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Revisiting Ethiopia’s agricultural transformation

Revisiting Ethiopia’s agricultural transformation

Tsedeke Abate (PhD) obtained his PhD from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. He got both his MSc and BSc degrees from the University of Florida, Gainesville. He has a wide range of experience in agricultural research and development fields in both local and international arenas where he was involved in more than 20 countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Tsedeke is also a seasoned scholar where he published various articles in many international scientific journals. After years of staying abroad, Tsedeke, who was also the former head of the Ethiopian of Agricultural Research (EIAR), came back to Ethiopia and for the past two years he says that he has been restudying and analyzing the state of Ethiopian agriculture. He is writing a book about how the agriculture sector should be revitalized and is also engaged in forming a think-tank that will play a role in the future of Ethiopia’s agriculture. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter caught up with Tsedeke to discuss issues regarding Ethiopian agriculture, his experience and other pertinent. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Could you please give us an overview of the current state of agriculture in Ethiopia?

Tsedeke Abate (PhD): I would like to start by saying that agriculture in Ethiopia means almost everything when it comes to the socio-economic wellbeing of the country. We depend on agriculture for our food security, export earnings, raw material supply for the local industry, and import substitute. Ethiopia has a long history of farming, dating back to more than two millennia, but its agriculture has remained mostly traditional to this day, with the ard plough still the dominant farm tool. Ethiopia has many assets, such as its wide agro-ecological zones that allow to grow a wide range of crops, its huge livestock population, its potential agricultural land, its large surface and ground water resources, its well-established agricultural research system, its huge (especially young) human population, a large pool of expertise both within and outside the country who are willing to contribute to the development of their country – all of which could make a world of difference if properly harnessed.

In spite of all this, the country imports close to USD two billion worth of agricultural products, including cooking oil, wheat, sugar, food preparations, rice, other cereals, and others, each year. Ethiopia’s export earnings from agricultural products are also showing declines in recent years – from about USD 3.6 billion in 2014 to USD 2.2 in 2016, a nearly 40 percent decline – associated with the declines in the productivity and production of the commodities and or fluctuations in their prices in the international market.

There is this notion that the human population in Ethiopia is growing much faster than food production. This is a serious mismatch; the food supply is not growing in proportion with the demand. What’s your view on the growing demographic pressure on the economy? What needs to be done?

You are absolutely right: Ethiopia has a fast-growing population; the urban population is particularly growing at a much faster rate than the rural population.  Ethiopia’s population was estimated at 19 million in 1950, and only five percent of them were urban; today, in 2019, there are approximately 110 million of us and 21 percent live in urban areas. By 2050, our population is projected to be approximately 191 million, the third largest in Africa without the North, after Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is also projected that 38 percent of Ethiopians would be urban dwellers by 2050. I am not a demographer, but I feel that this has social, economic, and political implications.

The major question is: how do you provide adequate food, shelter, physical amenities, education, and employment to such a huge population while at the same time preserving the integrity of your natural resources? The consequences of rapid population growth are already being felt by way of dwindling agricultural land holdings in the rural areas, overcrowded cities and towns in urban areas, and rising food prices and cost of living in both. Even though providing adequate food, shelter and other requirements for such a rapidly growing population poses a great challenge, policy makers in Ethiopia can turn around this to their advantage by harnessing this asset into a skilled workforce for modern agricultural, industrial, scientific and technological advancement.

Ethiopia is still using ancient tools for its agriculture even though precision agriculture is being used in many parts of the world. How could one change that state of agriculture into a modern sub-sector of the economy?

Modernizing Ethiopian agriculture requires beyond a mere change of the tools. It needs a total transformation. The agricultural systems of this country are diverse and complex, and therefore, their thorough understanding is essential to address the challenges facing policy makers in Ethiopia. We need to have a clear understanding of precisely what we want to do and how we are going to achieve meaningful transformation; we need to have clarity of purpose as a first step. There has been lots of talk about agricultural transformation in this country especially over the last decade and a half or so. I sometimes wonder if transformation meant different things to different people. We have spent so much effort and energy on restructuring and reshuffling ownership of institutions.

