In hungry Horn of Africa, Ethiopia bets the house on more wheat
Farming was a calling to Getachew Tesema, who left his hometown Wonji, central Ethiopia, 54 years ago in search of work. Years later, he landed in Afar State and slowly put together enough resources to start farming there.
At the height of his career, he leased 30 hectares from the local people, planting cotton. Since then, years of seasonal floods have washed away most of Getachew’s harvest.
Floods are common in Afar, a lowland area that makes a part of Awash, one of Ethiopia’s most important river basins.
It is also one of the three basins federal authorities have selected to experiment with “summer harvesting,” raising hopes of Ethiopia becoming a net wheat exporter next year. Along with maize and teff, wheat is the most used grain for food, accounting for 14 percent of consumption.
The federal initiative is a national ambition to reverse course from an image of Ethiopia as a poster child of drought and famine to self-sufficiency, and eventually a land of surplus. It is a programme launched two years ago on a 500-hectare land along the Shebele River in the Somali Regional State.
Officials at the Ministry of Agriculture plan to expand this exponentially to reach over 30 percent of 107 million quintal (a quintal is equal to 100kg wheat harvest planned for next year, surpassing demand by 10 million quintals. The surplus is hoped to bring the country no less than $390 million from exports. If successful, it will also save Ethiopia $431 million spent two years ago importing one million tonnes of wheat from overseas markets.
The wheat harvested from summer irrigation in the Shebele, Omo and Awash basins could be a grand ambition for the country and its leaders. But the buzz has also motivated small-scale commercial farmers like Getachew to try something new this year.
Though he only has one hectare left to work in, Getachew plans to sow wheat between his regular cropping seasons, belg and meher. The time he used to spend on storing and selling cotton between these seasons, he is now sowing summer wheat.
Summer wheat has become the transition grain at Getachew’s farm. In the grand plans of the government, it is designed to pull the country from wheat imports to exports. The social media threads of senior federal and regional government heads — from the Prime Minister to his Agriculture Minister and Oromia Regional State chief to his counterpart in Somali Regional State — are crammed with photos and video clips of lush greenlands. They tell their followers that success is within grasp.
Lowlands like Afar Regional State, idle during summer, make an ideal location to sow wheat. The region is expected to produce 2.5 million tonnes of wheat this coming year. At roughly 10,000 hectares, the region also has the largest swathes of private farms working on irrigated wheat.
The lands here have their set of challenges, however, the biggest of which is floods. Farmers here are also facing overwhelming weeds this year. In an agro-pastoralist society, harvest is also lost to cattle looking for pasture.
“It’s more profitable for us to add another round of crop, but it will take more resources,” Getachew told The EastAfrican. “The cattle which are normally barred from the farms during the regular cropping season come back. We’re expected to put up fences for this season.”
Much of Getachew’s plan seems to rest on hope as the country’s. He hopes floods do not take his harvest; that the weeds will stay manageable and, most importantly, the crop will yield.
The government’s plan for wheat import substitution rests mainly on two strategies: summer irrigation and promoting cluster farming. Close to 60 percent of the massive increase in wheat harvest is expected to come from millions of smallholder farmers.
Lome Wereda, about 100km east of Addis Ababa, is where farmers are urged by local authorities to begin practising cluster farming. It is a way of adjoining strips of land usually left to mark borders between farms.
The authorities hope that if many of the 18 million farmers put together the pieces of land, the combined effect on productivity could be enormous. That way, they believe they can meet their ambitious target of ploughing over one million hectares by next year, more than double what they say was farmed last year.
Most of the farmland surrounding Lome Wereda along a major logistics and industrial hub lay bare a few months ago. The area is ideal for agriculture, particularly irrigation farming, as it lies in the Great Rift Valley, surrounded by major rivers such as Awash, Wedecha and Belbela. However, it had been two months since farmers in Lome’s 35 kebeles harvested their crops.
Girma Tesema, 65, depends on water from the Modjo River, a tributary of the Awash, to grow wheat on two hectares under the cluster and off-season farming initiatives. He and several farmers in the area harvest twice a year through irrigation.
He lives in Dengugi Kebele, where he and his fellow farmers have been pleading with local authorities to divert water from the Awash River.
“They said it’s beyond their mandate,” he told The EastAfrican.
Girma inherited six hectares from his parents. Farming is his sole means of providing and paying for the education of his nine children. One of his sons, Matios, opened a dental clinic in Addis Ababa after graduating from Tikur Anbess Hospital.
