Friday, May 24, 2024
CommentaryIs agriculture a business or way of life in Ethiopia?

Is agriculture a business or way of life in Ethiopia?

Our farmers have several millennia long accumulated experience and knowledge in agriculture. Their experience and knowledge is a pillar which feeds and supports the nation’s economy. As a nation we have come this far with the knowledge, experience and resources we have. But can we move forward keeping the status quo? The answer is no, we must act quickly to bring about a business mind set and educate our farmers, writes Fetsum Sahlemariam Amakelew.

Agriculture for Ethiopia and Ethiopians is an irreplaceable source sector for economic growth for several reasons. It also harbors uncountable paradoxes. We Ethiopians are among the first civilized people of the world in practicing agriculture. As a nation we have thousands of years of experience in the sector, but we are still practicing it as it was during its invention. We are behind the world in development measured by any means.

If agriculture is our main source of economic growth and employment, and if we had several millennia old experience, there is one million birr question we must answer. Why are we still starving? The answer to this question could touch several social and political issues and difficult to answer in a short article. On the other hand, here we will try to see the current situation, observed weaknesses and strengths and what we should do for the future.

What is the significance of agriculture for Ethiopia?

It is an undeniable fact that agriculture is the main pillar of Ethiopia’s economy not because of its productivity but because 15.7 million households generate their income from the sector CSA 2017. According to the 2016 demographic and health survey result the average child per woman is 4.6, therefore the livelihood of around 78.4 million Ethiopians depend on this sector. Moreover, in 2016 the contribution of the sector to the national GDP is 34.4 percent (FAOSTAT 2018).

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Understanding this, the GoE had made several policy and strategy reforms and investments in the past ~30 years. At the beginning the priority was food security; several programs had been planned and implemented both by GoE and donor investment. These reforms and investments had brought about a growth witnessed in the sector and the economy at large.

As a result of the above changes the agricultural sector had consistently grown for the past two decades. From 2004 to 2014, total land area, crop yield, and total production increased by an average of 2.7 percent, seven percent, and 9.4 percent, respectively Bachewe et al 2014.

On the other hand, Ethiopia is still having a deficit in production compensated by import. Moreover, millions of people still need food aid each year. Based on the result of Donnenfeld et, al 2017, in 2016 food demand was around 42 MMT, while total supply was around 40 MMT. By 2030, total demand is forecast to be 72 MMT, compared with supply closer to 55 MMT implying the deficit to be compensated through import. Therefore, if we do not challenge and change the status quo in the sector, imagine what will happen after twenty years.



Paradoxes in the sector.

There is a huge gap between what we have, what we could have done with it and what we are. In my opinion the following three points summarize generalized features and controversies of Ethiopian agriculture.

  1. Ethiopia is endowed with ample resources: What we have.
    • Ethiopia is blessed with diverse agro-ecology and vast land to produce diversified agricultural commodities.
    • Ethiopia is one of the seven centers of origin and diversity for several crops in the world; including wheat, teff, barley, sorghum etc.
    • Ethiopia is endowed with a substantial amount of water resources.
    • There are 15.7 million households with their family member experienced in agricultural practices their entire life.
    • Ethiopia have the highest development agent to farmer ratio in the world, Ministry of Agriculture had trained ~70,000 development agents (ATA and MoA 2014).
    • There are 11, 000 Farmer Training Centers (FTCs) established at Kebele level (ATA and MoA 2014).
    • In 2012, there were 43,256 primary cooperatives, agricultural cooperatives account for 26.5 percent 11,452 in the country (ATA 2013).
    • Several universities graduate agricultural experts in diverse fields every year.
    • Every woreda has at least a B.Sc level expert in various fields.
    • There are Federal and regional research institutes, which have thousands of technologies, knowledge and information to exponentially increase production.
  2. General characteristic of agriculture in Ethiopia: What we are.
  • Subsistent
  • Low input (seed, fertilizer, pesticide)
  • Rain fed
  • Poor mechanization
  • Suffer from periodic drought
  • Low access to credit
  • Poor linkage among actors
  • Overall low productivity


In general it is easy to conclude that Ethiopia; is naturally blessed, has the human and institutional capacity, has the required technology and knowledge to double production agricultural practices are primitive and resource poor.

