The state of Ethiopian agriculture, prospects and pitfalls

11 Jun

By Keffyalew Gebremedhin – The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

If the story and its claim were only true, it would have been news worth publishing and disseminating by the media in all corners of the world – especially those that have covered Ethiopia over the years. That two-week old story is about Ethiopia reportedly becoming food self-sufficient/food secure. That not being the case, to the best of my scoping, none has thus far shown interest in it – save the government propaganda machinery and the affiliated borderless social media.

I am here referring to the May 28, 2014 claim by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, by which he announced Ethiopia’s indpendence from food aid as of the 2014 fiscal year.

If the prime minister or any other person disagrees with this interpretation of his announcement, it is his privilege; however, he would only render pointless the very rationale why in the first place he needed to make mention in his speech to the nation of “በሃገር አቀፍ ደረጃ … በምግብ ራሳችንን ችለናል።” – TRANSLATION: “… We are hereafter self-sufficient in food production at the national level”!

Here is the relevant quotation from his speech, which reads in Amharic: “በዋና ዋና ስብሎች ምርት በ1983 ዓ.ም. 50 ሚሊዮን ኩንታል ያመርት የነበረው የህገሪቱ የእርሻ ምርት ዛሬ ምርትና ምርታማነትን በማሳደግ 250 ሚሊዮን ኩንታል በማምረት በሃገር አቀፍ ደረጃ በሁለት አሥርታት ጊዜ ውስጥ … በምግብ ራሳችንን ችለናል።”

Its unofficial rendition comes across as follows: In a country that produced 50 million quintals of major cereal crops in 1991, Ethiopia’s agriculture has today managed to produce 250 million quintals, because of productivity growths, which within two decades have enabled us to become food self-sufficient at the national level.

Anomalous, as it is, and woven to suit the regime’s need for political propaganda, his claim came during ‘celebration’ of the 23rd anniversary of the TPLF’s victory over the Ethiopian army. Ever since, the story has been incessantly spun around to elicit euphoria and support for the TPLF regime, with the ruling party news outlets as agency. On that, I must point out, it is unfortunate to note that the angle they tackle is proverbially self-serving, further exposing their singular intention of glorifying the Front – in their eyes – which 23 years ago with its victory made this agricultural miracle possible.

As a citizen, I say sincerely, I wish this miracle were true! Nonetheless, for all we know from existing data and facts on the ground, Ethiopia would for a while long remain in need of international food aid. This largely is because of three factors:

      *   Productivity growth remaining work-in-progress;
      *   Urban and rural land grab being widespread Ethiopian reality, private producer farmers are tenure insecure. Moreover, there is general feeling of the small scale producers becoming captive population at the mercy of political cadres and local administrative officials. These have taken into their hands decision-making on matters pertaining to what and when to produce. This has total support from the center, with the regular bimonthly meetings, and more as necessary, of the EPRDF Executive Council, through its standing agenda on irrigation, land rehabilitation, water development, seeding and harvesting and environmental protection, aiming to take decisions that are transmitted down the command of chains to every administrative unit in the country. For instance, the latest Council session took place on May 11, 2014 and stated, “preparations for the 2006/7 (2013-2014) Meher (production) season are going as per plan.” It should be mentioned that local administrative interventions, especially how much fertilizers must be bought by each farmer has always been flashpoint, as the frequent rural sporadic protests and murmurs persistently attest.

      *   There is also the problem of over 300 Ethiopia’s administrative districts – out of a total of 700 plus, being chronically food insecure. Citizens in these districts have kept body and soul together through the Safety Net program, with significant international food aid and cash injection to operate public work projects, historically referred to as food for work projects.

Now formally known as the Productive Safety Net Project (PSNP), this program has been in operation during the past eight years including the surrounding areas of Addis Abeba, in Afar, Amhara, Dire Dawa, Harar, Oromiya, SNNP, Somali and Tigray Regions. The World Bank and the country’s development partners are financing the program in continuity, although technically financing arrangements have been agreed to up only until the end of 2014. The beneficiary population under these projects varies, depending on severity of adverse conditions in the country. In normal times, their numbers range from a staggering 10 to 17 million Ethiopians. As high as their number is, their rank includes anticipated food aid dependent citizens coming in hardship times and half that number in normal times.

From the last count I saw, half of Ethiopia’s administrative districts are in that category, although the prime minister has tried to gloss over this by mention of the extensive activities undertaken in land rehabilitation and expansion of irrigation works.

The dilemma now is that the World Bank is fully aware, at least, from some reports of its evaluation department that, while the program has saved lives, clear and reliable cut off point for graduation – what some refer to as Exit Strategy – is lacking in the Safety Net program. Frightening as it is to be in their place, on Tuesday I read in Abraha Desta’s page, the poor Safety Net beneficiaries ordered henceforth to buy fertilizers at a hefty price of ETB 1,400 ($72), lest they lose their ‘privilege’ of being recipient of the Safety Net assistance.