I have no problem with restructuring but there should be enough justification for it; it is more important to identify the root cause of the problem and fix it rather than rushing to reshuffle. We have an apt saying in Amharic “gulicha bilewot wot ayatafitim” – a close translation of which is: “change the cooking pan and expect your stew to taste better.”  The government’s effort to transform Ethiopian agriculture through its Growth and Transformation Program has not delivered the desired results it was intended to, perhaps owing to the fact that it has not benefited from comprehensive and coherent scholarly studies which would have otherwise given it clarity of purpose.  For the most part, it has been a top-down approach that has not involved participation of particularly the national expertise. This was an opportunity missed and resources that could have been put to a better use. Policy makers in Ethiopia should draw a good lesson from this experience when dealing with future agricultural transformation efforts.

At present, there are strong signs of opening up of the political system for a dialogue among policy makers and agricultural scholars, and other stakeholders. All stakeholders need to work hard cheek to cheek to not miss yet another opportunity.

Could it be viable to embark on mechanized farming at the grassroots and introduce it to smallholder farmers?

Obviously, mechanization is an important component of agricultural transformation. It should be borne in mind that transformation cannot occur overnight; which means that smallholder agriculture will stay with us for a foreseeable future. Here we are talking about mechanization that is pertinent to the smallholder’s conditions – for example, improved plough, small-powered tractors, planters, harvesting machines, threshers, shelling machines.

How can Ethiopia still rely on a smallholder farmer whose efforts have already been tried hard and perhaps could bear no more than it has provided? What is your opinion on this?

You see, this too is part of the agricultural transformation agenda I talked about in your previous question. Improved crop varieties attain their full potential only under optimal external input (mainly fertilizer) use. Experience so far in Ethiopia suggests that there is no guarantee that smallholders are going to adopt the full recommendations, especially considering the small farm size.  After more than five decades of extension efforts, the smallholders in Ethiopia apply less than half of the recommended rates of fertilizer; only 42 percent of the cultivated area is covered under mineral fertilizers; coverage by organic fertilizers is estimated at 11 percent  and is declining at a fast rate; use of improved seed, pesticides, and irrigation are low. This puts into question any possibility for a breakthrough in agricultural productivity and production under the smallholder conditions. It is therefore imperative that the agricultural transformation agenda embrace a policy shift to bona fide commercial agriculture as its essential component. This does not mean of course we are going to abandon smallholder agriculture overnight; what it means is we should start making a sound plan for an accelerated agricultural transformation agenda.

Recalling the failed state-owned and private sector-led expanses of farms, what would be your suggestion on commercial farming on Ethiopia?

I think my response to the preceding question covers this question as well. All I can add here is the fact that smallholder agriculture is too inefficient to address the challenges of the 21st century. Moreover, I do not consider the then emerging private commercial agriculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s a failure; to the contrary, they captured the imaginations of many college students and would be entrepreneurs. Some of us opted to study agriculture over other options that were available and accessible to us because we were inspired by those dynamic business men and wanted to emulate them. Commercial agriculture was nipped in the bud by the pseudo-socialist ideology of the military government. Even the state farms failed perhaps because of lack of accountability rather than their inherent weakness.

Suppose Ethiopian agriculture continues to be the way it is today, what would happen in the coming five to ten years?

I cannot even imagine this (worst case) scenario. There is no way Ethiopian agriculture could continue the way it is today. If that happened, it would mean a total socio-political crisis, a catastrophe. As I mentioned in my opening statement, agriculture in Ethiopia means almost everything; crisis in agriculture would be the mother of all crises. The current government policy gives high priority to agriculture and it is our hope that we shall be starting the road to its transformation sooner than later.

Considering the fact that agriculture is so vital to the socio-economic wellbeing of the country, how come successive governments of Ethiopia could not establish a successful agricultural research and extension system that could produce sufficient food for its population? This is important for their mere existence; as you know, a government that cannot feed its people cannot survive for too long.

