Shewit Emanuel is the current country director of Farm Africa, an international NGO established 35 years ago. It started out in Kenya but has branched out to Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and the DRC.
Active in majority of eastern African countries, it is a specialized NGO focusing on natural resource management and business development linked to agriculture including livestock. Yosthena Aynalem of The Reporter sat down with Shewit to discuss smart agriculture in Ethiopia. Excerpts:
The Reporter: In a country where agriculture dominates, what would you say you have achieved thus far?
Shewit Emanuel: In a nutshell, one of the biggest achievements so far is that we exclusively work with smallholder farmers. What we are trying to do is to ultimately enable them to move out from poverty and become a commercial farmer who is self-sufficient.
Developing methodologies that are sustainable, inclusive and impactful is also one of our achievements. That’s our own target at the end of the day, when we leave, we want to make sure the work continues and the farmers continue to thrive with the support that we have started.
We operate all over Ethiopia. Unfortunately, some of the projects have ended in some regions, but we have footprints across all the regions within Ethiopia. The biggest achievement starts from increasing the income of the smallholder farmers we supported to reducing deforestation as well as supporting Ethiopia sell carbon credit to the international market. That is actually the newest achievement. We have also supported farmers to sell coffee directly to international markets.
Since vertical intégration is allowed now, farmers don’t have to go to the Ethiopian Ccommodities Exchange (ECX) anymore. If you can connect them with exporters, they can directly sell to the international market. The whole point is to reduce the middle men for the farmers and get the fairest prices for them.
Food insecurity is a recurring problem in Ethiopia and Africa. Many approaches have been applied to reduce food insecurity but nothing seems to avert it thus far. Is there any approach you have tried that is poised to be successful?
Nowadays, everybody’s moving into climate smart agriculture and unless all your interventions are becoming climate smart, you are bound to go back to that vicious cycle of droughts and flooding; which is both damaging to farmers. So, making sure farmers practice climate smart agriculture is the number one thing that we are working on.
One of the things that Farm Africa is actually pioneering and becoming innovative and a champion of is the use of integrated landscape management. This means to look at the challenge holistically, you cannot talk about conservation of land without talking about the livelihood of the people.
The majority of past projects, if you look at them, are about conservation without addressing why the community is damaging the environment? Unless you tackle that, you are not going to sustain it and all your efforts will be for nothing.
It also has to be inclusive of everybody. Most of the time, when a project starts, they focus on the direct beneficiaries. Let me give you a good example. One of our biggest projects is in Bale Eco region, where we’ve been operating since 2016. Initially, we were focusing on the regions communities and when the current drought occurred, the lowland communities came looking for water and resources towards the forest. So, all the conservation that we made, all the protection of the forest become under threat.
So, what we tried to do is expand our support, with the support from the Norwegians and other likeminded donors. It is not just the highland communities, but the lowlands are also included now. We have somewhat built resilience so that they don’t have to come to the forest.
And to be fair, even though 1.6 million people live within Bale, as direct beneficiaries, 12 million people depend directly on the forest. So, to address their need, everything from livestock fodder and irrigation is being provided, moving them into climate smart agriculture to become sustainable. They then become the protectors of the forest themselves, becoming part of the solution.
The approach we advocate for is an integrated landscape management where you can make your intervention impactful, sustainable and more importantly, inclusive of everybody, including women, pastoralists and nomads.
Does Farm Africa give lessons to these people or just resources?
Not exactly. When I say climate smart agriculture, there are different kinds of approaches that we use. Starting from the training itself such as when to plant, how to plant and what type to plant, and everything that has to do with linking farmers is included.
It could be providing improved seeds or making sure that they move to organic fertilizers or connect them to the local market. The majority of farmers’ problem is linkage; they just need to be connected with the agro-dealers so they can get the seed, fertilizers, and safe deliver of their harvests to the market. And once they produce, they can aggregate it and sell it at a good price.
We also support the enabling environment, which means working with the government to make sure that the necessary policies and protection are there. At the end of the day, we need to build the capacity of the government. They are the ones we are making sure we align with, since they will take it forward. We can show it on a small scale for the government to expand it at a larger scale.
The climate smart market systems project in Amhara region that we piloted, is now being rolled out to all over Ethiopia, modified depending on the region and soil conditions. The value chain may be different, but in terms of supporting the full spectrum of the value chain, that’s what we do, so that farmers have the right tools and information on a timely basis.
Urban farming is something that is said will reduce food insecurity and that you are doing something along those lines. Can you tell me more about those projects?
Sure. When Farm Africa was actually set up, our attention was exclusively focused on rural farmers, but what has become very clear is that you cannot address the rural challenges if you are not addressing urban challenges.
Urban poverty is on the rise and food insecurity is becoming as critical as those in rural areas.