The question now is, if not anything else, where those citizens figure in the prime minister’s calculation of Ethiopia’s food self-sufficiency, dependent as they are on international food aid.

In discussing this problem, I would at the outset concede that it is not clear whether the prime minister was speaking in the context of food security or food self-sufficiency – not that it makes any difference what he has said in the face of his disregard especially for standard operational and internationally accepted definitions of food self-sufficiency and food security.

The problem now is more profound in their own ranks; the TPLF/EPRDF’s stringers, i.e., their spin doctors having either ended up interchanging the meanings of the two or some of them having even gone to the extent of enjoying the ease of denying existence of distinction between the two, while others turned to emphasizing household level food self-sufficiency. Consult for example, the following just to cite a few such articles: Ethiopia’s Agricultural Growth on the Verge of Changing History; እውነት የተገለፀበት ታሪካዊ ንግግር (ክፍል አንድ) & (ክፍል ሁለት); Towering facts of ‘May 28’, etc.

Dealing at the level of meanings and distinctions

For clarity purposes, let me say that food self-sufficiency is the first stage in the conscious effort by any nation toward food security, provided that it has the endowments. There is recognition that the more a nation becomes food self-sufficient, the more possible it is for it to reduce dependence on external food sources, such as foreign markets or food aid. That is the reason why food self-sufficiency continues to be a national objective for many developing countries, especially those in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), which actually embraced it from the days of the so-called Lagos Plan of Action of 1980, apparently although it never took off ground as either regional approach or known for its success in national policy.

Briefly put, food self-sufficiency means, according to FAO, “the extent to which a country can satisfy its food needs from its own domestic production.” This is very unambiguous and Ethiopia is not there yet!

On the other hand, food security is marker of certainty, i.e., of a nation’s abilities to meet its food needs, some portion of it imported from commercial markets. It implies availability of food, stability and the physical and economic access to it by all household members, according to FAO.

In the internationally accepted definition of food security, which governments, among others, approved through the intergovernmental machineries of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), have since the early 1990s offered us the means by which we could gauge a nation’s food status.

Speaking from economic thinking, without going to the details of market functions, existing forms of distributions, and price trends at all levels, food security implies:

      *   Supply under normal times being greater than demand at the national level

      *   Demand being greater than needs at the household level

      *   Consumption being greater than needs at the individual level.

In the circumstances, if the prime minister intended to speak in terms of food security, then we surely are far part. Ethiopia is not food self-secure; it neither has capacity to fully meet the food needs of its population from its own farms; nor does it have the capacity to pay for all its food needs from the international markets.

However, I could not even assume that the prime minister was speaking about food self-sufficiency at the household level, since he has specifically indicated that it is self-sufficiency “at the national level.” This also keeps us far apart, since it is divorced from our country’s reality.

Definitionally, in both instances the criterion of a nation satisfying its own food needs domestically or through imports is inescapable. Therefore, strictly on this metric, we can dare say the prime minister has not been telling the nation the truth, when he said “… በምግብ ራሳችንን ችለናል።” He has tried to sweeten this by making reference to farmers getting richer, with millions and billions in their bank accounts. This only tells me that, as usual, TPLF officials are dancing to their own tunes!

The deliberate confusion the prime minister has sown impinges on the concept of national food sovereignty, which Ethiopia is not. Let me reiterate that a nation has ‘national food sovereignty’, when it assuredly has the capacity “to make available to its people the food needed or demanded, irrespective of whether the food is domestically produced or imported.” This has never happened in the Ethiopia we have known as a modern state for over a century, although in terms of numbers it was one of the largest producers in Africa of some cereals, even in times of hunger, as the FAO’s FAOSTAT in country ranking indicates.

Interestingly, the ‘morning after’ syndrome hitting the ruling party, as if to correct the mistaken impression the prime minister’s speech has left behind, its news outlet – Fana – reported, “Ethiopia is on the threshold of becoming food self-sufficient as it has been bolstering production and productivity during the past two decades.”

There I rest my case, in spite of the continuing hullabaloo about possibility of harvesting 300 million quintals of agricultural products in the coming agricultural season. This was announced by Agriculture Minister Tefera Derbew in an interview on TPLF’s news agency the very same day the prime minister made his announcement about food self-sufficiency/food security.

What actually does the state of Ethiopian agriculture look like?

In its Quarterly Update of March 2014, ATA reported, “While fertilizer use in Ethiopia has grown fairly rapidly over the past few decades, only a fraction of the country’s potential for enhanced agricultural productivity has been exploited.”

Courtesy of ATA

Regarding the Ethiopian Soil Information system (EthioSIS), which is launched in 2014 by IFPRI’s Senior Research Fellow Dr. Samuel Gemeda and Director of Soil Health and Fertility at the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), the scientist observes, “Already, our samples are telling us that Ethiopia’s soil is deficient in as many as six essential nutrients.”

