In Hungry Horn Of Africa, Ethiopia Bets The House On Wheat

By Soko Directory Team / Published November 1, 2022 | 3:46 pm



Save the Children

Farming was a calling to Getachew Tesema, who left his hometown Wonji, central Ethiopia, 54 years ago in search of work. Years later, he landed in Afar Regional State and slowly got enough resources together to start farming there.

At the height of his career, he rented 30 hectares from the local people, harvesting cotton. Since then, years of seasonal floods have washed away most of Getachew’s harvest.

Floods are common in Afar, a lowland area that makes part of the Awash River Basin, one of Ethiopia’s most important river basins.

It is also one of the three basin federal authorities have selected to experiment with “summer harvesting”, pinning their hopes for Ethiopia to become a net wheat exporter next year. Along with maize and teff, wheat is the most used grain for food covering 14 percent of consumption.

The federal initiative is a national ambition to reverse course from an image of Ethiopia as a poster child of drought and famine to self-sufficiency, and eventually a land of surplus. It is a program launched two years ago on 500hectares of land along the Shebele River in the Somali Regional State.

Officials at the Ministry of Agriculture plan and their experts plot to expand this exponentially to reach over 30 percent of the 107 million wheat harvest planned for next year, surpassing demand by 10 million quintals. The surplus is hoped to bring the country no less than $390 million dollars from exports. If successful, it will also save Ethiopia 431 million dollars spent two years ago importing one million tons of wheat from overseas markets.

The wheat harvested from summer irrigations on the Shebele, Omo, and Awash basins could be a grand ambition for the country and its leaders. But the buzz has also motivated small-scale commercial farmers like Getachew to try something new this year.

Though he only has one hectare left to work with, Getachew plans to sow wheat between his regular cropping seasons, belg and meher. The time he used to spend on storing and selling cotton between these seasons, he is now sowing summer wheat.

Summer wheat has become the transition grain at Getachew’s farm. In the grander plans of the government, it is designed to pull the country from wheat imports to export. The social media threads of senior federal and regional government heads – from the Prime Minister to his Agricultural Minister and Oromia Regional State chief to his counterpart in Somali Regional State – are crammed with photos and video clips of lush green lands. They urge their followers that success is within grasp.

Lowland areas like Afar Regional State, idle during summer and where the usually hot weather cools down, make an ideal location to sow wheat. The region is expected to produce 2.5 million tonnes of wheat this coming year. At roughly 10,000 hectares, the region also has the largest areas of private farms working on irrigated wheat.

The lands here have their set of challenges, however. The biggest of which is floods. But farmers here are facing overwhelming weeds this year. In a predominantly agro-pastoralist society, harvest is also lost to cattle looking for grazing land.

“It’s more profitable for us to add another round of harvest, but it will take more resources,” Getachew told The East African. “The cattle which are normally banned from the farms during the regular cropping season come back. We’re expected to put up our fences for this season.”

Much of Getachew’s plan seems to rest on hope as the country does. He anticipates floods do not take over his harvest, that the weeds will stay manageable, and, most importantly, the crop will yield.

The government’s plan for wheat import substitution rests mainly on two strategies; summer irrigation and promoting cluster farming. Close to 60 percent of the massive increase in wheat harvest is expected to come from millions of smallholder farmers.

Lome Wereda, about 100Km east of Addis Abeba, is where farmers are urged by local authorities to begin practicing cluster farming. It is a way of adjoining strips of land usually left to mark borders between farms. The authorities hope that if many of the 18 million farmers put together the pieces of land, the combined effect on productivity can be enormous. That way, they believe they can meet their ambitious target of plowing over one million hectares by next year, more than double what they say was farmed last year.

Most of the farmland surrounding Lome Wereda along a major logistic and industrial hub sat empty a few months ago. The area is ideal for agriculture, particularly irrigation farming, as it lies in the Great Rift Valley, surrounded by major rivers such as Awash, Wedecha, and Belbela. However, it had been two months since farmers in Lome’s 35 kebeles harvested their crops.

Girma Tesema, 65, depends on water from the Modjo River, a tributary of the Awash, to grow wheat on two hectares under the cluster and off-season farming initiatives. He and several farmers in the area harvest twice a year through irrigation.

He lives in Dengugi Kebele, where he and his fellow farmers have been pleading with local authorities to divert water from the Awash River.

“They said it’s beyond their mandate,” he told The East African.

Girma inherited six hectares of land from his parents. Farming is his sole means of providing and paying for the education of his nine children. One of his sons, Matios, opened a dental clinic in Addis Abeba after graduating from Tikur Anbess (Black Lion) Hospital.

