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Bleak prospect for agriculture

Bleak prospect for agriculture

Getachew Diriba (PhD) is an agricultural economist with years of accumulated field and research experiences. Before he retired in 2017 from his post as United Nations World Food Program (WFP) country director and representative to China, he was able to establish China Center of Excellence for WFP. Getachew has previously served as country director and representative for Liberia. He also has a wealth of experience in the area of vulnerability analysis and mapping in the Southern, the Great Lakes, and Central African regions. He was head of program for WFP in the Sudan, regional program advisor for the Middle East and Central Europe, on top of serving as director of the partnerships and capacity development service at the WFP headquarters. Apart from his career at the WFP, Getachew worked for CARE International and CARE Ethiopia. In addition to his leadership roles in the UN system, Getachew wrote well versed articles and books in the field of agriculture. His latest book “Overcoming Agricultural and Food Crisis in Ethiopia” expounds on the critical challenges of Ethiopia’s agricultural sector through the perspective of smallholder farming communities. In his book, he analyzed and warned how Ethiopia is on the verge of a serious crisis. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter met up with Getachew to learn about his views of the deteriorating agriculture and its future. Excerpts: 

The Reporter: to begin with what motivated you to write the book?

Getachew Diriba (PhD): I wrote the book out of anger. It is frustrating that Ethiopia’s agriculture remains as it was during the beginning of the Neolithic Innovation Era. I had the opportunity to travel across the world. More recently, I worked as a country representative of the World Food Program (WFP) to China. But, what I have seen there as to how they have developed their agriculture, the way they have transformed the smallholder subsector contrasts greatly with our narrative. It’s rare in modern history. When I travelled to Latin American countries such as Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and many others, I saw that their agriculture has advanced in many ways. For instance, in Brazil, the way they have developed their agriculture makes you cry when you think of Ethiopia. It’s staggering. Back home, what you see is literally an open museum for ancient agricultural practices and tools. For me, as an Ethiopian and a responsible citizen, a key task is to advocate for change and to allow policy makers, politicians, the farmers, educators, researchers and others to start focusing on why we are unable to move an inch from where things were 10,000 years ago. Why are we not focusing on repairing the agriculture sector? Why is that we are simply focusing on keeping people alive? These are the motivations that pushed me to write the book and communicate in a way that all stakeholders in agriculture are able to engage.

In the book, you tell the story of Dosha, your birthplace, in an interesting yet saddening way due to lack of significance change happening in the area in the past 60 years; which is since the introduction of mechanized farming through then government projects known as Chilalo Agricultural Development Unit (CADU) and the later Arsi Rural Development Unit (ARDU) and agricultural extension services. Based on your research what went wrong during those years?

This brings me to the pillar of the book which tries to understand how and why agriculture has failed and is still failing to takeoff in Ethiopia. Dosha exemplifies that. It is anecdotal evidence; it’s not science. Of course, agriculture is a science but also a human observation. What I have tried to do is to hinge together three important things. One is a timeframe that I call evolutionary. Two is looking at the structure and how institutions have changed through time. The third point is performance. It’s about the decency of life. How farmers over a long period of time were able to change their lives. Dosha exemplifies all that. It is located near the then provincial capital: Arsi. It is among the first beneficiaries of CADU which later became ARDU. Dosha was one of the earliest places in Ethiopia to adopt agricultural extension services. However, with all of that, the people of Dosha have never been able to change their lives. We will talk about how to measure this quality of life and why do we say their life has never been improved or changed at all. Even with the availability of extension services and improved seeds, their life has not been changed. The number of households tripled over the last 50 years. The environment, the forest and the wildlife have gone, completely. Today, land scarcity is one of the highest problems. The young is migrating for educational and job opportunities and the people have no access to running water, electricity and other basic necessities. Many still carry farm produces on back of a donkey, or on horsebacks and shoulders to reach to market places. The key question for Ethiopians here is how long could we keep this? Surely, compared with similar villages of the country, Dosha might not be in a food recipient situation and that might be considered as one positive indicator. But, poverty remains the same. Sadly, the people there are tethering on the verge of aid recipient status. If crop fails, that’s what going to happen in Dosha.

In line with mechanization, you showed the supply of tractors in Ethiopia compared to the likes of Kenya, South Africa, Canada and the U.S.  You estimated a 0.04 tractors per 1000 people ratio. But, why do you think this has happened and is still happening?

