The agricultural dilemma in Ethiopia: foreign farm investors trickling with the nation showing no signs of moving toward food security

29 Dec

By Keffyalew Gebremedhin

As if it were a rehearsal for year-end message, in early November the ministry of agriculture announced, “Ethiopia is working towards commercializing agriculture and [realizing] its full potential to provide each household surplus and income for its growing population.” As an idea that looks to the future or possible indication of intent, there is nothing wrong with that — except that the officials preferred to be opaque when it came to linking the anticipated outcome with the means they would employ.

This revelation took place at an important regional conference, whose theme was Productivity and Enhancing food Security in Africa: New Challenges and Opportunities, held in Addis Abeba from 1-3 November. The official who represented the government and launched the conference chose to reiterate the usual set position, especially at a time when Ethiopia has continued to be hit harder by inadequate domestic food production and dysfunctional system of food distribution, against the backdrop of double-digit-inflation.It follows this that data released by the government on 13 December indicated that in the last one year inflation has pushed food prices by a whopping 50.3 percent.

Ethiopian farmer at work (Courtesy of

Unfortunately, the agriculture ministry even appeared more coy failing to show meaningful vision behind the plan; the government’s representative simply limited himself to iterating, “The government has taken strong policy measures to recognize agriculture as an engine of the economy and a means to fight poverty.” This took many people by surprise, since it sounded as if State Minister for Agriculture Wondirad Mandefro were announcing to the world for the first time a new government strategy, not what the world has already known for two decades after the Meles regime seized power and massive resources have been thrown at agriculture, without any sign of the country becoming self-sufficient in food production now or the likelihood of it in the foreseeable future.

Ato Wondirad Mandefro told the eager attendees of the regional conference that the Meles regime has been spending more than 14 percent of GDP on agriculture, in his words, “exceeding the target set by Maputo Declaration to meet the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Program targets.” He then recalled how it was foreseen in the government plan to double agricultural GDP to achieve food self-sufficiency at the household and national level through the growth and transformation plan (GTP 2011 – 2015). It is not lost on anyone that these days the GTP is being treated as an all cure. Thus, the state minister also took refuge in it and basing his prediction of doubling agricultural production.

If the news report is accurate, the state minister relied as an added evidence on the economic growth patterns of the past few years. Consequently, since the economy is agricultural, he said it would “continue to grow with a double-digit for subsequent eight years.” If that is the basis on which the future of the country’s goal of food self-sufficiency is being predicated, I lost him there. What else can one say in the face of such a known trouble ahead, save fearing for the state of the nation and future generations!

"Garden farming" in Sidamo region in plentiful year (Courtesy: Shoye Cooperative)

Perhaps one person who did not appear entirely sanguine with everything he heard at the conference was Monty Jones, the Executive Director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa. He politely took the floor to give a sense of what African countries needed to do: “Urgent actions, especially improving capacity and farmer support systems are needed among all competing tasks. In that regard, Jones urged Africa “to go beyond just research to increase productivity that enables to reduce hunger and poverty.”

Scientists speak out

It is important to bear in mind in this connection that at the end of September a number of Ethiopian agricultural scientists also spoke out frankly at a seminar they organized at the Ghion Hotel, which in essence says agricultural output cannot not double when the majority of farmers are using neither the right improved seeds nor the appropriate chemicals or have the appropriate institutional supports. Their intention was to alert the country’s political leaders to refocus their approaches in the field of agriculture. Their key message is:

    Stability and sustainability in a farming system is determined by the degree to which agricultural productivity under environmental stresses remains stable and reliable in terms of satisfying the need for food in a growing population. The most important and indispensable resources to make this a reality are farmers’ knowledge and agro biodiversity. Local farmers have knowledge that has been tasted and proven for centuries.

A crop genetic researcher by training, Dr. Bayush Tsegaye intimated to the gathering that Ethiopia has been one of the world’s crop diversity centers and that the different crop types and varieties the country has had are a reflection of ingenuity on the part of farmers, i.e., their efforts at long term domestication, adaptation and selection. While escribing in her presentation Ethiopia as a diversity center for crops such as coffee, tef, barley, Ethiopian sunflower and enset, she disappointedly said, “this diversity is being eroded due to factors among which climate change and loss of farmers’ traditional knowledge relating to change in the perception in the farming system are the prominent ones.”

