Skip to main content
x
Comprehending Ethiopian agriculture

Comprehending Ethiopian agriculture

DemisChanyalew (PhD) is a seasonedand well- published scholars in the agricultural economics field of study. He took part in various research projects and led many studies including the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Program (CAADP) basedon which African governments had decided to invest a chunk of their national budgets for the neglected agricultural sector. He has published several scientific articles and books featuring the practices of agriculture in Ethiopia. Currently, he is part of a team that is under formation to serve as a think tank and an advisory committee for the agricultural sector. Demis is well articulated and well versed when it comes to agricultural policies and not shy to criticizethe policies and strategies of the government. He never shies away from speaking about the right policy initiatives taken by the government either. BirhanuFikade of The Reporter sat down with Demis to pick his brain about the country’s agriculture and where to go from here. Excerpts:

The Reporter: The latest UN humanitarian report shows that Ethiopia hassome 8.3 million people in need of food aid, this year. This meansthat the agricultural sector in Ethiopia still lacks to feed the population. So, what is your overall assessment of this sector?

DemisChanyalew (PhD):So far, a lot has been done and some results have been achieved in the agriculture field. The outcomes, as you have indicated with the required food aid, obviously are not satisfactory. We have to admit that there is a positive change in the Ethiopian agriculture. As an economist, I prefer to suggest talking on the basis of objectivity. Then, how do we measure growth? Do we measure it based on incremental rate of production and productivity, or do we consideryearly per capita consumption patterns? We could agree that there are some achievements in general. The problem is that, for instance, some measurementsdo suggest poverty rate has declined;yet hunger or food availability is still anexcessive problem for the country. In some pocket areas the hunger is huge. There is a lot to be done in the agriculture sector. Quite often we hear officials pledging to do more in the sector. Some even say that there was a plan for commercialized agriculture. They didn’t implement that yet. Others proclaimed that the sector would get numerous uplifts in many aspects but the actualities are in deficit. Most instances the sector has sufferedfrom poor investment;while in some other areas, where the level of investment is better,the outcome has been nothing but lose. For instance, a recent report: “Poverty and Hunger Strategic Review” my colleagues have published, indicates that investment made on trainings and allocation of development agents (DAs) has been almost a complete waste. So far, some 80,000 DAs have been trained and dispatched to assist farmers across Ethiopia. It requires a huge investment to train this much number of professionals. In this respect, Ethiopia stands second to China, globally. But, why didn’t we succeed then? I have found that more than 80 percent of those DAs were inefficient. The report I mentioned as well finds that 64 percent of the DAs were actually incompetent.

How come this many number of trained DAs end up being inefficient?

We could estimate, in a given district, up to 150 DAs might be needed to assist farmers. But, when you visit the districts where the DAs are assignedto work, you will find that the experienced DAs have already left the job and needs to be replaced by new comers. There is a massive turn over. More than 80 percent of them are frequently being replaced by fresh graduates. DAs normally couldn’t deliver the needed support in the first year of their assignments. It is for many reasons; but mostly the farmers would have to see what the DAs are really about. They will not simply take the services of a DA for granted. They need to see who is that DA and what competencesdoes he have which could be helpful for their situation. The actual work of a DA could be better evaluated in his second or third year of operations. Unfortunately, before they reach to the second year on the job, 80 to 90 percent of the DAs exit the practice. That is the challenge. That is what makes the investment to be a loss. If you ask why do they leave the job? It could be for many reasons. But, I can say that agricultural investment on the human resource development side is somehow obscure.

Could you mention how much money is invested on Das, so far?

