NewsEast & Horn AfricaAgriculture: Gathering data and offering choice in Ethiopia


Posted on Tuesday, 20 May 2014 17:36

Agriculture: Gathering data and offering choice in Ethiopia

By Nicholas Norbrook in Addis Ababa

Some agricultural practices have not changed since Biblical times. Photo©Michael Poliza/National Geographic/GettySpearheading the government's interventions in the farming sector, the Agricultural Transformation Agency has already vastly improved yields for wheat and teff.


Every successful developmental state in Asia fixed its agricultural sector before it advanced to light manufacturing, and Ethiopia is following the same path.

Part of our job is to offer different kinds of choices to farmers, based on the agro-ecology of the area

Modelling itself on Malaysia's Economic Planning Unit, South Korea's Economic Planning Board and Taiwan's Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction, Ethiopia's Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) is the result of a conversation between former premier Meles Zenawi and philanthropist Melinda Gates.

It came into existence in December 2010.

During the first few months of 2014, researchers fanned out across Oromia, Amhara, Tigray and the south to talk to farmers about the impact of the Wheat Productivity Initiative, an attempt by the Ethiopian government to provide improved seed, fertiliser and techniques to farmers.

Though the full report will not be released for several months, Gashaw Abate from the evaluation team says it has been a resounding success for the ATA. It follows similar results the agency has had with the main staple crop, teff.

"What we took from these Asian countries is their results orientation and their focus on data and objectivity," says Khalid Bomba, the chief executive of the ATA.

"We've also taken their reporting lines – direct to the head of state – and senior policy-maker buy in."

The ATA has also taken inspiration from the Asian staffing model, using a professional staff rather than a political one, while at the same time working intensively with the ministry of agriculture, "so that they see us as a valued partner rather than a competitor", says Khalid.

The ATA will be folded into other administrations once it has done its job.

Cultivated almost exclusively in Ethiopia, teff has not had as much attention from the global research community as rice and wheat. Traditionally, farmers produce teff yields of around 1.2tn/ha.

While the ATA is looking at long-term biotechnology solutions, there are a number of low-tech ways to boost yields.

"Simple things can have a big impact," says Khalid, pointing to work done in tandem with the Debre Zeit Research Center, such as row planting, reducing seed crowding and introducing improved varieties.

"Before, the seeds were scattered on the ground just like you read in the Bible. In June 2011, we trained 140,000 farmers in the new techniques and saw yield increases of 30-80%. Today some of our best farmers are producing 5tn/ha."

Last year, the ATA trained two million farmers, and in 2014 that will rise to 3.5 million.

Soil mapping

The ATA is also working on mapping soil types in a project called EthioSIS.

"Ethiopia has been using the same fertiliser for 35 years, just DAP [diammonium phosphate] and urea," explains Khalid, "and the soils are no longer responsive to it."

By the end of the year, the ATA will have a map of the entire country that illustrates nutrient deficiencies at the micro-district level.

This will allow it to develop appropriate fertiliser blends.

The ATA is also linking farmers to markets.

It brokered a deal between the World Food Programme and cooperatives in Oromia and Amhara for a 30,000tn maize purchase in 2012.

And it has also helped connect Mama Fresh Injera, an Addis Ababa bakery, to the Erer Farmers Cooperative Union.

"It's a risk for farmers to shift to a more commercial mindset. Part of our job is to offer different kinds of choices to farmers, based on the agro-ecology of the area, by finding out what the market wants and ultimately letting farmers make rational choices, like people all across the world do," concludes Khalid. ● 

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