Ethiopia: A new tool for an old problem—waterlogged soils

August 28, 2017
A translation for this article is available in French

It is hot and sunny as Gonfa Gutema follows the two oxen ploughing his field. It rained recently, which means it’s time to plough, and mix the hard, dry top layer of soil with the moisture from the puddles on the surface.

When asked, Mr. Gutema attaches an Aybar BBM to his plough, demonstrating how easy it is to slip the broad-bed and furrow-maker onto the digger and tie it to the shaft. It’s not yet time to use the broad-bed and furrow-maker, as Mr. Gutema will plough his field once more before planting wheat in a few weeks.

Many Ethiopian farmers plough their fields several times before planting, exposing the soil to the sun to try to manage pests and diseases. Ploughing is part of land preparation, and for the vertisol type of soil that’s common in Ethiopia, a broad-bed and furrow-maker, or BBM, is important. Vertisols are clay-like soils with little organic matter that become very hard when dry—and sticky and waterlogged when wet. A BBM makes furrows though which excess water runs off the field.

More than seven million hectares of soil in Ethiopia are vertisols, making farming a challenge in these areas, particularly during the rainy season. Mr. Gutema says that waterlogging costs him seeds, fertilizer, and labour, as excess water drowns his plants before they have a chance to grow.

Many farmers use a furrow-maker during land preparation for their wheat fields, as wheat is less tolerant to excess water than teff.

While ploughing and making furrows is part of a farming tradition that dates back thousands of years, some farmers are making an investment in a new technology to improve on this practice. Mr. Gutema and others have invested in the Aybar BBM, after hearing that it saves time and labour.

Teshome Workineh is the development agent in Awash Bune kebele. Mr. Workineh notes that soil is not the same everywhere. Sloped areas may not need to use a BBM, since excess water will run off naturally. In this part of Ethiopia, farmers often own many small fields spread out through the community, and each field has different soils: vertisol, sandy, or silt. So they may not need to use a furrow-maker on all their fields.

For those who use a traditional furrow-maker, ploughing is tough work. The metal tool, which is attached to the plough, can weigh more than seven kilograms, particularly when covered in thick mud. Instead, the Aybar BBM weighs just 3.5 kilograms.

Unlike ploughs that turn the soil, the small right and left wings of the Aybar simply move the soil aside, making a furrow through which excess water can run off. A rod at the end of each wing flattens the soil into a bed on the right and left.

Mr. Gutema owns an older-model Aybar BBM, purchased for 170 birr ($8 US). Newer models cost about 360 birr ($16 US), as the wings can separate from the furrow-maker.
While Mr. Gutema purchased his own, Aster Etuche and Tslhay Tedesu are among six farmers who share one Aybar BBM. These two women learned about the Aybar BBM from their farm radio program, and advised their husbands to use it on the waterlogged soils where they plant wheat.

They will broadcast the seeds and then use the Aybar BBM to push the seeds into beds. Then, when the heavy rains fall, the furrows channel excess water away from the crop.

Since they don’t use the Aybar BBM many times in a season, Mrs. Tedesu and Mrs. Etuche don’t see the need to own one, and prefer to share. But they do see the difference it makes. When their husbands plough the fields, they can see that the work is quicker and less difficult. Mrs. Etuche says, “The oxen don’t have to be as big and strong to pull the [Aybar] BBM.”

Mrs. Tedesu adds, “It doesn’t put the seed far into the soil like the former BBM did. This old BBM dragged a lot of soil and the seeds were buried way down and they failed to germinate.” Last year was the first time they used the Aybar BBM, and their harvest increased by 25%.

While the Aybar BBM is currently available only in Ethiopia, Aybar Engineering is working on making it available in other East African countries, and expanding its uses. Siyoium Mzkonin is a technician with Aybar Engineering. He says that early versions of the Aybar BBM were only meant for waterlogged vertisols, but that new versions will be useful for ploughing, harvesting potatoes and groundnuts, and creating irrigation channels.

This was part of a project to use information and communication technologies to scale-up agricultural technology in Ethiopia, which was made possible with the support of Digital Green through USAID’s New Alliance ICT Extension Challenge Fund, a component of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.