I want to point out that it is not that successive governments in Ethiopia lacked the incentive to improve Ethiopian agriculture. We are talking about different contexts here. Each of the past three political systems – i.e. the Imperial Government, the Derg, and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) system – have all tried to improve agriculture, with varying levels of success, obviously in their own different ways. It was the Imperial government that pioneered “modernization” of Ethiopian agriculture by establishing first the Ambo and Jimma agricultural and technical schools, followed by the establishment of the Imperial Ethiopian College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts at Alemaya (now Haramaya University) some six decades ago. This was followed by the establishment of the Institute of Agricultural Research (now Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research [EIAR]) in 1966, as a semi-autonomous organization, overseen by an advisory board. The military government also wanted to strengthen research and development and spearheaded the expansion of agricultural research centers and sub-centers to cover more agro-ecological zones. Adet, Pawe, and Sinana research centers are some of the examples that come to my mind. It was during this period that Ethiopia has achieved some level of a critical mass for agricultural research for development.

The EPRDF government focused on taking the hitherto accumulated knowledge to the end users – i.e. smallholder farmers. It also restructured the research system whereby many of the existing research centers under EIAR were handed over to the newly created Regional Agricultural Research Institutes (RARIs) so that the latter would cater to their respective regions. Today there are nearly 90 research centers and sub-centers run under EIAR, RARIs, and agricultural colleges and universities across the country. Agricultural extension was first mandated to the Ministry of Agriculture in 1963 and its approaches have undergone numerous changes over the years. Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) centers such as Agarfa and Ardayta were established or strengthened during the military government; Alagae was inaugurated by the EPRDF government in the last decade. The number of extension staff grew by leaps and bounds in recent years. At present, MOA reports show well over 67 thousand DAs (development agents) and SMSs (subject matter specialists).

So, from the foregoing narrative, it is clear that successive governments have tried their level best to improve the performance of agriculture. One can enumerate a large number of causes for the lack of sustained success for Ethiopian agriculture but in my personal opinion one cause stands out:  obstinacy of policy makers to listen to the national expertise and build consensus. They somehow did not trust their own people with good track records of competence, vision and integrity. They shunned dialogue and every initiative so far has been top-down. The overriding criterion for assigning leadership positions, for the most part, has not been one’s merit – competence, track record, integrity. The end result was not only just low performance of agriculture but such notable debacles as the audacious attempt to multiply hybrid maize seed on thousands of hectares in the Lower Awash just in one season towards the late 2000s, and the failed fertilizer blending initiative that cost the country tens of billions of birr in recent years. I only hope that we have learnt good lessons by now.

If you were a top decision maker of the country, what would be your primary target in order to transform its agriculture?

Obviously, there are more ways than one to do this, but let me give you one now. I will form a special taskforce comprising seasoned and well respected Ethiopian scientists (numbering about a dozen) with proven track records of success in agricultural research and development. I will have a brainstorming session where I will tell them to provide me with a ‘Marshal Plan’ (including implementation plan) for Ethiopian Agriculture. I will sequester them for six to nine months to work full time. The taskforce shall be provided with all the necessary facilities – including an office, supporting staff, and resources to travel within the country to gather the necessary data. The taskforce should provide a monthly progress report directly to me or a body assigned from my office. Once the report is completed I will have a validation workshop that would involve participation of all stakeholders. Once that is done, I will convene a meeting of the donor community to help with funding of the plan, providing expertise where Ethiopia has a gap, and exchange of ideas to move forward.

So many establishments have been created under the agricultural platform. But many of them couldn’t end the hunger and poverty in Ethiopia. Do you see a policy malfunction here?

I think I have covered this at least partly in response to your question relating to the lack of sustained success for Ethiopian agriculture. Obviously, it is difficult to achieve success where you don’t have a leadership with expertise and experience commensurate with the mission of the task. Without the required expertise and experience one perhaps ends up doing more of the same and treating the symptom rather than the root cause.

