Ethiopia: From endangered tomatoes to shrinking potatoes

2 Jul
    Editor’s Note:

    The Central Statistics Agency (CSA) estimates that for the 2012/2013 Meher season, 74,934.57ha of land has been covered with potatoes and 1.6 million private farmers expect 8.6 million quintals of the produce. In terms of area size, the current cultivated land is higher by 26 percent over the previous season and the estimated output higher by 26 percent.

    This picture has given experts a promise of the future. Accordingly, experts from Cornell University in mid-May 2013 observed ‘potato may help feed Ethiopia in the era of climate change.’ Another study commissioned by the Dutch government also in December 2012 reached the same conclusion, which saw a promising future for potatoes in Ethiopia, especially from value addition angle. Theirs is a promise about the future, if it works out, but not today, perhaps not even next year.

    Unfortunately, we learn from the latest issue of Addis Fortune (reproduced hereunder) that in Oromia region many districts have experienced a tragedy they did not expect. Their potatoes have shrunk. As a consequence of that disease, for instance, of the 7,654.5ha of land covered by potatoes for the meher season in some districts in Oromia – Ethiopia’s largest potato field – this time around 4,616.7ha of potatoes, i.e, over 60 percent, have been damaged.

    There is no one saying anything how this has come to pass. But we are certain that many families have been affected, some farmers already speaking about migrating to the surrounding towns to look for day jobs. This is the last thing the country needs at this point.

    Those who avoided the potato killer are those who received improved seed varieties. Not all farmers are equal and therefore not all farmers get it. The improved seeds are reserved to model farmers. It is possible that agricultural experts may be using this as an incentive to encourage all farmers to become model farmers.

    It would be any observer’s judgement that in a country that has the persistent experience of being exposed to this potato problem, the experts should have shown prudence; they could have looked to all aspects of the implication of not allowing access to the not-so-model-farmers to improved seeds. The oversight of not warning the farmers about the dangers of the unimproved potato seeds have made the experts themselves partly responsible for this disaster, although that is not their intention.

    For now, while the USAID and Care Ethiopia have promised to provide “improved seeds and some emergency food aid” for the affected farmers, this disastrous situation must leave the experts with a lesson they should never forget in future.


Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory

by Ashenafi Endale* – Shrinking potatoes

The leaf blight has left the potato plants of Mohammed Musa and many farmers dry at its flowering stage, with no more than five immature stems (Photo: Addis Fortune)

The leaf blight has left the potato plants of Mohammed Musa and many farmers dry at its flowering stage, with no more than five immature stems (Photo: Addis Fortune)

Mohammad Sani, 32, a father of seven, is a farmer in Girawa Wereda, 75km from Harar, in the eastern Hararge Zone, Oromia regional state. He was digging his quarter hectare land in front of his house, by hand, on Wednesday; three months ago he planted a variety of potato, known as China, that has a poor resistance to disease, and all of it was lost to blight, a disease that kills plant tissues.

There are improved varieties of potato that could resist blight, but those were accessible only to model farmers.

That day, the upper half of Gara Muleta Mountain, 3,420m, which is found 10kms from Mohammed’s farm, was shrouded in mist, which Mohammad said was “uncommon at this time of year”. The past two months have seen the area often covered with rainless mists, which Gadissa Ejigu, deputy head of the zonal Agriculture Bureau, says was the cause of the blight.

“I never expected that this would happen,” he exclaimed.

Potato was a major food item for his family; the loss of it led him to sell his cow, three weeks ago, he says.

The blight has destroyed the potato crop in 15 well known potato growing kebeles out of the 45 kebeles in Grawa Wereda; the rest have sustained partial damage, says Tesfaye Leta, deputy head of the Wereda Agriculture Bureau. Grawa has 144,219ha of land suitable for potato farming.

Gadissa also said that the potato crops in other Weredas of the zone, including – Bedeno, Meta, Melka Belo, Bedesa, Gursum, Jarso and Dederv – were totally lost to blight. These nine Weredas are all found in highland areas, which depend on rain, and they are the ones that have been affected by the blight. The 10 lowland Weredas, which rely on irrigation, have been spared the disaster.

The damage covered 4,616.7ha, out of the 7,654.5ha of land covered by potato for the meher season.

During the same season, in 2011/12, the zone produced a total of 437,416ql of potato from 8,916ha.

“At least 40pc of the production was going to the market, including – Djibouti, Mogadishu, Hargesa, Dire Dawa and Addis Abeba, while the rest was consumed at home. However, there is even not any for consumption for this year,” said Gadisa.

With 33,191 holders, eastern Hararghe was the second largest holders constituting zone, next to the west Shewa zone, with 76,348 holders.