Two years ago, local administrators convinced Girma to join the cluster and off-season farming initiatives. He and nearly 1,700 farmers in Dengugi Kebele have thus far signed up for the initiative launched three years ago.

“We’re eager to begin,” he said.

But Girma’s productivity has not improved in the time since. He used to harvest up to 20 quintals of wheat on each hectare before he signed up and sold half of his crop for 2,800 Birr a quintal. Last year, his productivity slumped by half. Part of the reason for the decline is the successive desert locust invasions that have plagued farmers in Ethiopia in recent years. But there are other causes, too. Farmers like Girma are required to rent water pumps and combiners to grow their crops.

However, water flowing to the Modjo River from its tributaries is drying up.

“We need pumps to bring the water to the surface,” said Girma.

Other farmers like Arega Leta, 30, have experienced a similar drop in water volume.

Arega farms wheat on two hectares. Productivity over the past couple of years has declined from 25 quintals a hectare. The locust invasions and climbing cost of production are to be blamed. He pays 170 Birr a quintal to rent a combiner and shares 30,000 Birr in costs with five farmers to use a water pump.

“The soil isn’t suitable for farming wheat,” said Arega.

He argues the cluster farming arrangement has not been to his advantage. When not farming wheat, Arega grows vegetables to generate additional income and support his family. A hectare can yield up to 30 quintals of vegetables.

Cluster farming in Lome Wereda began two years ago with 808 farmers in three kebeles. These farmers harvested a little over 37,000quintal of wheat in the first season. Last year, the initiative expanded to include 3,100 farmers in eight kebeles. They harvested nearly 349,000quintal of wheat, disclosed Alemayeu Degefa, an East Shewa Zone Agricultural Office expert.

These are productivities that are a far cry from the national ambitions.

In a recently presented assessment, government counterparts reported that over 450,000 hectare of land had been irrigated in the past year, with the country’s wheat import yet to be made. This number, which represents the aggregate land used for other crops throughout the year, has been achieved mostly through smallholder farmers like Girma and Arega. Out of nearly 900,000 hectares of irrigated farmlands in the country, private farms take about six percent share, expected to produce 352,400 tons of wheat this year.

Smallholder farmers can make or break the wheat export plan. 

The undeniably crucial role of smallholder farmers is why the Ministry of Agriculture has crafted a strategy its experts dubbed the “National Smallholder Irrigation & Drainage Strategy.”

Part of this strategy is allocating government funding; half a billion Birr has been allotted from the capital budget to support this initiative since its implementation in 2018.

“This financial commitment is important since it can get complicated to find support from donors in irrigation,” said Zeleke Belay, an irrigation engineering expert. “Most water bodies cross borders and make for a hydro political issue.”

Yet, in the larger picture, only 18.5 billion Birr has been carved out for the entire sector, accounting for only 2.3 percent of the recently approved 787 billion Birr in the federal budget. Public-private partnerships are expected to help in divvying up the support needed for the sector; a prime example is the mechanization of the industry.

The public-private partnership for the road to the country’s mechanization envisages assistance from the federal government in providing policy support like lifting duties off imports, covering costs in training, and demonstrations on the use of agriculture machinery to farmers with building the necessary infrastructure. The private sector is expected to bring in and distribute farming equipment.

Since the removal of duties on the import of agricultural mechanization, irrigation, and animal feed technologies and equipment, there has been a substantial difference in the import of products. Data from the Agriculture Ministry shows that this number has tripled since.

Yet, there is a long way ahead before the full mechanization of the sector, which requires about 50,000 tractors. Currently, around 8,000 tractors are functional across the country. Thousands more have been imported but are wasted in different facilities due to substandard quality, brought without prior assessments of their type and use.

This is hardly the first time Ethiopia has tried to center mechanization in its agriculture. While the military-Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam had focused on mechanization, with large state-owned mechanized farms first taking place then, the subsequent EPRDF strategy was less keen on mechanization, as it changed direction in what it deemed a land and labor-abundant country.

But with high rates of migration, and people leaving for cities looking for work, this is no longer a labor-abundant sector. Mechanization is intended to step in to solve this, according to Bereket Forsido, the Ministry’s director for agricultural mechanization. Feed shortages for the oxen used in plowing further complicate the problem.

The Derg regime’s influence on state-run mechanized farms, however, appears to play a significant role in the success of the current government’s wheat export plans.




About Soko Directory Team

Soko Directory is a Financial and Markets digital portal that tracks brands, listed firms on the NSE, SMEs and trend setters in the markets eco-system.Find us on Facebook: facebook.com/SokoDirectory and on Twitter: twitter.com/SokoDirectory

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