Ethiopia: Farmers struggle to deal with wheat disease

| January 11, 2016

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Girma Assefa is a farmer in his 50s, and a father of five. He lives in Laga-Bulo Laga-Beri village, about 40 kilometres from Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa. His family relies completely on agriculture, growing wheat, teff, and barley on a half-hectare of land. He also sells milk, and sometimes sells livestock. If the harvest is good, he has no problem marketing his products. Mr. Assefa’s income has enabled him to send his children to school. But he has a problem.

Mr. Assefa walks to his wheat field and sits in the shade of a big tree to talk about his problem. He says: “Our main challenge is rust. [Y]ellow rust is … affecting our crops even if we spray chemicals against it.”He says there have been outbreaks of rust for the past five years.

Wheat is a major crop in Ethiopia, planted on more than one-and-a-half million hectares of land. The crop grows mainly in the Ethiopian highlands and is mostly planted by small-scale farmers. More than half is eaten in the home, and smaller portions are sold, or used for seed, animal feed, and other purposes. Wheat is very important in the home. It is used to make bread, porridge, kollo (roasted wheat), nifro (boiled wheat), and the popular traditional beer, tella.

Ato Mendaye Megersa is a local agronomist. He agrees that rust is the main challenge to growing wheat. He says: “The only remedy is to use chemicals. The other option … is to encourage farmers to use improved seeds … [But] the disease [also] affects improved seeds …. That is why we stress that the ultimate solution is to use chemicals.”

Yeshi Bejiga is a mother of two from the village of Laga Belo. She farms a half-hectare of land, part of which she inherited from her parents. She has a side business making and selling traditional foods and drinks. She talks about fighting rust: “We know that the disease has occurred when we see different colours on the crop. It changes to yellow … But if we spray chemicals early, it will solve the problem.”

Legesse Bejiga is a local farmer who has been making a living from farming for 30 years. He has a slightly different perspective on rust. He says there is no shortage of chemicals, but there are problems using them. He explains: “We have not had clear training. There are many kinds of weed killers. For example, after using weed killer for my teff crop, I added another chemical for another crop without cleaning the container, and the crop was damaged. I did not know that I had to clean the sprayer after using it …”

Ato Letta Ejegu is an agricultural scientist who works in the area. She says that rust started to be a major problem when climate change hit the area. She says: “Rust occurred in 2003 following a rise in temperature related to climate change. We explain to the farmers how to use the chemical and how much to use in order to stop the spread of rust. [But] what is making the disease worse is that they are not doing proper follow-up on their crops. If you do not deal with rust immediately, it spreads fast.”

Diribe Hordofa is a local farmer who uses improved seeds, which have helped her double her harvest. But her wheat crop also suffers from rust. She agrees with Mr. Ejegu about the need for monitoring and timely spraying. She says: “There are farmers who have not understood how to use the chemical. The chemical has to be sprayed as soon as the disease occurs. During the spraying, we have to use the quantity that the experts have told us.”