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It’s Hell, But Ethiopia Is Beating Some Odds To Eat

Critics argue that with Ethiopia’s current land policy, which limits exchange and sale, the agriculture sector will never be able to cope with growth in population.

By Nathenael Aberra

In a July interview with CNN’s Quest Means Business, Ethiopia’s minister for Planning and Development Fitsum Assefa (Ph.D.) admitted that in preparing the 10-year Development Plan (2020-2030), her office did not assume the “global as well as local shocks” that added to the “toll” on Ethiopia’s economy.

The shocks that impacted the Ethiopian economy in the past two years included drought caused by failure of consecutive rain seasons in the south and southeastern part of the country; a hit by Covid-19; a locust swarm in the north; the war between the regional Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Federal Government in Addis Ababa; sanctions from western governments due to the conflict; and the Russia-Ukraine war.

Despite all these, the Federal Government holds that it rose to the challenges by investing in agriculture and implementing a Homegrown Economic Reform. In one of his frequent visits to farming sites, PM Fitsum told the state broadcaster that wheat production had seen a 60 per cent boost compared to the output of the previous year. He also said Ethiopia would satisfy local demand and start exporting wheat this year.

This, inevitably, is to be taken with caution, considering the country has been dependent on imported wheat to stabilise prices whenever there is a rise in domestic food prices, and that a considerable amount of wheat imported as part of food aid by international donors. Imports of wheat constituted up to 85 per cent of Ethiopia’s food crop imports.

The government’s optimistic picture on wheat production also points to the  addition of a third season of production, the rise in the cultivated land using irrigation, and cluster farming that allowed for the use of technological inputs. Independent verification is yet to be made of the government data.

Land Ownership Complications

Ethiopia’s food production, however, is complicated by other factors beyond just what happens on farms and gardens.

Apart from the global and internal “shocks” that are being felt on dinner tables, there is a major public policy debate on land ownership and its impact on productivity. Since the 1974 Ethiopian revolution that abolished the feudal system and the land reform that followed in 1975, ownership of land is in the domain of the public. The proclamation in March of 1975 prohibited the transfer of land use rights by sale, exchange, succession, mortgage, or lease, except up on death (even then only to the wife, husband, minor children of the deceased). Article 40-3 of the current constitution enacted in 1995 states, “The right to ownership of rural and urban land, as well as natural resources, is exclusively vested in the State and in the people of Ethiopia. Land is the property of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia and shall not be subject to sale or to other means of exchange.”

The successive land tenure policies that vested the ownership of land to the state, supporters argue, are meant to ensure equality, and provide protection against the accumulation of the most important resource and source of livelihood in the hands of the few. However, there are voices that call for reforming the land policy to give full ownership rights, including the right to transfer ownership, of rural land to individual farmers. These argue the land tenure policy failed not only to increase productivity and transform the economy, but also to provide security of tenure to the farmers. Critics of the current tenure policy say the agriculture sector will never be able to cope with growth in population with an average farm size of less than 1 hectare per household.

High Food Insecurity

According to the United Nations Committee on World Food Security, food security is ensured when “all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food”. A 2022 report by Famine Early Warning Systems Network situates Ethiopia as a country with one of the worst food insecurities in the world, with record-breaking food assistance needs brought on by the effects of a protracted drought and continued insecurity. FEWSNET also predicted that through at least January 2023, widespread emergency and crisis outcomes such as high rates of acute malnutrition and hunger-related mortality are projected to occur in northern, central, southern, and southeastern Ethiopia.

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As per FEWS, the spread of emergency is also anticipated in southern and southeastern pastoral areas, where drought conditions are anticipated to last through at least mid-2023 as a result of a historic fifth consecutive year with below-average rainfall in late 2022 induced by La Niña.  Due to poor to emaciated cattle body conditions caused by limited pasture and water availability, household livestock holdings are becoming increasingly difficult to sell and milk supply is extremely low. Acute malnutrition levels already fall into the “critical” and “extremely critical” categories. More than 7 million Ethiopians residing in the Afar, Oromia, Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s, and Somali regions find themselves unable to grow food due to the failure of rainy seasons. 

Another natural disaster in late 2019 and through 2020 was the desert swarm that saw many farmers losing their entire crop or harvest before it fully matured. However, the impact of the desert swarm on food security was not well accounted for due to the conflict that broke out in November 2020 in the areas highly impacted by the desert swarm.

Many smallholder farmers in Ethiopia use traditional and low-cost farming methods such as oxen-drawn ploughs (or mareasha) to till the soil. Seeds are mainly sown by hand and most crops depend entirely on rainfall without reliable supplemental irrigation. As a result, food production has not been a highly productive process for smallholder farmers even when natural calamities didn’t present themselves as prominent challenges.