Past achievements and questions that matter

Significant efforts had been made to transform Ethiopia’s agriculture. According to Bachewe et al 2014, between the year 2004 to 2014 the sector had grown with an average 7.6 percent contributing 47 percent of the GDP. This growth is mainly driven by a growth in crop production specifically on cereals. In the past several years as a nation we have been pushing our farmers to adopt improved agricultural technologies to modernize the sector. To improve crop production farmers were encouraged to use fertilizer, improved seed and other production enhancing inputs. But until now we are struggling to cover majority of crop producing area with improved practices.

Table 1: Percentage area covered with improved input.


DAP + Urea

Indigenous seed

Certified seed



Extension package








2014/15/2007 EC







Source: Own calculation from CSA 2005/06 and 2014/15.

The application method and practices left to be unanswered, with the latest figures of 2014/15 we have applied fertilizer on 28 percent, indigenous seed on 91 percent, certified seed on 8.6 percent pesticide on 22 percent irrigation on 1.3 percent and extension package on 31 percent of the total area covered by crop table 2.

This being the fact Bachewe et al 2014, have identified the source of the growth in overall crop production. Accordingly, average annual growth in crop output averaged 8.8 percent during the decade. On average, the majority 31 percent of this growth came from increases in the amount of labor applied to crop production. Similarly, expansion in cultivated land accounted for about 13 percent of the growth in crop production. A further 11 percent of the growth originated from increased use of improved seed, and 8 percent from chemical fertilizer use. On the other hand, source of growth from pesticides, irrigation and services are 0.9, 1.3 and 0.2 percent respectively. Finally, rural roads and returns to scale contributed 3.3 and 8.3 percent, respectively, to overall crop output growth.

Based on the above figures it is interesting to note that majority of the growth 31 percent is generated by the additional work force in the sector and eight percent and 11 percent by utilizing chemical fertilizer and improved seed respectively. Paradoxically based on table 2, chemical fertilizer covers 28 percent and improved seed cover only 8.6 percent of the total area of production in 2014/15. Accordingly, without any calculation it is easy to imagine how much increase the nation would have achieved if the area covered with improved seed and fertilizer reaches 50 percent. There is also an untapped source of growth that can be realized through the improved use of pesticides, irrigation and services.

Above all emphasis must be given the main source of growth that is human capital. Ultimate effort must be utilized in order for this group to implement agriculture based on knowledge, real time information and improved technologies. The growth will be remarkable.

Opportunities for growth

Several evidences justify that there is almost a 50 percent gap in productivity between technologies at research and actual productivity of farmers. The numbers in table 2 reveal that there is as high as 67 percent yield gap between farmers’ maize field and researchers’ field. In practice it is difficult to replicate research field yield in larger farms. But if we can manage producing half of what the researchers produce at the farmers’ field, our growth in production will be doubled in few years.

Table 2: Yield per hectare and gap between farmer field and research.

Major cereals

CSA 2017/18

EIAR 2015

Gap in percentage























What should be done to foster agricultural production and Ethiopian economy at large?”

Keys for change.

In the previous sessions, the weaknesses, strengths and opportunities to grow Ethiopian agriculture had been highlighted. As a rule of thumb if one wants to increase productivity of anything attitude, knowledge and technology are mandatory. Majority of our farmers still operate agriculture with the technologies and knowledge that they had when mankind first engaged in agriculture.

There are several evidences that show increasing production and productivity is possible in Ethiopia. These evidences are reported by many federal and regional government institutions, there are few farmers that have managed to increase their productivity. The difference between these few farmers and the majority is: these few farmers were able to get access to improved technologies; they were properly trained and have the knowledge to apply the practices. Most of all the main difference is the attitude; the few millioner farmers witnessed on the media are those that understood that agriculture is a business but not a way of life.