I am afraid I don’t have that detail; but you can find it elsewhere. As far as the initial investment is concerned we can agree that it is enormous. Many colleges and training facilities have been established to that end. Many TVETs have received huge capital to train DAs. Let alone DAs, farmers who have access to improved seeds and fertilizers or other agricultural inputs are less than 30 percent in Ethiopia. Studies have confirmed it. You can imagine how many seed enterprises have been established in the country,lately; and yet how only 15 percent and less of the farmers have access to improved seeds. There must be something wrong. I think the officials are just beating drums. What they kept telling and what is actually seen happening are two different things. Policies and strategies are designed at the top leadership level. But, we didn’t realize how they could reach and influence at the grass root level. There is no mechanism to check the implementations. We didn’t have the system to address bottlenecks when trying to implement those policies and strategies. Why would you invest on DAs when they are no more valuable to the sector? Millions of quintals of fertilizers are purchased and distributed but for what?  We really need to scrutinize what we have done. We need to reconsider water based agriculture this time. We had advocated for thatlong ago. We have to be very careful on how to go about such undertakings. We need to measure our approaches and need to have a real sense of needs and requirements before we delve into actions. Previous failures in water harvesting methods shouldn’t be repeated once more, this time round.

The Prime Minister is vocal about irrigation schemes. How do you see that as effective approach as many local and foreign experts suggest it is a costly and very expensive venture for a country predominantly made up of smallholder farmers who have less than one hectare of average farm size?

I had debated for long for irrigation to be considered in our agriculture; and I can confidently say that it will pay off. I disagree with those claims that irrigation schemes are unaffordable in Ethiopia. I was one of the individuals who intensely debated the government some years back when it said it will not consider medium and large scale irrigation schemes. We said that was a wrong decision. I recall we had an argumentabout this issue in connection to the need assessment studies for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). I was leading studies on the agriculture and rural sector developmentaspects. We were tasked to look at the targetof reducing poverty and hunger by half and how they would be achieved. The studies also included environment and natural resource targets in the MDGs. For the need assessment studies conducted 15 years ago, we estimated thatsome 36 billion birr will be required to meet MDGs targets with regard to agriculture.

So, how was the water resource development and utilization treated in the studies?

Out of the estimated cost requirements I have mentioned, most of the money was needed for rehabilitation activities of natural resources and water related activities. The agriculture system needs to transform from rain-fed structure to irrigation based practice. When we presented the need assessment studies to ourtarget audience, which was made up of the likes of the then World Bank Group (WBG) vice president and the late Prime Minister MelesZenawi,some 15 years ago, we were told that we were ambitious by the WBG official. He went on to inquire aboutthe rate of return we expect to generate out of sucha huge investment. I told him he was off-topic. The assignment was not about finding the balance for return to investment; instead it was to find ways on how to save lives by reducing hunger and poverty. We did calculations as to how much is needed to do that. I have led numerous studies on agriculture, both in national and continental stages. “Policy and Investment Framework” for the agriculture sector is one of the studies the likes of Professor John Miller and my team had collaborated on. The study suggested that if Ethiopia really wants to change its agriculture, it needs to invest on natural resources rehabilitations and irrigation systems among others. We identified 10 prioritized areas for investment and calculated that USD 18.5 billion for GTP I and II. Out of that, 54 percent of the investment is needed for irrigation and agricultural water development. When we presented the studies we were met with high pitched resistance from the donor communities suggesting that we are recommending huge amount of money to be invested on agriculture in general, and water related activities in particular. We provided our scenarios and arguments as to why it was necessary to invest that much. 

But how could the irrigation system be applicable when the average size of a farmland in Ethiopia is less than a hectare?

This is what we suggest for the agricultural development and management. Development of the water scheme is one aspect. It requires management as well. I think Ethiopia has no other option than investing on irrigation and on its natural resources. For the practicality of that, the government has to work with local experts, first. Reorientation for inward looking is essential for better results and achievements. Seriously, you need to change the course of action. We have to deploy strategies and tailored tactics than shortsighted and politically motivated campaigns and approaches.

Would you say that equivalent level of investment is still needed to get irrigation going now?

I think there are challenges. The government seems convinced. We also encourage good and bankable projects tocome from the agricultural sector. We are advising the government to consider homegrown and indigenous methodologies and expertise for the task. However, we have noticed some movements seemingly to hijack the initiatives are in the making. Many crop farms are now diverting cultivations to Khat, a stimulating cash cropthat has nothing to do with food production and productivity.You can’t calculate the rate of return while you have people in dire situation and struggling to survive. If you succeed to get people out of that trap, you achieve returns you could expect. Life is worth more than your investment returns. However, there is a new approach under formation and those involved in the process have identified five major areas for natural resource; income augmentations and beneficiary irrigation systems is one of the five major identified priorities to be considered in the foreseeable future in Ethiopia.