Toll of Conflict

For instance, aerial pictures with historical Google Earth imagery in 2021 show that less cropland was plowed as compared to similar times of prior years despite favourable rainfall patterns in the Northern part of the country. This is thought to be caused by the general wartime conditions that made plowing extremely difficult, such as the looting and intentional killing of oxen, little access to agricultural supplies like seed and fertiliser, and wanton destruction of farm equipment by conflicting parties. The conflict that has been going on in the northern part of the country for the last close to two years has impacted the livelihood of households in the Afar, Amhara and Tigray regions. While many were not able to cultivate their lands, millions were also forced to shelter in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) due to the conflict.

Dr Tilahun Amede, Resilience, Climate & Soil Fertility Head at Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), agrees conflict is the primary reason for food security in Ethiopia right now. “Conflict taking place in many parts of the country disrupts the food production cycle, and disables farmers from following up their farms compromising quality and amount of harvest. Conflicts also interrupt the provision of improved seeds, fertilisers and extension services,” Tilahun explained.

The Russian-Ukraine war has been another setback on top of all the internal hurdles against securing food to the vulnerable. With 38 per cent of the total wheat imports being from Russia and Ukraine, Ethiopia is among 24 other African countries that account for 30 per cent or more of their imported wheat from the two countries.

According to Dr Mengistu Ketema, Chief Executive Officer of Ethiopian Economics Association, one-fourth of Ethiopia’s foreign currency spending goes to import of fuel, wheat, and fertiliser- whose prices and supply are highly impacted by the Russian-Ukraine war. In 2020, the total value of imported food, fertiliser and fuel stood at $2 billion, $0.5billion, and $1.24 billion, respectively. In just the the six months since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, Ethiopia has already spent close to $3.3 billion for the import of the three commodities, equal to the total annual earnings the country gets from exports.

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Although inflation was already on the rise before the breakout of the conflict, close to 13 percent of the increase in the price index for July 2022 is estimated to be a direct result of the market disruptions caused by the Russia-Ukraine war. A decline in consumption of fertilisers due to the rise in price is expected to result in a decline of more than 21 per cent in cereal production, according to the estimate by Mengistu.

Innovating to Survive

The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates there are 20.4 million people in Ethiopia, close to 18 per cent of the total population, currently requiring food assistance. But against all odds, Ethiopians are still trying to adapt to the changing challenges to ensuring food security at home. Innovative solutions to agriculture increasingly becoming known as agrinovation, urban farming and an increased commitment to food production and self-sustenance are coming to the rescue. 

Organisations like AGRA work with the private sector to produce, modify, multiply and distribute quality seeds to farmers. It also avails financial and expertise assistance to the Ministry of Agriculture and other non-governmental organizations that work on issues related with food production and security, introducing sustainable farming programmes to minimise risks.

Purpose Black was introduced in May of 2020 by a group of more than 130 Black experts with the aim of addressing some economic issues affecting Black people globally. This global initiative’s first prototype being developed in Ethiopia hopes to be the beginning of a large-scale international undertaking that will benefit millions of people continentally. 

Purpose Black is currently building a huge agro-processing complex, an online marketplace, hypermarket chains, and a network of more than a thousand retail and distribution stores that are aimed at encouraging, facilitating, and scaling up innovation in agricultural production to help Ethiopia achieve food security sooner. 

Urban agriculture is another sector many are now turning to. With the current inflation rate standing at a staggering 34 per cent and food items,  on top of the fear of anticipated cutbacks on aid because of the Tigray war, young Ethiopian urbanites are taking to urban agriculture as a way to self-sufficiency. 

It is now common to see urban dwellers planting and harvesting vegetables like collard greens, lettuce, pepper, and tomatoes in their yards. Many of Addis Ababa’s condominium residents also use the shared “green area” spaces to plant vegetables and supply to residents in the compounds. Furthermore, the government is promoting small and less- resourced urban farms even at times when all the area people have to plant is a small pot on their verandas. 

Nationwide, the country is freeing up large scale lands for irrigated wheat and avocado production. In 2021 alone, 18 tons of avocado was exported from the Oromia region to the international market. This comes as part of a joint effort to increase large-scale production of staples in Amhara, Afar, Sidama, and SNNP regions and the efforts are already bearing fruit. 

Millionaires like Bereket Worku are also fighting the stereotype against farming and farmers by increasing social media presence and promoting the work they do to inspire more young people to join the agri sector. Bereket, known to many by her Tik Tok handle @Beki_farmer is a businesswoman that came back to Ethiopia after living in Ireland for several years. She is now a full time farmer, tilling her land and engaging her 150K TikTok followers in the process.

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