I am not sure if you have any specific agency in mind, but to me, the accomplishments of any organization tasked with agricultural transformation should be measured against how much it has enabled and empowered the relevant national institutions and individuals to take the leadership role, rather than the number of experiments the agency has conducted and publications it has produced. It should have been the national institutions and individuals who should talk about the accomplishments. They should have been allowed to make mistakes and learn from them so that they build confidence in themselves and what they are doing, and feel good about their accomplishments. In short, the transformation organization should have had a catalytic role rather than building its own capacity. Unfortunately this has not been the case.

Do you think the current government is ill-advised in its efforts to improve the sector?

I have no information as to who is advising the current government and it would be imprudent on my part to talk about something I have no knowledge of.

What would be the role of the international community in transforming Ethiopian agriculture?

Ethiopia has had good relationship with the international community – in particular with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CG Centers) – over the last several decades. Their major success has been with the support in crop genetic improvement. Obviously there is a need now to redefine the relationship based on the comparative and competitive advantages of one another as well as the felt need of the national program. There were times when some international organizations competed with the national system for resources and even credit for research results; it is absolutely essential for them to complement each other rather than to compete. I also hope that good lessons have been learnt from such incidents. Obviously, the status quo cannot be maintained. The international community can share their experience but the main transformation agenda must be led by the national program. I want to reiterate that Ethiopia should look for homegrown solutions for its sustainable development.

As a food net importer, Ethiopia remains heavily reliant on imported cereals and edible oils and other basic food supplies. However, the government vows to change that from next year on. How realistic could that be?

 It is encouraging to see that the government is working hard towards food self-sufficiency (and eventually food sovereignty) for Ethiopia. My understanding of the government plan is to start addressing the issue beginning, not ending, next year. Obviously, this is not something that could be fixed in one year. Of course it is important to educate the public to temper expectations.

What do you recommend the government should do and prioritize its efforts in the short-, medium- and long -periods?

I believe this is going to be the major focus for the Special Taskforce I suggested above, but let me offer some hints here. The emphasis in the short-term should be on quick wins – issues that can be addressed and results obtained without going into too many detailed studies and analyses. One such example is leveraging existing and promising technologies. First, research has produced very many technologies over the years; some are being employed on a limited scale and need to be further scaled up; in addition, those promising technologies need to be demonstrated and popularized aggressively. Second, the research system is in an unenviable situation as it stands now.  Optimization of coordination should be the starting point for transformation of the research system; there is an urgent need to strengthen and empower the research leadership.  Third, at present, the bulk of Ethiopia’s agricultural export is sold as raw material; the country can reap significant benefit from value addition. Directives and guidelines need to be established to encourage local and foreign businesses in the country to engage in exporting processed or semi-processed agricultural commodities instead of raw materials. There are already good lessons to be learnt from export of finished/semi-finished leather products and goat meat in this country over the last many years. In the medium-term, the focus should be on unlocking the full potential of indigenous crops (UPIC). Over the years we have relied so much on cereals for our food security without bothering too much about diversification whereas many countries across the world have introduced alternative crops that have both economic and environmental advantages. Under UPIC we can think of introducing enset to geographies with similar agro-ecologies, outside its current home of southern and central Ethiopia, to enhance food security and environmental protection; enhance productivity of normal coffee and develop decaffeinated coffee production and marketing to boost export earnings and diversification; increase productivity and production of traditional oilseeds (e.g. Ethiopian mustard [gomenzer] and safflower) to enhance import substitution and raw material supply to the local industry. I must add here that this does not mean to exclude or diminish the importance of non-traditional oil crops such as soybean, rapeseed, and others. In the long-term, we should be thinking about opening up of new frontiers. We now know that smallholder farmers in the middle and high altitude areas have reached the upper limits of what they can do with their current level of knowledge and capacity; area expansion is no more the available option to these farmers that it once used to be. Large schemes, with particular emphasis on developing both surface and grounder water irrigation systems to boost production via multiple harvests and increasing the yield per harvest, need to be developed. We need to revisit our agricultural development policy – i.e. should we be still focusing on smallholder agriculture to tackle the challenges of the 21st century? At the same time, we should figure out how best we can use modern technology to fight climate change, environmental degradation, declining soil fertility, and the scourge of existing and emerging pests.