Her frightening conclusion, based on her research confirms “no single crop type or variety is able to meet the diverse needs of farmers living in diverse agro-ecologies, and so promoting diversity supported by farmers’ knowledge is needed to cope up with changing climatic condition and meet the needs of not only the current but also that of the future.”Put briefly, her stand is “Poor farmers face challenges to meet the demands of high input varieties. In addition, loss of time-tested traditional knowledge and practices of farmers is getting more and more serious over time.” This was complimented by the findings of research scientist and Director of the Ethiopian Organic Seed Action (EOSA), who said agro-biodiversity is a vital sub-set of biodiversity and it needs to be understood as a set of biological, ecological and social assets that should intricately coexist and function as a system. Because of that he underlined, “for agriculture to be sustainable and resilient to natural shocks, all the elements of agro-biodiversity should function in a harmonious manner.”

On his part, Dr.Gemedo Dale, researcher at the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity Conservation revealed to the conferrees in his paper entitled Ethiopia’s Global Responsibility for Protection of Farmer’s Rights: Challenges and Opportunities., “Centuries-old indigenous knowledge of the farmers should not be abandoned by extension works or academicians.”

He went further and explained that, while the country has accepted many international treaties to ensure respect for the rights of farmers, “the proper implementation of these rights remains in question. Lack of awareness from a farmer to a minister level is one of the barriers for the poor implementation of the rights.” The major bottlenecks, he said, are poor enforcement of laws, absence of strategic institutional arrangements reflecting lack of understanding of local structures, conflicting interests and poor exposure of farmers to better and improved ideas. He stressed that lack of properly implementation of farmers’ rights in Ethiopia is serious impediment to agricultural development in Ethiopia.

A acclaimed Ethiopian scientist Dr. Melaku Worede, genetic scientist and winner of the Right Livelihood Award, commonly referred to as Alternative Nobel Prize, and the Herman Warsh Memorial Awards of Seeds of Survival emphasized that the issue of protecting and properly using farmers’ variety seeds was currently becoming a crucial issue in the field of agriculture. In that regard, his message is: “The farmers know why they grow certain types of varieties and listening to them and appreciating their valuable contribution is crucial to create synergies.”

Program manager Ayele Kebede at the Heinrich Ball Foundation (HBF) highlighted the fundamental issues assailing agricultural production in Ethiopia in the following words:

    Sustainable agriculture is based on four essential system properties namely stability, equitability, productivity and sustainability. It is also described as a system that works on four components: that it should be resource conserving, socially supportive, economically competitive and environmentally sound. Consequently, “food security problem in some parts of the world, especially in developing countries, is not due to lack of food rather it is a problem of unfair distribution of wealth, access to food and capacity to buy food.

In brief, there is a concerning dearth to see things in proper light. This has resulted in being obsessed with the present. For instance, propaganda is given more priority than putting the appropriate bricks and mortars of together to improve agricultural production.

Ethiopia needs to move from politicking in agriculture to producing sufficient foods development

Ten days after the productivity conference was over and in connection with the 2011 harvest season, Ms.Samiya Zekeria, Director-General of Ethiopia’s Central Statistics Agency (CSA), announced that she expected over 218.3 million quintals of output to be harvested from small-scale private farms on over 12.1 million hectares of land this year, according to the Ethiopian News Agency. She reported that this represented an increase of 15 million quintals, compared with that of same period last year.

Tentative as this data is, it is difficult to establish whether the increases reflect productivity gains or mere expansion of land under crops. Last year’s CSA data indicated that crop land increased by about 200,000 hectares during the main harvest season, excluding those that engage in agricultural practices mixing livestock and crops. Already on the face of this year’s forecast, therefore, one is inclined to think that a great deal of work and appropriate policies are still in great need to guide Ethiopia’s agriculture to a future of food self-sufficiency.

In spite of the tentativeness of this anticipated output data, here I must not move away quietly, without making reference to conllusion of one study conducted in Amara and Tigrai regional states. It states:

    There is a need for governments and non-governmental organizations to shift their focus from chemical fertilizers to considering sustainable agricultural practices as yield-augmenting technologies in semi-arid and arid areas. In these areas, sustainable agricultural practices not only increase yields but could also provide other benefits: farmers may also be able to cut production costs, increase environmental benefits, reduce crop failure risk due to moisture stress, and decrease financial risk associated with buying chemical fertilizer on credit.

