Saturday, July 20, 2024
InterviewA closer look at smallholder agriculture

A closer look at smallholder agriculture

Jin Kimiaki is chief representative of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in Ethiopia. Kimiaki has led many development projects directed at enhancing the industrial as well as the agriculture sector. For the past eight years, he has facilitated what is called “high-level industrial policy dialogue” conducted biannually in Ethiopia bringing together officials of Ethiopia and development experts from Japan. Recently, this policy dialogue platform has been extended to bring the agricultural sector on board. According to Kimiaki, the intention of his government is to initiate a biannual high-level dialogue on agriculture. In view of that, well-reputed Japanese economic experts from the agricultural sector are expected to arrive in Ethiopia shortly to review, and give recommendation on, the agricultural policies of Ethiopia. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter sat down with Kimiaki at his office located around Wollo Sefer to discuss challenging issues of smallholder farmers in Ethiopia. Kimiaki talked about mechanization and how it is becoming less effective for labor intensive farming communities; and how farmers could become more productive if their production process is incentivized. Kimiaki also argues that the high cost of agricultural inputs is making farmers less productive. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Agricultural policy dialogue looks to be the newest policy engagement platform between Ethiopia and Japan. Why is it essential to have a policy dialogue on the sector in Ethiopia at this time?

Jin Kimiaki: The government of Ethiopia has been implementing and promoting a lot of development activities in the agricultural sector mainly in the area of crop production. But, there are significant differences of understanding between the Ethiopian discourse and the Asian experiences on how to promote agriculture. Of course, there is a significant difference in environment, climate and biological productivity of the crop varieties we cultivate. Thus, these differences are quite noticeable. But, there is a space for Japan to share this experience with Ethiopia to grasp and elaborate on that experience.

Few days ago, there was a seminar on agriculture and one of the topics was revitalizing the Green Revolution in Africa and perhaps to replicate some of the Asian success stories here. But, there is a wider consensus that the revolution has not worked in Africa as it had in Asia or South America. Some even claim the Green Revolution had, in fact, no contribution to African agriculture. Do you agree with that assessment?

Yes, that is the reason why we chose to include this topic. Basically, I agree with what you have said about the Green Revolution and Africa, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. Our interest is how to change that trend. For instance, maize production for human consumption is still a big challenge in Africa. There are huge areas for improvement. Maize is not a promising crop as regards the Green Revolution in Africa. But in contrast, we consider rice to be suited to the continent. The technical know-how applied in rice production can easily be replicated in Africa. In fact, there are several countries which have achieved the Green Revolution in rice in Asia. The import of rice, on the other hand, is increasing in Sub-Saharan Africa from time to time. Hence, production of rice could easily satisfy the increasing demand here. In terms of economic contribution as well, rice has bigger potential than maize.

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We Ethiopians and most African nations are not big on rice consumption; rather we depend on maize and other crops for our daily nourishment. Some have staple foods made of maize. But, you are saying that rice is a promising candidate to bridge the food security gap in the continent. Imports of rice might be increasing but still it is dubious whether rice could become popular in Ethiopia. What do you think?

What we are talking about is biological productivity potentials. Human consumption depends on social preferences. But, we are talking about scientific issues here. Cooking and consuming rice is found to be somehow difficult. That is at least what we are encountering here. Some of the comments we have received about the preparation of rice is that it is much more difficult than teff. Even for farmers rice is said to be difficult to cultivate. We used to have the same challenges after the end of WWII. Japan has been consuming a lot of rice. But, thanks to food diversification and promotion of wheat, currently we consume a significant amount of it. Things in Africa will change; we tend to provide diverse options for the people. Wider varieties of choices are indicators of development. Regarding maize, Ethiopia has made remarkable achievement in productivity. We had a fruitful discussion in that regard during the seminar. According to the research our experts have conducted, the average maize production in Africa per hectare was less than two tons and the same was true in Ethiopia. In 2004, the yield was 1.6 tons/hectare. But, according to 2013 figures, the average production reached 3.2/hectare. That is a remarkable achievement. We want to replicate the achievements of Ethiopia in the rest of Africa. Yet, there are limitations of knowledge in this area. What kind of technology was employed to drive this success is not properly analyzed. In any case, we have huge interest in promoting the country’s progress. We also want to analyze the factors that contributed to a bumper output.

