Nelly Bassily | January 16, 2012
Fields of red sorghum stretching into the distance are a common sight in the scenic mountains of eastern Ethiopia. Farmers tie five or more tall sorghum stalks together so they support one another, and the red seeds at the top of the plant grow heavier as the plants ripen. But while sorghum is everywhere, apple orchards are new to this landscape, in the region around Dire Dawa, 350 kilometres northeast of the capital, Addis Ababa.
Dadi Yadete is a 72-year-old farmer from the village of Thefebanti. Three years ago, he took a gamble and began to grow apples, a fruit he was unfamiliar with. Hesitant and doubtful at first, he planted only 12 trees. But his experiment paid off. Apples thrive in the temperate climate of Ethiopia’s highlands.
Mr. Yadete, who has two wives and nine children, now has 70 flourishing apple trees on his half-hectare plot, plus a large avocado tree. He also grows barley, a few coffee bushes, sweet potato, green pepper and bright red hot chillies.
“Life was very difficult when I was trying to grow maize and barley,” says Mr. Yadete. “I was producing nothing and I was receiving food aid. Now I don’t need food aid.” He receives about $600 US dollars a year from the sale of his apples, and he owns four cows and two oxen. This makes him a relatively wealthy man.
Others in the village, which has about 200 households, are also prospering by selling apples and growing seedlings. A few steps away from Mr. Yadete’s plot, women nursery workers fill pots with soil and compost. A regular market and proximity to the main road give the village an advantage over remote villages higher in the mountains.
Mr. Yadete and his fellow villagers are the beneficiaries of Meret (from the Amharic word for “land”), a joint venture between the UN’s World Food Programme, called WFP, and the Ethiopian government. Meret originated as a response to the food crises of the 1970s and targets chronically food insecure communities. The WFP provides food to each participant – three kilograms of cereals every work day.
Population pressure has led to overfarming in Ethiopia’s highlands. Trees have been cut down, allowing water to flow downhill instead of being retained in the soil. In parts of the region, the terraces look bone dry and the sorghum stunted. Meret provides technical advice to farmers on reforesting barren hillsides and building or refurbishing terraces.
Meret staff talk to farmers, discussing their problems and helping them determine the steps they need to take. With Meret’s help, Mr. Yadete and his fellow farmers agreed to stop farming or grazing on the top of the mountain above their village for two years. They planted trees, built or repaired terraces, and dotted the slopes with mini water barriers made from stone and earth. These help to retain water and heal the land.
Ethiopia is devoting 17% of its national budget to farming, well above the 10% commitment agreed to by African governments. The country’s ambitious growth and transformation plan calls for more than doubling the production of key crops to nearly 40 million tonnes by 2015.
Despite Ethiopia’s dependence on rainwater, agricultural experts see no reason why the country cannot be Africa’s breadbasket. “As long as you can control the water, you can grow whatever you want,” says a private investor who is leasing land for dairy cows.
While government officials and other experts grapple with policy issues in Addis, Mr. Yadete is doing his bit for Ethiopian agriculture by growing his apples. Despite successfully growing a fruit he had never tasted until three years ago, he and his wife hardly eat their apples, which he describes as tasting like bananas. “I don’t eat the apples,” he says. “Whenever I see them, I see money.”