As to other components, a study by Yezihalem Tesfa Dagnaw sums up by underlining:

Generally, be it this or that way, a design for combating the root causes of Ethiopian poverty should be a necessary part of any strategy to avoid food insecurity in the country. Thus, resolving Ethiopia’s current food insecurity problem would entail significant policy changes of various types on factors that hinder and hamper the overall agricultural productivity of the country.”

When Yezihalem Tesfa speaks of factors hindering or hampering agricultural productivity, he is refering to poor agricultural policy, landlessness, land fragmentation, environmental degradation, population pressure, drought, famine, war and political crises have all been responsible for Ethiopian poverty and backwardness. In addition, he mentions, low socio-economic status, poor weather conditions, lack of basic infrastructures for intensive land use, different policies, land, cultural, and religious factors have undermined agricultural growth and reduced the labor–absorption potential of farming in Ethiopia.

International experience

Not long ago FAO’s Assistant Director General Hafez Ghanem alerted African journalists as to the what culprits are lurking behind the rise in food prices the world over. While he emphasized that agricultural investments alone are not sufficient conditions in and of their own, he urged each country to examine its particular conditions more seriously and adopt appropriate polices, instead of clinging to everything that is being presented as causes for the rising food prices.

The need for such an approach, he said, should be given sufficient consideration since “The available data show that the situation is different in each country. In some countries, price rises have meant higher prices for farmers, while in others this is not the case, which is generally the result of the fact that governments are hindering the transfer from the global market to the farmers.”

To the thinking of the assistant director-general, Ghana represented an example of a successful country regarding agricultural development. He observed in that regard:

    Notwithstanding the fact that Africa still has a long way to go in the battle against hunger, even so, despite everything, [the region] has recorded some successes in this area. Take the case of Ghana in particular. This country has succeeded in achieving its Millennium Development Goal 
(MDG) aiming to cut the proportion of its population suffering hunger by half between 1990 and 2015. It did so by supporting its farmers in two important and priority sectors: public investment, particularly in research and development (R&D), and ad-hoc policies, which specifically allowed farmers access to seed and the market. These were measures which had been adopted in other countries and explain their relative success.

This reminded me of a news item I read in late August from the association of coffee producers in southern Ethiopia, which wrote a letter to the prime minister and the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE) urging them to take urgent measures to tide the growing shift by his members to the production of khat, a stimulant crop in young nation, for lack of bank loans and credits.

Looking at the problem from the economic, financial and land tenure angles, experienced by Ethiopian farmers, Atkilt Admasu and Issac Paul came with new evidence of misguided policies in their ASSESSMENT ON THE MECHANISMS AND CHALLENGES OF SMALL SCALE AGRICULTURAL CREDIT FROM COMMERCIAL BANKS IN ETHIOPIA: THE CASE OF ADA’A LIBEN WOREDA ETHIOPIA, published in the Journal of Sustainable Development in Africa (Vol 12, No.3 2010). Their study found out:

    …Agricultural credit in the Woreda [Ada’a Libern] followed a two-tier delivery approach, where input loans were provided to farmers through cooperatives. The main variable to qualify farmers for such loans was their working land size. Nevertheless, due to the shortage of land in the Woreda, the amount of loans, availed in the form of fertilizers, improved seeds, and chemicals, were inadequate. As collateral for the loans, the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia secures federal government guarantee, which is considered as cash substitute collateral from Ministry of Finance and Economic Development( MoFED) on the Oromia Regional Government’s subsidy budget. The main reason for many of the default cases was found to be the lack of farmers’ awareness on repayment terms. In a nut shell, the government’s role in the small-scale farmers’ access to bank loans appeared crucial both during loan origination and collection.

At the same time, this shows that there is strong bias in government toward foreign investors. Thus, on the political side the problem is better summed up by the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI), which in its 2010 report on Ethiopia wrote:

    Indian and Chinese companies encouraged by the Ethiopian government have increased their investment in the agricultural, construction and communication sectors, but have not been able to compensate for deficiencies on the Ethiopian side. The further transformation towards a market economy has been slow due to ideological reservations in the political class and the fear that private investment could be used to bolster the political opposition.

Why should we be alarmed by Ethiopia’s present agricultural policy?

