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Education that matters

One of my tasks at work involves reviewing literature, be it scientific or otherwise. The past few weeks, I got the opportunity to read a lot about the development of agricultural cooperatives, the services of finance providers in rural areas and about market coordination in Ethiopian food value chains. One of the things that strikes me from what I read in various literature is that a lot of the problems hindering the development of agricultural markets has to do with the poor education and skill levels in rural areas. Low education and skill levels characterize the development agents providing agricultural extension services to farmers, the employees working at the thousands of agricultural cooperatives operating in the rural areas, the employees working in rural financial institutions and of course the millions of farmers who put food on our tables. Although the agricultural sector is the backbone of our economy, it is also sad to see that the least educated section of our population works in the agricultural sector. The lack of education and skills among farmers and among those who are supposed to provide supporting services to the former limits our farmers’ abilities to turn their farms into profitable businesses. As a result, most limit themselves to subsistence farming.

Limited business, finance and management problems results in suboptimal performance among institutions providing business support to farmers. Those who are better educated in rural areas, flee these areas for a better employment opportunity in urban areas. In a way, this is not surprising. Given the poor living conditions that their pays in rural areas can afford them to have, who would blame them for looking for better options? If you ask me, I myself would definitely not trade a comfortable city life for a rather rough life in a rural area. But if everybody thinks like me (and I believe most do), how can we expect the agricultural sector to bring in the economic boom which we expect it to bring? But at the same time, how can one be expected to work productively in an environment that is completely unrewarding from the point of view of personal economic advancement?

The same problem can be observed in many government institutions. I’m sure that many of you have been to government offices for one reason or another. Few weeks before, I had to go to my Kebele to request some documents which I needed for personal reasons. While waiting to be served, I thought a lot about the physical/office environment in which the Kebele employees had to come to everyday for work. They not only have to come to offices which are totally not conducive for work, but they also have to go home with a salary that barely covers their monthly living expenses. Sometimes I ask myself if these employees should be blamed for not providing proper services to taxpayers. And can we blame better educated people for desperately trying to avoid working in government offices?

I often think that those who are less educated are the ones who actually do the job on the ground. Researchers in fancy international institutions may provide agricultural technologies and other innovations aimed at improving agricultural practices. But if development agents, Kebele workers and farmers are unreceptive to these technologies and innovations (or those who are receptive flee away), what is the use of these research institutions? I believe the key question to ask is, how do we move educated and skilled people to where their skills matter most? I do not have the answer. But I believe it is a question worth pondering about.


Contributed by Tsion Taye