The government requested us to support them on how to improve urban agriculture. With that, we started to pilot a project in the Ministery of Planning and Development’s compound because they have the space. We have started testing out the pilot phase, trying to look at what urban agriculture looks like, if it is sustainable, and how the farming methodology works.
We are now actually setting up; the clearing has been done and the design has been finalized. We are left with the planting processes, and we hope in the next couple of months to have the first produce available. It’s not just crops we are producing. We are also piloting fish as well as poultry so that everybody can practice it.
If you were to go to rural areas, there is space, you can do horizontal farming, but in urban areas, we don’t have that space. However, vertical agriculture is the answer. We are coming up with new kinds of innovative ways to produce food at a scale that is required to feed the local community. We are working with around 105 households for now, including women and unemployed youth. We just started that this year. So, it’s still at the early stages.
So what can urban settlers do? Like you said, these projects will encourage them, but considering there’s inflation now, there’s even more food insecurity, which is compounded by the war.
That’s why we encourage the use of your back backyard or whatever space you have. It does not require space. What we are trying to show is that you can do this vertical farming. Within a limited space, you can actually produce enough, to feed your family at a lower cost because inflation is becoming an issue. Families are barely feeding themselves, so at least it supplements their food intake and more importantly ensures nutritional balance.
Scholars suggest encouraging farmers to diversify their source of income to fight food insecurity. One of the options is to promote off-farming activities. Is that being implemented? If so, is it working?
Unfortunately, this concerns the lack of knowledge. The diversity is not as much as you would expect it to be. As part of the business development, we exclusively focus on income generating activities that you can do beyond agriculture. You need to diversify.
The coffee producers used to only produce coffee and farm forests. So, instead of farming the forest and cutting down trees, we showed them they can do forest honey, forest coffee, incense and other products, helping them to diversify their income stream.
A lot of the evaluation reports can be shared on, for instance, income. We increased their income by 143 percent. Not only were they able to increase the volume but also the quality. Now, almost all our projects, be it in Bale or Illu Aba Bora, all of them are now 100 percent export quality standard. And by supporting them change into a cooperative, they could buy better machines and so on, to aid in the quality of the product, instead of using traditional means and do less damage to the product. The coffee they produce now has scaled from grade six to grade one.
But you need to provide them the option and training, ranging from the know-how, all the way to even financial literacy. We do a lot of voluntary saving and loans, by setting them up with associations so that they are able to save money and get loans to buy better inputs and be able to negotiate better with dealers.
Ethiopia has been hit by a drought recently and many cattle have died as a result. There are other east African countries going through the same thing, probably in countries Farm Africa is involved in. So why do you think countries like Ethiopia are being affected by these things more often than the rest of the world?
Unfortunately, we are still rainfall dependent and one of the biggest impacts of climate change is making this cycle of drought more frequent than ever before. It used to occur every 10 years or so but now it happens every two or three years.
So, unless we equip both the highland and the lowlands with the necessary climate smart interventions, they will still suffer. We have a huge project in Borena and mobilized fodder to be delivered as an emergency, because the animals are crucial for their livelihoods. I think it was reported to cost more than five million birr.
The second one was to make sure the ecosystem is protected because that generates the water that goes to the lowlands. The intervention here has a huge impact at the lower catchments. That is why you need to make sure your interventions are holistic. Just by protecting the Bale eco region, you protect 12 million people’s livelihood, livestock and food.
The support is not only in providing materials, but to improve small–scale irrigation, pound point constructions and watershed management, to become drought resilient.
Several projects have been implemented by donors and other NGOs that work on resilience, capacity building and the like. But soon after their launch and brief success, they dwindle out. What do you think is happening in the middle? Why does the impact subside quickly?
The problem lies in the projects design. You have to plan to make it sustainable. When we set up a project, we have to prioritize carefully. If you don’t do that, then what happens is you’ll just be replacing one challenge with another and the impact would be temporary.
Our intervention should be as a facilitator, not actors. If you become an actor, then you are disrupting the market. What we are trying to do is to become the catalytic process, by working clearly with the government, like the Ministry of Agriculture and other stakeholders, so that policies do not contradict.
When we set up the project initially, deforestation was very high. Awareness raising and capacity building campaigns were held not only with the government, but also the communities, on why they need the forest, and understanding why the forest was damaged was very critical.
By introducing a specific blend of coffee, which grows under a shade, to farmers, which fetches a higher market price, the community has started to protect the forest by themselves. By giving them ownership and accountability, when you leave, it will not stop.
That is why you have to be very careful and make sure you have addressed the challenges that surround it.
You mentioned traders usually get more money than farmers, and Farm Africa is doing things to help in this aspect. Could you elaborate more on that?