Dr. Samuel says specialists at present are harnessing technologies such as remote sensing, satellite imagery, and spectroscopic readings with a rich collection of soil samples to create this one-of-a-kind map in Ethiopia – once over 100,000 sampling has been concluded. In other words, EthioSIS aims at creating a National Soils Database (NSD) and a digital soil map of Ethiopia, replacing the old one, based on data surveyed over three decades ago.

What the experts are doing is to sample two soil samples, according to Dr. Samuel Gemeda. The first level would provide updated information on Ethiopia’s soil properties. The result from this would help “to identify the soils that are best suited for farming and how to best manage them.” The second level is soil fertility sampling to provide information on what nutrients have been depleted from the soils. This activity is understood to focus on woredas (counties) in Ethiopia’s agricultural belt.

Based on the samples so far accumulated, Dr. Samuel says, “Ethiopia’s soil is deficient in as many as six essential nutrients such as Boron, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sulfur, and Zinc”, according to the Quarterly Update.

It is also learned that so far the ATA team has collected and evaluated soil and vegetation samples in 162 woredas, and 198 more would still have to be carried out in 2014, bringing the total to 360 agricultural woredas. To identify all the deficiencies Ethiopian soil has suffered through lack of appropriate policies, technology and resources, the task now is being addressed, among others, with and appropriate technology adopted from the Africa Soil Information Service (AfSIS). Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, AfSIS is established to assist 42 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), covering approximately 17.5 million of continental landmass and 90 percent of Africa’s human population.

Confluence points soil mapping (Credit: ATA)

[magnify] This is only tip of the iceberg as to what is happening in the agricultural sector in Ethiopia these days. Nonetheless, it would be a while for Ethiopia to attain status of food secure, with its 94 million people. Therefore, numerous hurdles must be passed, especially that of productivity growth, before certainty grips the nation to claim that Ethiopia no more requires food aid.

The first cause for that is the fact that close to half the country’s districts are chronically incapable of supporting human and animal existence, as discussed earlier, after years of devastation by drought and the rich surface soil being washed away by rivers, including the Nile River to neighboring countries of Egypt and the Sudan.

Whatever is done by way of rehabilitation work has been inadequate. The problem is that neither the federal government’s Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) – which has long slept on the switch – nor the Bill Gates-initiated and financed Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) are explicit enough to show us where things are headed and in what speed in the agricultural sector, especially regarding agricultural productivity growth.

This partly could be because the work has just begun and/or the EPRDF has been more preoccupied with collecting the propaganda dividends.

Where agricultural productivity growth has reached at this stage is difficult to say, although previous works and now EthioSIS, launched in 2014, has so far completed three of the seven stages.

At the same time, the more one pays close attention, it is clear that a new day in Ethiopian agriculture may be dawning. However, broadly speaking we should not also lose sight of the fact that the ATA is simultaneously into the agribusiness, especially the seeds side; there is also the ticking biotech interest of the big internationals, the chemicals and fertilizers, while simultaneously soils research, data collection and experiments are going on in different parts of Ethiopia.


Ethiopia this month imported 4 mil quintals of wheat to counter shortages (Credit: Fana)

Ethiopia this month imported 4 mil quintals of wheat to counter shortages (Credit: Fana)

Given this distance, Ethiopia’s agricultural growth has bern trailing in a country of 94.1 million population (UNFPA, 2013), it is extremely unfortunate that the nation should witness, not for the first time, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s flippance on such serious matters as agricultural development.

Recall that in October 2013, after a short field visit to Arsi, where only a single farmer produced 111.5 quintals of wheat per hectare, our prime minister yielded to his tendency to be carried away because of that, especially at a time, when Ethiopia’s wheat farms are/were suffering from stem rust disease, as reported in the agricultural sciences news outletsc and by research institutions, such as the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW), the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), the USDA-ARS Cereals Disease Laboratory in Minnesota and the Global Rust Reference Centre (GRRC).

Unexpectedly, in Arsi the prime minister went on a hyperbole and declared Ethiopia Africa’s prospective wheat granary, according to the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA). As if that were not enough Hailemariam reiterated, ኢትዮጵያ ከእንግዲህ ስንዴ ሻጭ እንጂ ስንዴ ለማኝ አትሆንም …………ጠቅላይ ሚኒስትር ኃይለማርያም – TRANSLATION – Hereafter, Ethiopia would be wheat exporter, not wheat beggar anymore! The details appear in my January 2014 article Ethiopia to become wheat exporter – ‘thanks to 1 x 5 system, instead of wheat beggar’ – PM Hailemariam!

I am not against hope and wishes, if they are based on realistic expectations – but only the shenanigans of political cadres scurrying for propaganda and political objectives!

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