During the discussions, agricultural mechanization was addressed. What can you tell about that since it appears that it has not yet been much in use in Ethiopia?

The reason why people introduce agricultural machineries is because they face high cost of labor. In order to reduce the cost of production, farmers tend to employ agricultural machineries. That was typical of Philippines and most Asian countries. When labor cost increases, farmers shift from labor intensive farming to using machineries. Of course, animal use will also be costly when land size is small. But, in Ethiopia the situation is different. Our understanding here is that the labor cost is relatively low compared to other countries. Perhaps, seasonal shortage of labor can be witnessed in some specific areas due to movement of labor. There is a considerable level of unemployment due to that. The environment is not pushing farmers to utilize machineries. That is what we have discussed at the seminar. But, the government has a strong stance on mechanization. We want to know more about the need for mechanization and its effects on the country.

The move to adopt mechanization in Ethiopia is not a recent phenomenon. During the imperial regime, pilot projects have been conducted but at the end turned out to be fruitless since mechanization was found to be highly capital intensive and expensive. The farmers, on the other hand, do not have plots wide enough to practice mechanization at a meaningful level. The average farm size in Ethiopia is roughly estimated to be half a hectare. Hence, scholars argue that mechanization in this context seems an inappropriate policy alternative. What is your opinion on this matter?

Of course, large-scale farms could thrive under mechanization and that is what the government is pushing for. But, our interest is to focus on smallholder farmers. How one can work with farmers who have less than one hectare of land at their disposal is our concern. So that is why we believe, thus far, that instead of the large-scale mechanization or the four-wheeled tractors rolling in small farms, something like power tillers or small thrashers can be applied. That seems to be more fitting to the Ethiopian farming context. Yet, owning or purchasing such machineries is still a relatively costly endeavor for Ethiopian smallholder farmers. Hence, we need to develop some sort of a mechanism to provide machineries to them. That I think is a point which requires further discussion.

Again, mechanization in the sense of large-scale farming seems to be another policy experiment which had failed in Ethiopia. Failure stories of local and foreign commercial farms with huge chunk of farmlands tainted this policy experiment; some even saw lenders foreclosing on their properties, if they have not already declared bankruptcy. What do you think went wrong in that regard?

That is a very interesting topic. One of the discussion points for experts when it comes to large-scale farming is the productivity of this type of farming practice. It is found out that the productivity of large-scale farming is not necessarily better than smallholder farming. When large-scale farming depends heavily on labor, it is the case that supervision of all the activities in the farm could become a daunting task. Mind you, such farms cover an extensive landmass and imagine the communication gaps that could arise along the way. We don’t recommend labor intensive large-scale farming. We want to take up this issue in our future discussions with the government on how to improve farming practices, either on state-owned or private commercial farms. Large-scale farming in Ethiopia is marred with problems. The farms are located in remote areas where basic infrastructure is under developed. Thus, investors face difficulties. The government might expect investors to develop infrastructure across commercial farms. But, that might affect the cost/benefit threshold of the investors. Collaboration between investors and the government might be required to ease the challenges and make the environment conducive.

But still the real cause behind the failure of commercial farming is largely unclear. Investors came with high-tech machineries and technical know-how to run such ventures.  But, in the end, after years of practice they would learn that their efforts have not been successful. So, based on your preliminary assessment, what do you think is the real problem there?

In my understanding, the fundamental problem is absence of developed market mechanisms for commercial farms. For large-scale farming, investors need to have a constant supply of consumable goods, electric power and spare parts. Access to spare parts is crucial and it is best that it is made available locally. Failure to have that easily forces investors to spend valuable time and resources to import these goods; even when they succeed in importing, they do that at an additional cost. Hence, market mechanisms need to be enhanced to ease the supply network so that the investor may not be forced to absorb all these unnecessary costs. Market mechanism requires the participation of various forces. But, in rural Ethiopia, due to the low density of road networks and lack of business experience, we can say that the market is not really functioning. That is what makes the cost to be very high. What the government should do is support the market mechanism. Market doesn’t just grow without the support of the government.

