Ethiopia’s agricultural conundrum
Together with his communist leadership circle, which was close to Ethiopia’s military regime at the time, Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev wrote a book, some 41 years ago, which begin with a saying: “Only let there be grain, and the songs will come of themselves”.
The then President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Russian Federation, Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, had stored and logged stories of Russia’s agricultural experiment that had enforced and channeled every means available to turn abandoned steppes or “virgin lands”, as he call them, into yielding farm fields. Transforming the vast expanse of territories falling predominantly in today’s Kazakhstan Republic was the task bestowed on Brezhnev back then.
Before Brezhnev’s rise through the ladders of top leadership, he, as he had documented, was co-assigned to lead and mass mobilize hundreds of Russians into the vast stretches of turfs across the country, particularly to the wild terrains of the Kazakhstan region. It is imperative to bring stories of old Russia into the context of Ethiopia’s modern agricultural practices that spun into existence in the 1950s.
In fact it was in the early 1940s that Ethiopia had begun to gaze into its peasant prevailing agriculture and longed for some sense of modernization. The Imperial regime, at the time, came up with a plan to introduce a mechanized agriculture and designated expanses considered to be the source of future food stocks for the country or as some might exaggerate the bread baskets of the nation. During early 1950s, when Russia began to push the idea of having extensive and automated farming on vast swath of land, Ethiopia’s Imperial regime was also concocting more or less the same move. Fertile fields and vigorous peasants were picked. Areas like Arsi, Wollo, Wolaita and Bale, which still bear traces of that movement, were identified to be fit for combiners and tractors. Yet, with human resources reaching up to 300,000 along with millions of hectares of land, the East European power was orchestrating a plan to make use of its huge virgin lands with a view of nourishing millions of Russians. They did it; and they won over the push backs of harsh climatic conditions and natural environs.
Perhaps the metaphorical song Russians sang for longtime might come of themselves in this part of Africa as well. This year the mid-season rain didn’t fed the better part of the fertile agricultural land in Ethiopia and the outlooks for better yield seemed somehow gloomy. The government, however, targets some 400 million quintals or 40 million tons of grain production for the coming year, against the 37 million tons likely harvested this year. Last year, some 30 million tons of grains is believed to be harvested. For Ethiopia’s 100 and plus million population, an annual production of 40 million tons (grain production projected for upcoming fiscal year) would in fact mean a ratio of 0.4 quintal or 40kg per person. On the other hand, the national productive safety net program of Ethiopia calculates that 15 to 23 kg of grain will be sufficient to feed an average-sized Ethiopian household for one month. Based on this figure, 40kg average might mean perhaps a consumption of not more than three months without any allowance for reserve or emergencies.
Omer Hussein, Minister of Agriculture, who recently spoke to 1,500 heads of regional agricultural bureaus and offices, said that the year-to-year progress of Ethiopia’s agricultural production could be quite misleading. "The successive growth registered in grain production might send the wrong signal that Ethiopia is progressing towards food self-sufficiency, while our per capita food consumption is still heavily dependent on bulk imports of food grains."
With all of its controversies, looking back at what the Russians had done and succeeded in overcoming (their food shortages) since 1954 ia worth loking into. They made a bold move to squash supply side constraints. According to Brezhnev’s memoir, in 1953, the Soviets were only able to harvest 31 million tons of grain, annually, but consumed 32 million tons that same year; the deficit being replenished from the state’s reserves. They saw that couldn’t be tolerated. They did found an answer: Virgin Lands.
It was only nine years after World War II with its devastating loss when the Central Communist Party decided that the vast expansion plan should take an immediate effect in 1954, Brezhnev recalls. They decided it was an urgent national economic task. And in that year alone, they ploughed and cultivated 13 million hectares with a view to cultivate 13 million to 14.7 million metric tons (800-900 million poods in Russian) of grains.
What makes then Russia more interesting is that between 1954 and 1955, the country had experienced severe drought. Despite all the mechanized farming methods they employed, they still depended on rain. The country’s economists made stringent planning and set an average of eight million tons of grains must be harvested from the news farms. Farms in the steppes of Kazakhstan Republic thrived and yielded four to six million tons between 1954 and 1955. More intersecting was that by 1956, the Kazak region made a remarkable upsurge in grain harvest. They planned to harvest 9.8 million metric tons but exceedingly managed to 16.4 million metric tons.
In the face of difficulties and harsh realities, Soviets managed to win over all the odds and became surplus producing nation once again after the heavy blow and extraordinary loss they had sustained during the Second World War. It took Russia two years to enjoy the harvest of the Virgin Lands. Mind that the annual precipitation in most of Kazakhstan was estimated to be between 200 to 300 millimeters. It was a daring move to harvest millions of tons of wheat and other food grains in a drought-ridden and heat scorched steppes of the Kazak. Indeed, Russians had beaten the odds.