First, you have to improve their yield per hectare because they usually sell it to the local market due to the low yield of crops they harvest. So, increasing the yield per hectare and then the quality is crucial. Empowering and connecting them with the market also helps them know the market value of their products.
women are paid less in the coffee sector, even though they do just as much, if not more. Is there anything done to empower women into joining the sector?
We assessed where women were involved in the value chain of coffee. The majority of women were found at production sites, such as planting or coffee picking, but you see them less involved as you go higher in the value chain. That is why they earn less because they’re at the lower end of the value chain.
We are trying to build the capacity, knowledge and their participation at the higher end of the value chain and make sure they’re involved outside of the production itself. They must have the power and skills to take their matters to the union and get better prices. And in parallel, find them the necessary financing. That is why around 80 percent of our beneficiaries are woman.
Do you get resistance from the community while doing this?
Not so much. We undertook awareness raising campaigns before we started, to make sure they understand why not everybody had to be part of the growth, but nobody should be left behind at the end of the day either. That’s our principle.
Since the demand for coffee is so high, they don’t see it as competition, they just need more support. It is usually competition that makes you push each other a lot of the time, but now the demand is so much, especially for forest coffee, what’s available is not enough.
Unfortunately, the drought has affected us this season and the amount of coffee we are selling this year is going to be less than last year.
Is there any forecasts as to what the effects of the drought will look like in the coming few months?
No, we have not done that per say, but I know FAO is working around the forecast. We’re coordinating, collaborating and sharing our lessons, not just with likeminded NGOs, but with the government and donors, so that our aggregated knowledge can be able to solve the problem. We are also coordinating with the Disaster Risk Management Commission right now, chaired by the FAO.
Another major problem in Ethiopia’s farming sector is landlessness. Authorities would like to hear recommendations to avert problems arising due to landlessness. What would you like to recommend in this regard?
So, we are not going to solve the issue of land, but what we can do is to come up with ways that we can use the land efficiently and effectively. Once the farmers understand how to increase their yield per hectare, they can increase their labor input as well.
For example, when one of our coffee farmers started working with us, he could barely feed his kids or even send them to hospital. Now, from the coffee sales, he has not only generated substantial income, but has also diversified and is setting up stores in Bale. He also managed to employ 24 youth to help him in the coffee production.
So that’s how we address it by making sure you are climate smart and generating the number of jobs needed to absorb landless youth. Otherwise, you cannot solve the land issue, what you can do is only give access to it.
There are a lot of mechanisms you can do to address the issue. But from Farm Africa’s point of view, what we’re trying to do is to increase the yield per hectare and capabilities of farmers, so that they can hire more people.
From your experience, what has been the hardest thing to overcome in Ethiopia?
We haven’t been able to address or mitigate the impacts of climate change. For me, it’s always been three steps forward and three steps backwards, but we are going in the right direction. Until we address and minimize those impacts and make sure that the farmers move from rain–fed agriculture to a more sustainable climate smart agriculture, it will be difficult.
Access to information and inputs is crucial. We are doing a lot of studies on value chains, different crops and fruits and pulses, and are we disseminating enough information to everybody to make an informed decision, so that they can produce what the market wants.
If you go to speak to most of the farmers in rural areas, they produce using traditional practices. If they do not wait for rain anymore, then they can produce more harvest per year.
Does Farm Africa work on logistics as well?
No, not on logistics, but we try. What we are trying to do is to connect them with the dealers so they can come. The dealers will only come if they can find value. That is why we want to make sure the farmers are organized in cooperatives, so that when they come for the coffee, they can get 40 tons to 50 tons. The volume will make it interesting for the private sector. But, the private sector has to be part of the solution as well.
Do you have any comments regarding the crisis that is going on in the country right now and how it’s affecting the agricultural sector?
As an NGO, we are not allowed to talk about it. We are not allowed to talk about rights. But, Farm Africa is committed to support the reconciliation and recovery process. That’s where we can come in because we are not even a humanitarian organization. So, we can’t even support these kinds of interventions.
What we can do is once stability and security is established, we can quickly go in and support farmers to quickly recover and catch up with the coming harvest season. So, through the post conflict recovery, we have a lot we can contribute, but beyond that, not so much.
Is there anything you’d like to add that would help authorities, individuals or farmers?
Working with farmers is still the solution. They have the knowledge and know-how; you just have to be the catalyst to help them and enable them achieve their goals. We want to make sure the economy thrives.
We need to improve our productivity and production. Everyone including the government, NGOs, beneficiary communities themselves have a role to play to contribute to this. If we do that, we are able to not only feed our own society, but be able to export and help others.
Agriculture is still the main driver of the economy, whether we like it or not. And we have to make sure it contributes to the GDP as its intended. I think we just have to keep our eyes on the ball.