Is it time to break the monoculture?
Workinesh Bezabeh, 43, lives in a two-room Kebele-owned house (government-subsidized house units) in Addis Ababa’s Sidist Kilo neighborhood with her husband, three children and a relative. Despite the fact that they have had no house-related expenses in their 17 years of marriage, life for her family has recently become quite difficult.
Her husband, the breadwinner of the household, works in the human resources department of a private college and earns a monthly net salary of 6,500 birr. Despite the fact that she is a housewife, she seldom tries to support her husband by selling fries at the gate of their communal compound.
Like everyone else in Addis Ababa and most Ethiopians, her family eats Enjera and wot, which are traditional foods that have been eaten for hundreds of years. Usually, 50 kilograms of teff is enough to feed the family for a month.
Workinesh paid 3,100 birr for 50 kilograms of medium-quality Sergegna teff at a nearby milling house a month ago. The price surged by 500 birr since she made her purchase the previous month.
This week, she went to the same store and saw that the price of this kind of teff had gone up by 85 birr per kilogram. She was about to spend 65 percent of her husband’s monthly net income on just 50 kilograms of teff.
“This time, I’ll just have to buy the red teff (a less popularly demanded type of teff),” Workinesh said, hoping to save up to 12 birr per kilogram. She spent 56 percent of her husband’s pay on the less popular Red Teff, at 73 birr per kilogram, allowing her family to receive the regular portion of 50 kilograms this month.
As per the assessment The Reporter conducted since the beginning of this month, the top-quality teff, commonly known as Magna, was being sold for up to 10,000 birr per quintal at several locations throughout the capital.
With wheat prices rising by up to 10 birr per kilo in two months, reaching 60 birr or higher, and the cost of other commodities such as edible oil remaining out of reach, the family’s capacity to live on a monthly income of 6,500 birr has become impossible.
“It would drive me insane if I calculated all of my monthly expenses. I’m not even sure how we’re coping,” she said, baffled as to how they’re even dealing with all of the expenditures.
Workinesh has considered diversifying her family’s food consumption on a few occasions. Nonetheless, she is unable to think of any low-cost cuisine they could consume on a regular basis, aside from breaking down societal barriers. “What else is truly inexpensive that we can consume at a low cost?” she inquired.
As consumer prices continue to rise and become unaffordable, thousands of low- and middle-income households in Addis Ababa are losing access to food. Eventually, the need to break culturally accustomed appetites and adopt undervalued but nutritious food items will become imminent.
How diversified is the choice?
Culturally, almost all urban residents as well as residents of several rural areas appear to have no choice but to stick to the endemic teff. While teff is consumed as the main meal in almost all areas of the country, a large portion of the country consumes other meals on a daily basis.
However, the supply of teff has become unaffordable and will never meet Ethiopia’s rapid population growth. Wheat has also become as hard to find as hen’s teeth since the government’s designation of the crop as an export commodity and new restrictions put on domestic sales.
Enset (false banana) is one of the low-hanging fruits recommended as a replacement for teff. According to studies, sorghum, maize, and other grains can be used as staple foods. Experts believe that Ethiopians consume too few fruits, vegetables, and roots.
Enset is suitable for almost all agricultural situations in Ethiopia. It is remarkably drought-tolerant, pest-resistant, and productive on a very small plot of land. However, consumption of this highly nutritious grain, which is much cheaper than mainstream staple foods like teff, remains limited to the southern part of Ethiopia.
The World Economic Forum released a video report a year ago, citing scientists who conducted studies on Enset and how it could feed a hundred million people while also being a “climate change wonder crop.” Just 60 Enset trees, according to the report, can feed a family for a year, being edible from the fruit to the stem and roots.
Scientists estimated that the crop could feed 100 million people over the next four decades. Because Enset is a perennial plant, its cultivation and harvest are not seasonal, and it is the ultimate solution to the impending decrease in agricultural productivity, the report states.
Melesse Mario (PhD), who is a biologist and the director general of the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute (EBI), has researched Ethiopia’s immensely rich biodiversity. He believes the country will never go hungry if it takes advantage of its naturally abundant food diversity. Ethiopia, one of the world’s most bio-diversified countries, also has a large gene bank, according to Melesse, who says farmers can also use the gene bank to obtain extinct seeds, multiply them, and cultivate them.
He strongly believes that, if used properly, Ethiopia’s rich biodiversity resource can help it fight food insecurity.
“I reviewed some research recently, and the researchers discovered that there are 400 wild edible plants and crops,” Melesse said, recalling how much the entire society could benefit from the rapidly growing seeds for food.
“In fact, our society makes maize a meal for the lower classes. There are also people who claim Enset has a bad smell and is therefore inedible,” he said, baffled by the society’s meal preference.
Teff is gradually becoming a favorite meal for people all over the world due to its gluten-free advantages. Melesse worries that the growing demand for the product will make it harder and harder for people in Ethiopia to get the crop. Naturally, the government has prohibited the export of teff. However, if the ban is lifted, teff exports may increase and become even more expensive.