There is a draft law that will require farmers to pay for irrigation. The government is about to set tariffs for the usage of water it provides through the irrigations canals. How does that sound?

Though it is beyond our area of expertise, we need to bear in mind that incrementally water is becoming one of the scarcest resources. We must utilize it in a most sustainable manner. Globally, there are so many water resource associations and most of them have never questioned the logic of paying for the water they use. But, the fees of course must be reasonable. Farmers don’t have to be penalized for the inefficiencies of the developers. When the infrastructure costs much due to lack of efficiency and when you try to weight the costs on water users that is definitely not right. This type of cost recovery is damaging. Farmers would love to have the water being available when needed. They don’t hesitate to pay for having easy access. Instead, farmers don’t have access for water pipes and accessories. Theydon’t have canals either. We have to create real private famers in the private sector. The cost really is not necessarily the price of inputs. It is the ultimate real outcome of the enterprise; so this is the real question we need to focus on. When you engage in production, you have to maximize your profits. To do that, you need to make sure that you produce goods and are using the right kinds of inputs. The combination of price with inputs and the combination of the product with the price of the product should give you the difference and that should be the profit. The famer should be made to work this way and should become an enterprise of his/her own. Key for this is a good farm management and record keeping, which still remains forgotten. It is a neglected component. Hence, paying for water is not really the question as it is difficult to have water available in the first place. The question should be how much you get out of the water being made available to you. There is a locally developed example to show how water availability and farm management could help farmers make remarkable profits. The evidence is out there. But nobody pays attention.

Let’s talk about the targeted production and the huge amount of imports of gain. For this year, some 370 million quintals of grain is planned to be harvested and within the same year more than some 800,000 tons of wheat is planned to be imported. The contrast seems to be growing bigger and bigger. How do you see that?

Having the required resources to produce food grains, I don’t think we have set the right target which is only 370 million quintals for the whole year. We are nowhere close to the global average. The target production size should have been even bigger if only the model millionaire farmers are really farming the right volume. Most farmers could get the inputs researchers have developed. Imagine what they could have done with it; let us say 50 or 60 percent of the scientifically developed inputs available elsewhere across the agricultural research institutes of the country. Production could have been doubled without needing additional technologically developed inputs. But why didn’t we produce more? Because we lack efficiency in our way of planning and executing.

But producing the targeted amount is also one hell of challenge…

Yes, that is one basic issue, too. Importation of wheat, in part,is a surprising issue. Together with Professor John Miller we made studies and conducted workshops about the need for the country’s growing imports of wheat. By the time Ethiopia almost started to import some 600,000 tons. We made a recommendation that Ethiopia actually could exit from importer of wheat to surplus producer. We made that recommendation six years ago. By now, Ethiopia should have withdrawn from importation but instead it has increased the volumes. Currently, some 800,000 tons of consignment is about to be shipped. Sadly, the country has the potential to become a global center of excellence for wheat. It is unfortunate we are in this cycle. But, whether we like it or not there is a shadow business interest behind the import business for wheat. Many flour millers play diverting tricks when purchases are involved. We have to speak it out frankly. The wheat imported to Ethiopia makes its way to Kenya and could easily be sold cheaper than the prices in Ethiopia. You can find it in Sudan when you can’t have a sack full of wheat in Ethiopia though imported originally to be available locally. The story is true for other imported commodities including fuel. Relatively, the imported wheat is subsidized and distributed to flour mills and it is imperative that they might not like local production to be more sufficient and widely available. Imported wheat mostly is directed to urban consumers. Bakeries rely on imported varieties. However, we are not the only country to import wheat. In fact, the idea of subsidized wheat was meant to provide subsidized bread. But prices don’t necessarily reflect that. A good chunk of the hard earned hard currency is channeled to purchase wheat. That need to be evaluated and should be measured. And without any further inputs or resources added, we can double currently planned production to 600 million quintals. It is possible.