This begs for a bigger analysis. It was during the imperial time that agricultural mechanization was introduced to Ethiopia. It was really taking off with great vitality and feudal landlords had discovered the moto-mechanization or the tractor based farming. What was happened was that in places such as central Showa, Arsi, Bale and in many others, the landlords started to evict farmers. But, during the pre-revolution era, with the famous slogan “land for the tiller”, the number of tractors was curtailed. Then new government has introduced a land reform and confiscated private farms to convert them into state farms, lead to the death of mechanization. State farms didn’t perform as expected. When we come to the current government of Ethiopian, Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), since 1991, the whole equation changed once again. The drive to change smallholder agriculture and expand mechanization played a smaller part in the overall transformation agenda. But, even that didn’t come about either. The size of landholdings diminished overtime and currently it is at half-a-hectare per household. About seven million households have less than half a hectare. You can’t introduce any mechanization on this tiny plot of land. Another four million households hold a land size of half to one hectare. These two households alone account 63 percent of the total farming population. The mechanization or the transformation of agriculture couldn’t take place on such fragmented and highly dispersed farm holding system. This is part of the greater challenge Ethiopia is faced with. Your question necessitates the examination of mechanization in Ethiopia in comparison to the global situation. Ethiopia is number one from the bottom position as hand and hoe culture is still the common practice. But, that was of time when Neolithic agricultural innovation had begun some 10,000 years ago; and we are still using those innovations in the 21st century. The plough and oxen cultivation were probably introduced 7,000 years ago. At that time, that technology might be the most advanced. But, Ethiopia is stuck on agricultural innovations that happened 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. And currently, that’s the means used to harvest and feed 100 million people. It’s inconsolable in this era of advancement. Currently, there are 12 stages of mechanization. Countries have advanced from two-wheel drive low horse powered tractors to the very complex stage of technology. They have combined agricultural innovations with industrialization and digital revolution. We are out of all that. We are at the bottom end.

You wrote about Ethiopia being an open and living museum of ancient agricultural tools while trying to show how backward the technological capability is. But, do you see that changing anytime soon?

Ethiopia has no any other option expect to transform its agriculture. We have reached at the edge of the cliff; in the future it would be difficult for Ethiopia to feed its people. Typically, agriculture feeds the farmer. That is the basics. When they produce surplus, they feed you and I. But that has now been reversed, vast majority of farmers are unable to feed themselves. Feeding oneself doesn’t mean having a steady meal alone. There are four stages we need to see. One is agriculture being able to provide for the basic and decent life; provide food for the farmers, provide surplus production to the nation as a whole. This is essential. Today, we miss this basic function of agriculture. Secondly, agricultural income must pay for the necessary health, schooling and other social obligations. Third, agriculture must replace traditional tools of farming. It must pay for fertilizer. It must pay for seeds. Fourth, what makes agriculture key pillar of the economy is its capacity to absorb risk. Inherently, from 10,000 years ago to today, agriculture remains to be a risky business. Hence, to avert loses, you produce more and store the extra amount to be utilized in times of crisis. Ethiopian agriculture is unable to cover risk. The fifth point is that agriculture must create wealth. Hence, politicians and some scholars are taking great pride in keeping people alive. We pass that stage. Change and transformation in agriculture must happen. We have to rethink and reimagine our development philosophy. We need to rethink our institutional philosophy and we need to revisit the cultures, values and norms we adhere to. Today’s youth uprising and many of the challenges the government of Ethiopia is facing is not a curse as it is very obvious. The youth migrate from rural areas searching for better opportunities. They should have been made productive in the agricultural sector as many are migrating from that sector. Agriculture was considered like a sponge that absorbs the labor force. Even if laborious and back breaking, the youth had a means to work and survive before. Currently, they don’t have land to work on. The risk of crop failure is very high in many parts. The only option these people have is to come to urban areas for jobs. This is an existential problem for Ethiopia. The government must be very honest and sincere as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) is saying that the government can’t provide jobs to the entire youth. But, they can facilitate the service industry, the rural indoctrination and the agricultural mechanizations that could create jobs. This could make peace in Ethiopia.

You have pointed out that landlessness is one of the growing problems in Ethiopia and the demographic pressure is exposing some 10 million people to landlessness. Could you elaborate how that is a serious problem?

I call these people as effective landless communities. Land tenure is diminishing. There are millions of farmers who live on 0.1 hectare. In effect, they are tide to that piece of land and effectively they happen to be landless people. You can’t feed and meet basic consumption demands of a household of five family members with farm size of 0.5 hectare. Landlessness is a very significant problem here. The youth oozed out of land tenure is migrating in massive numbers.  