Let’s talk about the smallholder farmer. Now, you are preparing to launch your policy dialogue on this sector. We have observed some outcomes from the industrial policy dialogue such as the introduction of the Kaizen system. What are we to expect from the agricultural policy dialogue?

Revitalizing the Green Revolution is one. There are a lot of good practices we can learn and share. We can properly analyze some valuable technologies from the Ethiopian context. Market orientation of the agricultural sector is the other area we would like to work on. In that sense, we want to see how contract and horticultural farming helps smallholder farmers in Ethiopia. Had market oriented incentives been put in place, I think farmers could produce more. It is necessary to understand the market potential and have farmers strive more towards that direction. We are also trying to launch a training program for farmers which will enable them to conduct market research about their products. The training will enable farmers to choose which agricultural commodities they should consider, and to identify which are more profitable. One of the things that can easily link farmers with potential markets is contract farming. We want to focus on how to create incentivized farming. We see communal natural resource ownership in Ethiopia. It is very important as it creates comprehensive approaches to manage resources, but it is also a less incentivizing approach in the context of the behavior of smallholder farmers. How to strike the balance between incentives and communal welfare is one of the most important topics we need to address. Ethiopia has got a long history of communal and mutual support systems. We want to maximize the communal support systems while maximizing productivity equally.

Unlike the industrial sector, the agricultural sector has some of the well-established research institutes that have been in operation for more than three generations in Ethiopia. Despite all the efforts however, smallholder farming still remains to beat subsistence level. At times food aid is required to bridge gaps. We know JICA has been involved with this sector. Hence, what do you think are the challenges smallholder farmers are facing in this country?

The first point, which I have already mentioned, is the lack of market mechanism. Because of that, farmers are forced to remain in subsistence mode. But, that is currently changing. There are potential areas in agriculture that can contribute a lot for farmers’ livelihoods. What we have been doing as a project was to set up farmers’ research groups in collaboration with the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR). That project was successful. It involves the utilization of farmers’ empirical knowledge of farming and the scientific capacity of researchers. It was widely accepted by universities and research institutes. But, one of the limitations was lack of having well-trained researchers in the field. The accuracy in monitoring and comprehensively analyzing the data is what challenged the agricultural researchers. Hence, continued human resource development and accumulation of skills is necessary. No doubt that Ethiopia has a huge potential in the biological spheres. There are various crop potentials that need to be further developed. That surely takes time. Crop cultivation in many occasions is done once a year. That tells you how time consuming it is and how experiment on agriculture would require ample time when compared to the services or the industry sectors. Agricultural activities in Ethiopia depend on traditional values. Sure, these are very important. But, if people are flexible to accept different ways of life and cultures while at the same time preserving what they have at hand, it will be very crucial. Japan has been doing that and sure Ethiopia can learn from such practices.

These days, we hear that Japan relies on only one percent of its population for crop production. Is that right?

Yes, we have a very small number of farmers in Japan. But, we import a lot. Our strategy is to shift to high-value agricultural commodities. We are facing difficulties as the number of aging farmers is increasing.

In addition to the small plot of land the smallholder farmer subsists on, the costs of inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and what have you are some of the issues hampering the productivity of smallholder farmers in Ethiopia. Is that a fair assessment in your view?

That is a very important point. The cost of chemical fertilizers is somewhere around 50 dollars per quintal today – very high for most of the farmers here. The initiative by the government to produce chemical fertilizers locally could reduce the cost in the future. But, utilization of green manure or animal dung is also an alternative solution in this regard. But, yes, you can say that such inputs bring additional costs to farmers on top of providing fodders and the likes to the animals. The point here is that rather than depending on imported fertilizers, you should look for alternative solutions locally.

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