There is no doubt that the government has practically abandoned the 13.4 million small holders long ago, not to speak of nomadic pastoralists. The government is more obsessed with production of cash crops and earning more foreign exchange. Their explanation is that with the cash people could buy their food. It seems our leaders live on a different planet, since otherwise they could not have adopted this disastrous policy at a time when even the rich countries, oil producer included, are trying to run away from food imports, despite their healthier balance of payments.

With such a failed policy and growing dependence on commercial farms that produce cash crops or foods for export, Ethiopia should not expect to dig its way out of hunger. Nor can it develop as an economy, or make headway in this fiercely competitive world, safeguard the pride and dignity of its citizens and maintain the nation’s independence and sovereignty so long as the policies pursued force it into dependence on international food aid. If one of the state of mind that these agricultural investors would abandon their pursuit of profit and become the new food donors, there is a need for sanity tests.As it stands now, this policy is a road to slavery for a proud nation that cherishes its sense of independence for which huge and historic sacrifices have been paid!

Secondly, as I discussed a few days ago in another article in the context of realization of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), today in Ethiopia there is 15-20 million people facing hunger everyday. At the same time, according to United Nations reports, 46 percent of Ethiopians live on less than a dollar a day; 51 percent of children are stunted.

What this says is that these people are not a part of the new Ethiopia, whose economic growth is compared to a miracle by the investing world. What they do not realize is that these fast growths are servicing the interests of narrower group(s).

As it happens, for that matter even by official admission, today 12.2 million Ethiopians in 290 food insecure woredas (districts of the country) are categorized as incapable of supporting themselves and are dependent on international food aid. Under normal circumstances, i.e., when there is no drought or famine this number goes down to 7 – 8 million. While this is the reality, government leaders boast that no one has died of hunger in Ethiopia, although secret interviews of farmers filtering out of the country are showing that hunger is closer than a neighbor to many, especially in the southern and south-western parts of the country. Bear in mind that in the past, hunger, drought and famine was mainly a northern Ethiopian phenomenon.

The Productive Safety Net Project (PSNP), financed by the international community, has saved lives in the last five years. Unfortunately, its problem is that it has no successful mechanism for the graduation of the dependent people to become productive and self-supporting citizens, a fact which some in the World Bank have also come to realize.

Misguided commercial agriculture, mostly known by its misnomer (in Ethiopia’s case) ‘farmland grab’

While the dependency on international food aid, discussed above, remains a worrying as to the future of Ethiopia’s agriculture, one of the evolving dangers lies in the country’s fertile lands being doled out mostly to foreign investors. This has been criticized roundly. But nothing could convince Prime Minister Meles Zenawi about the errors of his policies. These are, as Stefano Manservisi put it in 2009, pushing local farmers in a wrong direction; he rightly pointed out that intensifying commercial agriculture at the expense of smallholders would only lead to the exploitation of developing countries. The end result is, he stressed, “The poorest countries are selling commodities, they are exporting migrants and now they are selling their land from which they will not take any kind of benefit in terms of food or whatever.”

Standing side by side (from left) are father Surya Rao Karaturi, and son Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi, founder and managing director of Karuturi Global Limited; with Anil Tumu, director of Karuturi Agro Products Plc, and Chombe Seyoum, managing director of Gedeb Engineering Plc. Left: a John Deere tractor.

What commercial agriculture could do to a nation, where local farmers are displaced and their lands are taken away by force or threats, is better articulated a few years ago by Devinder Sharma, analyst with the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security in India. Firstly, he predicted discontent of pushed away citizens leading to civil unrest, the undercurrents of which are already being witnessed in Ethiopia.

Secondly and more importantly Sharma looks at the environmental consequences and observes:

    Outsourcing food production will ensure food security for investing countries but would leave behind a trail of hunger, starvation and food scarcities for local populations…The environmental tab of highly intensive farming – devastated soils, dry aquifer, and ruined ecology from chemical infestation – will be left for the host country to pick up.

Moreover, there is also the problems of mistreatment and exploitation of the rural population by the investor farmers. The locals are embittered by the exploitation of their labor with payments in some instances of 25 ETB for tractor drivers, which is USD $1.45 a day and less in other areas. Ordinary daily laborers without skills get paid far less than that. Speaking of the exploitation, One Girma Umad, an employee of Saudi Star and who works as machine operator, told Addis Fortune that, although he appreciated the chance to work without having any prior skill sets, he was not happy about the pay. He observed in that regard, “I have managed to develop the skills needed through observation and personal practise…However, the 25 Br I get a day is not even enough for my daily meals.”

