitu site to be able to accommodate a production of more than 200 metric tons of spirulina per year with no adverse effect to the environment.

As a result of this strong potential, the Ethiopian government has set up a fully equipped laboratory with the objective of preparing the ground for commercial operators and addressing child stunting, which impacts roughly 40% of children under the age of 5 in the country. The laboratory is to be inaugurated around mid October 2020 under the strong commitment of the Federal Government’s new support for the microalgae industry. The lab itself will focus on seed culture production and quality control, initially only for indigenous spirulina strains, and later also for Haematococcus pluvialis. Included is a containerised mobile laboratory unit, which can serve to better analyze the potential of various lakes. The expectations of the government are for the lab to contribute to bring in companies that could fully exploit the sites, though pilot operations will of course be welcome.

What innovations are you currently working on?

I am developing a new, bio-inspired approach to culture media, based on the ecology of local microalgae-rich lakes. I believe that the cost and quality of appropriate culture media remains one of the main challenges in microalgae mass culture. In the case of spirulina mass culture, Zarrouk’s medium is one of the oldest and proven media designed for growing different microalgae strains of the genus Arthrospira, yet this medium probably doesn’t fully cover the spectrum of nutrients present in natural environments with its selection of 23 compounds. Developed in 1966, when analytical methods were much more inferior than they are at present, the Zarrouk’s medium hasn’t been fully reassessed from the ground up with modern analytical methods.

Bioprospection is also very promising. It is known that Arthrospira fusiformis from Lake Chitu is completely understudied, despite being an oddity that it is actually visible to the naked eye, being very coiled and therefore easy to harvest, and growing at higher pH levels than other spirulina strains. We are currently studying several different strains from different lakes and assessing mass production potential; which cultivation parameters should be used; and the nutrient availability in their lake environment.

Finally, I am interested in promoting the fortification of poultry and fish food in the country and we are now at the field pilot scale in that regard.

As a final note, what kind of profiles would you be most willing to get in touch with? 

I’d love to hear from companies wishing to establish connections with the Algal Biotech Centre and are considering working in or with Ethiopia. The Lake Shalla–Chitu area is perhaps the world’s number one ideal environment for microalgae production with its constant 12 hours of sunlight, nutrient-rich water, unutilized land, high ambient temperature, and close proximity with several industrial parks for processing. Water, land, labour, culture media, photovoltaic power, all makes microalgae production outstandingly feasible. 

Connect with me on LinkedIn.

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