Assume you are now talking to government officials and they would challenge your analysis by saying they have agricultural extension services in place, they have increased productivity for so and so years and perhaps mention the agricultural inputs made available to famers in order to increase yield and feed many despite demographic pressures. What would be your reaction to that?

Absolutely, they are right. The EPRDF government for the last 20 years has done great. The problems I have mentioned in the book are not about diminishing what they have done. The book sufficiently acknowledges what they have done. In terms of institutional set up, since the first ministry of agriculture was established 110 years ago, since agriculture science began in the 1950s thanks to the USAID’s innovative programs then known as Point Four, it is during this government’s tenure that a lot of rural infrastructure has been built. They have created institutions. From 22 institutions per one million people in the past, today we have reached 145 institutions per one million people. This is fantastic and great but the hunger didn’t stop. I think the EPRDF led government should stop cheating itself. History acknowledges the works they have done. But, most of the jobs found to be inadequate and unable to match the demands of people. From historical references, the collapse of the Axumite civilization partly was because of the decline of agriculture, population pressure, in addition to the curtailment of trade routes by the Ottoman Turks across red sea. A collapse of a nation or strong government is not new phenomenon to Ethiopia. The uprising of the youth is an early signal. The continuous importation of significant amount of cereals over the last 30 years is staggering. Imports of cereals alone accounts for 9 percent of the national production. Food aid accounts 6 percent of the national cereal production. With 15 percent of external sources of food supply, you just can’t be complaisant. My fellow Ethiopians that are in the political circle should understand that we are reaching to a point that we have no time. Poverty and hunger don’t give time. That’s against the nature and that’s the motivation that put me in a position to write this book. By the way, there are four factors we need to understand regarding how nations fail. Partly, it is when the politicians start to feel they have done their job; when they start to say ‘we are on the right path’. That is where they need to think very hard. Knowledge begins with the understanding of not knowing enough. Lack of perceiving the existing problems contribute to the failure of governments. Taking pride on small gains is a killing factor. They might say “we did a great job”, “we have allocated USD one billion from our own resources to curb the food crisis” and so on. With all that, the day we wake up might be too late to mend what we haven’t done right.

In your book you have categorized many Ethiopian smallholder farmers as being found in crisis category, some in the surviving situation and a few in the category of renewal and perhaps a very few in the enterprise category. I would like you to give us the accounts of such categorization and what they mean in reality?

To have agricultural transformation, first we need to understand what agriculture can and must do. I have identified five key performance measurements of agriculture as mentioned earlier. After 110 years of institutional evolution in the Ethiopian agriculture, the changes we claim to have made are distilled down to the key parameters. Based on the parameters I have found out four types of agriculture and four types of consumption patterns. I have classified those who are simply unable to meet basic requirements as households in crisis. Those able to marginally meet their consumption requirements in good harvest year are termed as survival households. The renewal households are those that are able to produce enough and consume and occasionally they will be able to pay for agricultural inputs. The last group which represents 1.2 percent of the entire farming population represents enterprise farmers. There are engaged in high yielding crop varieties and capable of employing mechanizations, inputs. The crisis and survival households combined account for 86 percent of rural households. Essentially, the house is on fire and how do you make a priding gesture when almost the entire population remains in an abject poverty and hunger? I want to make additional point to your readers that rural households are enterprises. They are both consumers and producers.

From your analysis you concluded that some 20 million people in Ethiopia are in need of food assistance, right?

Exactly; in “an average normal year”, you have some five to seven million people enrolled to an emergency food aid. There are approximately eight million people who are permanently in food aid situation. These are farmers and imagine a canteen that feeds eight million people year-in-year-out. Adding up, on average 20 million people found to be in the food aid requiring category. Ethiopia has no resource to feed these people on aid and the international community is becoming fed up in providing aids either. The cost of this is not limited to the bad images of Ethiopia, but lack of adequate nutrition is also posing a serious a threat to intellectual deteriorations of our children. Those children who lack enriched and nutritious food in the first 1,000 days of birth are subtle to the intellectual impairments. They might not perform well in school, or in their future lives. Their immune system gets weakened. USD 2.9 billion is the least cost some figures note in relation to child malnutrition. Hence, the cost attached to lack of having a well providing agriculture is huge. The cost of hunger and the cost of keeping an obsolete agriculture will haunt the nation if not well addressed quickly.