Two years ago, local administrators convinced Girma to join the cluster and off-season farming initiatives. He and nearly 1,700 farmers in Dengugi Kebele have thus far signed up for the initiative launched three years ago.
“We’re eager to begin,” he said.
But Girma’s productivity has not improved. He used to harvest up to 20 quintals of wheat on each hectare before he signed up and sold half of his crop for 2,800 birr ($53 a quintal. Last year, his productivity slumped by half. Part of the reason for the decline is the successive desert locust invasions that have plagued farmers in Ethiopia in recent years.
But there are other causes, too. Farmers like Girma are required to lease water pumps and combiners to grow their crops. But water flowing to the Modjo River from its tributaries is decreasing.
“We need pumps to bring the water to the surface,” said Girma.
Other farmers like Arega Leta, 30, have experienced a similar drop in water volumes. Arega farms wheat on two hectares. Productivity over the past couple of years has declined from 25 quintals a hectare. The locust invasions and climbing cost of production are to be blamed. He pays 170 birr ($3.2 a quintal to rent a combiner, and shares 30,000 birr ($570 in costs, with five farmers to use a water pump.
“The soil isn’t suitable for farming wheat,” said Arega.
He argues the cluster farming arrangement has not been to his advantage. When not farming wheat, Arega grows vegetables to generate additional income and support his family. A hectare can yield up to 30 quintals of vegetables.
Cluster farming in Lome Wereda began two years ago, with 808 farmers in three kebeles. These farmers harvested a little over 37,000 quintals of wheat in the first season. Last year, the initiative expanded to include 3,100 farmers in eight kebeles. They harvested nearly 349,000 quintals of wheat, said Alemayeu Degefa, an East Shewa Zone agricultural officer.
This productivity is a far cry from the national ambitions. In a recently presented assessment, government counterparts reported that over 450,000 hectares had been irrigated in the past year, with the country’s wheat import yet to be made.
This number, which represents the aggregate land used for other crops throughout the year, has been achieved mostly through smallholder farmers like Girma and Arega.
Out of nearly 900,000 hectares of irrigated farmlands in the country, private farms take about six percent, expected to produce 352,400 tonnes of wheat this year.
Smallholder farmers can make or break the wheat export plan. The undeniably crucial role of smallholders is why the Ministry of Agriculture has crafted a strategy its experts dubbed the “National Smallholder Irrigation and Drainage Strategy.”
Part of this strategy is allocating government funding; half a billion Birr ($9.5 million has been allotted from the capital budget to support this initiative since its implementation in 2018.
“This financial commitment is important since it can get complicated finding support from donors in irrigation,” said Zeleke Belay, an irrigation engineering expert. “Most water bodies cross borders and make for a hydro-political issue.”
Yet, in the larger picture, only 18.5 billion birr ($351.7 million has been carved out for the entire sector, accounting for only 2.3 percent of the recently approved 787 billion birr ($15 billion in the federal budget. Public-private partnerships are expected to help in divvying up the support needed for the sector; a prime example is the mechanisation of the industry.
The public-private partnership for the road to the country’s mechanisation envisages assistance from the federal government in providing policy support like lifting duties off imports, covering costs in training and demonstrations on the use of agriculture machinery to farmers with building the necessary infrastructure. The private sector is expected to bring in and distribute farming equipment.
Rise in imports
Since the removal of duty on the import of agricultural mechanisation, irrigation and animal feed technologies and equipment, there has been a substantial difference in the import of products. Data from the Agriculture ministry shows that this number has tripled since.
Yet, there is a long way ahead before the full mechanisation of the sector, which requires about 50,000 tractors. Currently, around 8,000 tractors are functional across the country. Thousands more have been imported but are wasted in different facilities due to substandard quality, brought without prior assessments on their type and use.
This is not the first time Ethiopia has tried to take up mechanisation in agriculture. While the military-Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam had focused on mechanisation, with large state-owned mechanised farms first taking place then, the subsequent Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’s strategy was less keen on mechanisation, as it changed direction in what it deemed a land and labour-abundant country.
But, with high rates of migration, and people leaving for cities looking for work, this is no longer a labour-abundant sector. Mechanisation is intended to step in to solve this, according to Bereket Forsido, the Ministry’s director for agricultural mechanisation. Feed shortages for the oxen used in ploughing further complicate the problem.
The Derg regime’s influence on state-run mechanised farms, however, appears to play a significant role in the success of the current government’s wheat export plans.
Next week: Wheat is not just food in Ethiopia, it’s national security writ large