The Oromia region contributed 42.9pc of the 4.75 million quintal of potato produced in Ethiopia, in 2011/12. Oromia had 28,166.61ha of land covered with potato, compared to 59,508.67ha all over the country, during the year.

“There were at least 15 Isuzus that take potatoes from Grawa and distribute it to these places, but now there is not even one,” said Tesfaye.

Most of the 25 to 30 Isuzus running in and out of the Wereda were carrying khat, Fortune learnt.

The price of a kilo of potato is also up from three Birr, a year ago, to 11 Br now.

The plan for the agriculture bureau was to provide improved varieties to model farmers first, from whom the other farmers would get their seed the following season, according to Gadissa.

Next to khat, potato is the most produced crop in the zone. It is produced in the belg and meher seasons, twice a year. The farmers produce 150 to 450ql of potato from one hectare of land, used partly for home consumption; they sell the rest to buy other crops and materials they need. This time, most of those farmers will have nothing to offer to the market or to retain for home consumption.

Mohammed sold 15ql of potato last year, each for 250 Br.

“I find even up to 18 big potato stems sometimes, from one potato plant,” he said.

A hectare of land yielded 150ql to 450ql in an area where land holding averaged a quarter to half a hectare per household. The farmers mostly used that land for either potato or khat.

“That scarcity of farmland has meant that the farmers are unable to have various crops on their farmland,” said Tesfaye.

The blight has also damaged khat leafs on some farms and even dried eucalyptus trees. The damaged potato totally dries, hindering it from producing any stem. Even if it has started to grow some stems, it stops growing there, starts to blacken and harden and requires too much heat to cook, according to Tesfaye. When uprooted, not more than five tiny potato spuds showed under each plant at Mohammed’s farm.

“Potato is so sensitive to any disease, even if chemicals are used,” Tesfaye said.

Mohammed went to the bureau a month ago, as the blight devastated the flowering potato within two weeks.

After finalising an assessment on May 23, 2013, the bureau found that, out of the 1,040ha potato in the Wereda, 983ha was totally damaged, which is 94pc of the total product. An emergency committee, formed from the water, administration, health and agriculture bureaus, went to the Wereda administration on May 6, 2013, and returned with a report that 27,000 families needed urgent food aid.

The same committee also toured through the Weredas and reported that farmers in Grawa Wereda needed 1,100 quintal of wheat (HR 1685 variety), 160ql of teff and 60ql of haricot bean seeds for the current season and emergency food aid, whose quantity officials declined to comment on.

Although there are 31 agricultural experts and 108 DAs at the Wereda, according to Tesfaye, “we could not do anything,” he said.

“The damage happened so fast. What survived was that of the model farmers who had access to an improved variety. We asked the government and NGOs to supply the farmers with emergency food aid to fill the gap until the next season,” Tesfaye said.

The zone has also asked Haromaya University to provide blight resistant wheat, teff and haricot bean seeds, as well as to develop more resistant seed varieties.

“The leaf blight occurs sometimes, but has never had an impact to this extent. Although there are some improved seeds already in the market, the farmers do not know which one is resistant. We will give training to the farmers and the agricultural workers,” said Gadisa.

There ar e 293,000 families in the Wereda, as of 2011, which the bureau wants to redirect from potato to other crops, with the supply of 3,000ql of improved wheat seed and 600ql of haricot beanfor the nine Weredas.

A group of agricultural officials from the Oromia Regional State, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Disaster Prevention & Preparedness Commission (DPPC) and USAID visited the zone on June 17, 2013, and promised to supply the seed and aid within a short time, according to Tesfaye.

“We signed an agreement with Care Ethiopia, WFO and other NGOs to provide improved seeds and some emergency food aid last week,” said Gadisa, speaking to Fortune on Thursday, June 28, 2013.

Gadissa says that his bureau will not let the farmers plant potato again, because of their limited capacity to use chemicals, which can be used to fight the blight. The new emphasis is on wheat and haricot beans.

“If I had the capacity to access the improved seed and chemicals, I would rather continue producing potato, since it yields more from a hectare,” Mohamed says.

Mohamed has tried Mencozeb and two other chemicals he could not name, in order to fight the blight back, but with no success.

“There are chemicals that the farmers have been trying, but even the right chemical does not work if not used at an early stage. However, the blight has damaged the farms and the farmer was not ready with the chemicals; our workers were also not able to identify the right chemical,” said Gadisa.

Mohammed was told by agricultural workers at the Wereda on Monday, to prepare his plot for wheat. Several other farmers in the area were also digging their plots in the same way.

Mohammed is devising a scheme in case his crop entirely fails: go to Haromaya Town and work as a daily labourer in construction and irrigation works, where they pay 20 Br a day, in order to feed his family.

*Addis Fortune

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