Based on these I had reached to conclusion that:

“The whole drawback of Ethiopia’s agriculture begins with our perception and attitude towards agriculture. In Ethiopia agriculture is perceived both by farmers and others as a way of life rather than an economic and business opportunity”.

If change must come in the sector the keys are:

  1. The attitude of our farmers’ and ours towards agriculture must be dramatically changed to a business mind set.
  2. We must teach and educate our farmers to equip them knowledge and practice of modern agriculture
  3. We must provide our farmers real time agricultural information and its implication.

Once Ethiopian farmers change their attitude of agriculture to business and equipped with the right and basic knowledge to practice modern agriculture, the rest is providing the required input and creating the market opportunity. Technology and inputs can be bought from a market but attitude and knowledge cannot be purchased. It is our duty to teach, educate and motivate farmers to achieve overall growth.

What should we do?

Our farmers have several millennia long accumulated experience and knowledge in agriculture. Their experience and knowledge is a pillar which feeds and supports the nation’s economy. As a nation we have come this far with the knowledge, experience and resources we have. But can we move forward keeping the status quo? The answer is no, we must act quickly to bring about a business mindset and educate our farmers.

“How can we reach and support the 78.4 million Ethiopians to change their attitude and educate them?”

Use Media

It is suggested that radio and TV to be the most effective and efficient ways to communicate, inform, teach and bring behavior change in a society. This is because:

  • Ease of nationwide access of our TV and radio
  • Low cost and economical nature
  • A single expert can reach millions
  • Perceived as reliable source of information


In reality Ethiopian farmers and development agents have very limited access to information and knowledge through the media. In a country where agriculture is a priority most of the air time both on TV and Radio are allocated to sports and entertainment. Actually there is only one program in which the radio air time is leased by the MOA called “our agriculture” (gibrinachin) delivered. It is presented once a week for 30 min early Thursday morning. Moreover there is a new agriculture related TV program on EBC titled “Masa”. Looking at the presenters, they are pure journalists (in the profession) and most of the time they report events organized by different stakeholders. Of course, they broadcast success stories and experiences of different farmers in the program. Even though their effort is limited to their profession in describing technical matters of production, they sometimes interview professionals on the issue they present.

By the same token farmers and development agents have limited access to agricultural information and knowledge. Example

  1. There is no entity that a farmer or a development agent can pick up his phone a call for advice or information, but anyone in Ethiopia have ample resource to get information about the English Primer League.
  2. There is no way that our limited agricultural experts could teach and share their knowledge to millions of Ethiopian farmers.
  3. A farmer can hear a meteorological forecast on media, but do not have a clue of the meaning. For example what is the implication of some mile meter of rainfall on farm operation?
  4. How are we communicating new findings and new information to farmers?
  5. Farmers usually sell for low price because of limited access to market information etc.

In general, agriculture is a priority in every developed and developing nation, because food is a basic necessity. Especially in a country like Ethiopia where the life of close to 75 million people depends on the sector and it being the main source of economic growth; there is no doubt that it is a priority. Therefore, it is a matter of survival let alone growth to focus and change the sector. Specially now, the country needs to create job opportunity to the majority of the youth. I believe the easiest sector for these youth is the agricultural sector. What kind of industry can be a job opportunity for 30 or 40 million youth? Even though, we build the industrial parks; are we able to produce the required quantity and quality of raw material with the current situation? The answer is no, we do not even produce enough for our daily meals; we subsidize our daily bread through imported wheat. It is time to change the status quo in Ethiopian agriculture. Technology and inputs can be purchased but attitude and knowledge can only be thought. We must use the limited experts and resource to teach and give knowledge to our farmers. Unless Ethiopian farmers observe agriculture as a business rather than a subsistent way of life; I think there is no way out of the current situation.

Ed.’s Note: Fetsum Sahlemariam is an agriculture expert specializing in plant breeding. He has worked in research and development for the last 15 years in Ethiopia. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].

Contributed by Fetsum Sahlemariam Amakelew


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