/ 16 July 2008

Better farms the key to ending Africa’s cycle of hunger

Hussein Ibrahim walked solemnly past tidy rows of bright green cabbages, vines bursting with tomatoes and trees weighed down with plump avocados.

This modern, thriving farm — a rarity in drought-ravaged Ethiopia, filled Hussein with envy. Like so many other farmers across the Horn of Africa, he has no hope for his own crops this year.

”We are behind all the other people in the world,” said Hussein, who tends his land in southern Ethiopia the way his ancestors did hundreds of years ago — with rain, if it comes; and oxen, as long as they’re healthy.

To break out of endless cycles of drought, poverty and hunger, experts say, Africa desperately needs to modernise its age-old farming techniques. But the vast sums in foreign aid to Africa go toward feeding the hungry, and very little is left for improving farming so that Africans will cease to depend on handouts.

It isn’t impossible. A decade ago, a ”green revolution” helped millions of farmers in Asia and Latin America emerge from poverty with basic innovations such as fertiliser, improved irrigation and hybrid seeds.

But Africa’s farms, which employ more than half the labor force, remain one-fourth as productive as their counterparts around the world.

Ethiopia drew international attention in 1984 when a famine compounded by communist policies killed one million people. It is now gripped by drought that has left 4,6-million people in need of emergency food shipments.

Drought is especially bad for Ethiopia because farming employs more than 80% of Ethiopians and accounts for half of all domestic production and 85% of exports.

Yet it’s not that Ethiopia is incapable of growing food, as this experimental farm 160km south-west of Addis Ababa demonstrates. It just needs the right tools.

The farm, part of a government-run research centre, beats the drought with smart irrigation systems, higher-yielding seeds, and fertiliser and pesticides correctly applied.

Hussein and dozens of other farmers were invited to the farm in late June to learn about modern agricultural techniques.

The 260-hectare centre employs nearly 350 workers, nearly 60 of whom hold advanced degrees in agriculture. It was set up in 1969 in the dying days of Ethiopia’s monarchy, survived a decade of Marxist dictatorship, famine and wars, and continues to point the way to food independence.

But all it can do is point. It costs the Ethiopian government about $1,1-million a year to run the farm. The average Ethiopian works less than a hectare, has little education and earns about $800 a year.

‘We don’t want food aid’
Also on the visit to the centre was Mitike Abebe, who farms wheat, barley, lentils and other crops in southern Ethiopia. She depends entirely on rainfall, sturdy oxen, and her overworked soil.

”We don’t want food aid,” she said. ”We need tractors, we need seeds, we need farm machinery.”

There’s aid aplenty — Ethiopia alone got $1,95-billion in 2006 — but Africa-wide, less than 5% of it goes toward the sort of things Mitike needs.

The United States, Ethiopia’s largest donor, this year gave it more than $570-million, but just over 1% of that money is going toward developing agriculture.

In 2004, African nations agreed to set aside 10% of their national budgets for agricultural development. Ethiopia exceeded that promise, with 16% of its $3,4-billion budget. But experts say it is simply not enough for a country so dependent on the land.

According to the UN, nearly two-thirds of Africa’s agricultural land has been degraded by erosion and misused pesticides. In Ethiopia, where bad farming practices have led to massive erosion, 85% of land is damaged.

”We’ve underinvested, and everybody appreciates this now,” said Glenn Anders, who heads the American aid programme in Ethiopia.

”Particularly in Africa, for the last few decades, maybe more.”

The continent’s other needs often offer a quicker fix for donors, he said.

”You give a kid an immunisation and that kid’s better. Agriculture’s much more indirect than that and also requires a lot more time. It’s not a quick fix at all.” – Sapa-AP