Though Kazakhstan is an independent and sovereign state with USD half trillion as its GDP at purchasing power parity (PPP), back in 1977, after 24 years since the introduction of Virgin Lands, Brezhnev made a note that Kazakhstan was able to sale 250 million tons of grains to the central government, generating a clear profits of 6.1 billion Rubles (RUB).
Coming back to Ethiopia, the country was on same footing as Russia was at the start of their mechanized farm experiment. New agricultural programs and undertakings were launched. If we could zoom in on the historical records, as Getachew Diriba (PhD) has pointed out in his recently published book: “Overcoming agricultural and food crises in Ethiopia”, he noted out that Ethiopia had even established the Agricultural Bank of Ethiopia as early as 1945. Two years before that, the Ethiopian National Grain Corporation was formed. In fact, “the Ministry of Agriculture, Trade and Industry” amazingly was established in 1907, some 110 years ago in Ethiopia. Moreover, the Ministry of Community Development of Ethiopia was established in 1957 and the Ethiopian agricultural extension program commenced operations in 1954.
All of the above institutions have a lot to do with restructuring Ethiopia’s agricultural sector; so that it could become a self-reliant nation. For that reason, a comprehensive package program for agriculture was introduced and the famous Chilalo Agricultural Development Unit later renamed as Arsi Agricultural Development Unit (ARDU) was one of the modern agricultural pilot programs introduced in 1967. Later on, similar programs were experimented up on in areas deemed to have the potential to yield millions of tons of grains. However, it was short lived. Against all the odds, partly the political crisis, and partly due to lack of coordinated efforts and resources, many of the initiatives and the structured institutions failed to deliver.
Getachew argues that “in spite of the claims of GDP growth, Ethiopia’s agricultural and food sector crisis continued unabated. Ethiopia’s food imports, using three principal crops—wheat, sorghum and rice—have continued to surge since 1993,” he wrote.
Substantiating his argument, he compiled a data sourced from Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Hence, the import volume of the three crops increased from 391,165 metric tons in 1993 to 1,861,715 metric tons in 2013, with an increase of nearly fivefold. “In terms of the foreign currency that is spent on food imports during the same period, the value significantly rose from USD 67.5 million in 1993 to USD 801.9 in 2013”.
According to the Global Agricultural Information Network (GAIN) Report, which is published under the supervision of the US Department of Agriculture, this year alone, Ethiopia is projected to import some 1.6 million metric tons of wheat. While total consumption is estimated to be 6.3 million, the production is still around 4.7 million metric tons. Added to the food aid requirements, the total grain importation is expected to surge to 20 million people.
Understanding such predicaments, the government of Ethiopia is once more making bold pledges to curb food imports. During a nationwide leadership conference on agriculture, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) made a pledge that food imports, at least wheat, will no longer be a problem to Ethiopia. To make that happen, the premier said that his government has earmarked some 20 billion birr to be invested on small and medium scale irrigation schemes for the coming fiscal year. How is that going to be realized and implemented? We all have to wait and see the details.
Omer, however, has a little bit detail on this latest attempt at ensuring food security. In this regard, he indicated that 300,000 hectares of farmland will soon be cultivated with wheat. Not only that, import substitution of edible oil and the like is also been reviewed. Local production is gauged as a way forward, Omer noted. It is still dubious; the nature of farmers and the size of farms make such ambitious ideas to appear vague.
What defines Ethiopia’s agriculture is the dominance of smallholder farms. Nearly 90 percent of wheat farmers are smallholder farmers. By extension, some 85 percent of the country’s agriculture is as a result of sweat and blood of these smallholder famers.
According to Getachew, “smallholder farming is a term used to describe an economic and production unit with four hectares of land or less; deploying family labor and dependent on traditional tools and systems of crop cultivation or animal husbandry and they account for more than 80 percent of the population”. Dissecting the landholding size of farming households in Ethiopia further, Getachew asserts that some 40 percent or close to seven million of the total farm households in Ethiopia own 0.23 hectares of land. “It should be noted that the land size under prevailing technological conditions, cannot provide sufficient income for these households,” Getachew noted.
Some 4.025 million or 23 percent of the households, however, depend on 0.6 hectares and additional 23 percent or 4.1 million depend on 1.2 hectares. There are only 220,000 households that enjoy an average of 4.4 hectares of farmlands in Ethiopia. However, the government vows to change the status quo, the office of the Prime Minster has launched a new study on land use and management system. That being one of the approaches, an irrigation scheme appears to be the topmost target, as the premier.
Is that enough to bring about the anticipated change within a span of two or three years as Russia did? That is perhaps a daring proposition but unlikely to happen. Well the world has grown plentiful since 1954, while the Russians succeeded in opening up more isolated lands for agronomies. Inventions and innovations have helped impoverished people and nations to rise millions out of poverty and prosper. Ethiopia remains a living museum for ancient agricultural tools dating as far back as the Neolithic area as Getachew scholarly humored; animal driven and hand-held farming equipment.