Food insecurity: multifaceted challenges loom large
Millions of rural and urban Ethiopians are waiting for emergency food aid because of drought, inflation, conflict, and other things that keep the economy in a downward spiral. The number of people failing to meet the UN’s minimum daily intake of 2,100 kilocalories is expected to rise as Ethiopia’s agricultural output falls behind the country’s rapid population growth and market failures.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) reported a month ago that over 22.6 million people are food insecure. The report cited ongoing long-term drought, conflict, and high food price increases as reasons.
While internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing conflicts are described as having the worst food insecurity, about 11.8 million people are food insecure in drought-affected areas, which include four regions and the Dire Dawa City Administration, according to the report.
Several areas in the country’s south and east, primarily in the pastoralist societies of Oromia and Somalia and a portion of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region, are currently experiencing severe droughts, resulting in the loss of their livestock.
Inflation is also causing the public yet another headache. Crop inflation has recently reached new highs, according to the most recent data from the Ethiopian Statistical Service (CSS).
While headline inflation in February stood at 32 percent, food inflation was 29.6 percent compared to the same period last year, down from 33.6 percent in the prior month. Nevertheless, teff, wheat, barley, and related crops contributed the most to food inflation, outweighing other food types.
Furthermore, in their joint report on food security in Ethiopia, issued from June 2022 to January 2023, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) pointed out how staple food prices in Ethiopia have been rising since the beginning of 2021.
Smaller production, supply disruptions, high fuel and transportation costs, as well as decreased imports of crops like wheat as a result of the Ukraine-Russia war, are the driving forces behind the increase, according to the report.
Using maize as an example, the study showed how prices for this specific commodity skyrocketed across the country between June 2021 and June 2022. Maize prices in Addis Ababa alone have risen by 60 percent in a year and by 145 percent in five years.
It increased by 125 percent in a year and by 200 percent in five years in some areas, such as the Somali region. Prices of staple foods in the conflict-affected Tigray Region were more than 300 percent higher in June 2022 than in other parts of the country, such as Dessie, according to the report.
Drought, flooding, instability, soil acidity, scarcity of cultivable land, backward farming systems, a lack of agricultural financing, and other factors are putting agricultural performance to the test. On the other hand, the fast-growing consumption, industrial, and export demands, as well as the increased supply of local production for IDPs and refugees, are reducing the amount of agricultural production that could have reached the consumer.
Essentially, close to 70 percent of Ethiopia’s agricultural output is consumed at the household level. According to CSS data from a few years ago, only about 30 percent is sold in the market. Depending on their types, some crops are entirely sold in the market for their high return.
Experts believe that investing in commercial farming is critical in order to increase the availability of major crops on the market.
The Ethiopian government, trade experts, and some agricultural experts say that the current food shortage and inflation are caused by problems with the market. They argue that if the market is well regulated and straightened out, the food crisis can be solved.
Demis Chanialew (PhD), a veteran agricultural economist, disagrees with the conclusion that low agricultural productivity causes crop market disruption.
“I don’t believe there is a serious production issue. The fundamental issue is the post-production process, which includes market disruption and the government’s failure to manage it,” he explained. “This was meant to be the prime responsibility of the Trade Ministry and its subordinate offices.”
Admasu Shibru (PhD), another agricultural economist at the Center for Food Security Studies at Addis Ababa University, agrees with Demis.
Others, however, believe food diversification is imminent. Even if the market system is strained, it is unlikely that the currently inflated commodity prices will fall and return to pre-inflationary levels.
The way forward
The first step toward food diversification, according to Melesse, is advocating and raising awareness in order to change distorted public opinion. He says that there are several edible products that have been researched and tested to be effective meals, but the general public does not associate with them due to culture and norms.
“I don’t think we are able to differentiate between what we should and shouldn’t eat because of cultural and religious pressures,” he said, urging society’s perception of food consumption to change. “We must change our mindset and ease the socio-cultural influences.”
The other step is to make cheaper and alternative commodities available in market systems near the consumer. The agricultural extension program must also introduce cultivation of the selected commodities into all of the country’s agricultural corridors, experts say.
For instance, rice was introduced to Ethiopia during the famine three decades ago. It is currently farmed in wetland areas and is widely consumed in Ethiopia.
Selected food items, according to experts, can be introduced to consumers and farmers in a similar manner. Enset, for example, can be adapted to the northern, eastern, and central parts of Ethiopia.
Senior economists advocate for supply-side market reforms as the ultimate solution, while the public continues to consume traditional staple foods.
For Demis, it is never simple to guide society on what they can eat or not. Whether or not financially struggling families have a chance to diversify their consumption habits when common staple foods such as teff become unaffordable, Demis says that “no matter what the economic situation, it is hard to guide individuals about their food intake.”
As evidenced by global behavior, what remains a staple food is what is widely produced and accepted by society, and scarcity in production is more likely to motivate society to change their regular eating habits.
“When there is no other option, society will change naturally by itself,” Admasu said. “Changing the staple food can’t be provided as an option until there is no hope of availing the commonly consumed basic food.”
For Workinesh and her family, they are ready to diversify their food consumption as long as they are provided with affordable options. “As far as I can tell, we’re stuck with this.”