How could this be considered an income that should start these people something meaningful for themselves? Most of all, the opportunities for technology transfer are non-existent in most instances, especially in situations where Indian and Chinese investors have brought machine operators from their countries, as happened in Gambella and other leased lands.

Many of the issues surrounding such commercial agriculture remain unresolved. The problem is being felt like fresh wound by literate consumers around the world, because of the dangerous implications of this to food production by smallholder agriculture.

This week the PRI, Public Radio International has become the latest addition to raise a series of unanswered questions about the persistence of the government in Ethiopian in pushing farmers out of their holdings and handing over the most fertile lands to investors. Those who have experienced this misfortune continue to speak out.

On its part, government is denying it has pushed away anyone. It claims the lands were unoccupied as discussed some months back. At that time, Meles said:

    What we are doing is putting all unutilized land in this country and we have a lot of unutilized land in the lowlands…What we have done is to build infrastructures in those areas and therefore open up the area for investments both by domestic and foreign private sector on the basis of a clearly set out lease arrangement. That is a win-win arrangement. It is not a land grab. And, therefore, we are very comfortable with the fact that we have put in place all the necessary guidelines, environmental and otherwise, to make sure that everyone benefits from this exercise.


PRI adds its voice of concern over the future of Ethiopian agriculture

(Taken from PRI) In famine-stricken Ethiopia, a Saudi company leases land to grow and export rice

Famine has swept through much of Ethiopia in the past year, but a new project will see a Saudi Arabian country convert one of the most fertile areas to produce rice for export. The idea is it’s better to have people employed and making money.

Gambella in western Ethiopia is one of the most fertile places in the mostly drought- and famine-stricken Eastern Africa country, with thick forests, scorching heat and abundant rains.

But now Gambella, home to five rivers and a National Park, is also home to large-scale agricultural investments. A Saudi billionaire has leased 25,000 acres from the Ethiopian government to grow rice and this summer planted its first commercial crop. The company, Saudi Star, plans to expand that to nearly 500,000 acres within 10 years.

Workers at Saudi Star rice farm in Ethiopia (Courtesy Dallas McNamara)

Saudi Star plans to add hundreds of miles of irrigation canals and pipes to bring water from the Alwero Dam to its thirsty rice crop. Ethiopians don’t typically grow or eat rice, so most of the crop will be exported to the Middle East. But Muhammad Manzoor Khan, a Pakistani consultant for Saudi Star, said the rice will still help Ethiopia feed its people.

“This kind of project can really bring a revolution in food production as well as uplifting the social conditions of the people around,” Khan said, standing in front of rice paddies.

Ethiopia is a fast-developing nation, but it’s struggling with severe drought and skyrocketing food prices. The Ethiopian government estimates 4.5 million people in the country need emergency food aid.

In the past few years, Ethiopia has developed a comprehensive agricultural plan that relies on foreign investment, and much-needed foreign currency to move forward.

Saudi Star predicts its massive rice project will generate $1 billion in revenue for Ethiopia and create tens of thousands of jobs. The Ministry of Agriculture’s Esayas Kebede said that means increased food security for Ethiopians – if people have jobs they can buy food, even if there is a drought.

“If you increase the purchasing power of the people, the people can easily get their own food by their own cash,” Kebede said.

But many of the local Anuak tribe say the rice farm is not providing jobs for their people. They worry the rice will dry up the water they rely on for their own farming and fishing. And they say, after years of hostility from the government, they are now being forced off their land to make way for investors.

One local woman from the Anuak tribe said the government told them they’re moving them to a better place where they can get government assistance.

“There are no farms here and no food. Now we’re living like refugees in our own country,” she said.

The Ethiopian government admits it moved people from rural settlements to villages, but not because of the Saudi Star project, they say. Kebede said it was to provide them with better services and aid. According to Human Rights Watch, however, many of Anuak are being relocated to parts of Gambella that already have insufficient food for the local population.

“This large scale investment program has nothing to do with food security concerns in the country,” said Desalegn Rahmeto, a senior research fellow at the Forum for Social Studies in Addis Ababa. “If you export all the food items and earn foreign currency, but people in the communities don’t have access to food, that is counter productive. And this is happening, this is not hypothetical situation, this is actually happening.”

The original of this article has been enriched with additional material.

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