Ethiopia: Farmers tend sorghum with care to improve their livelihoods

| December 18, 2017

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Sorghum is the dominant crop in most of the Wollo Zones in central Ethiopia, and plays a major role in the livelihoods of local communities. In fact, this area is known as the sorghum belt and has conditions that are ideal for maximizing sorghum yields.

Mohammed Ali lives in Terefo village in Kalu District. He has six children—four sons and two daughters. Since his childhood, sorghum has been the major crop—in fact, since the time of his forefathers.

He says that, to grow sorghum, the first step is clearing the land to prepare it for planting. He removes all crop residues, and then he starts the first round of ploughing. He says: “Ploughing is the most important stage of sorghum production. If I don’t plough on time, I will miss the best time for sowing the seed. This is done regardless of the availability of rain.”

The first ploughing also removes all sorghum roots from the field. Experts say that removing the roots helps farmers decrease the number of stalk borers. He also uses chemicals against stalk borers.

Mr. Ali and other local farmers prefer to plant Tengelay, an early-maturing sorghum variety that is more productive than traditional seeds. It also grows faster. “The shortage of rainfall can cause a lack of moisture in the soil. Our area gets less rain than other districts in this region. We plant early-maturing varieties of sorghum so we can harvest the crop before the dry period later in the season.”

He also stores rainwater by building tied ridges around the perimeter of the farm. Then, when the rain comes, he directs the water into these tied ridges to store it. If there is a lack of rain, he opens the tied ridges and directs the water through the furrows. This helps to maintain soil moisture until harvest time.

For years, farmers in his village grew sorghum traditionally. Production was low and many couldn’t even cover their children’s essential needs. He says: “We got 500 or 600 kilograms from a quarter-hectare. After experts advised us to use tied ridges, row planting, fertilizers, and other practices, we doubled or tripled our production.”

Sendel Ahmed is a mother of four and also farms in Terefo village. To prevent stalk borers from damaging her sorghum, she usually uproots and exposes the previous season’s sorghum stalks to sunlight so the stalk borers die. After harvest, she thoroughly removes the stalks from the farm, including the roots of other plants that harbour stalk borers.

Mrs. Ahmed has another method of managing stalk borers. She collects urine from her cattle and keeps it in a container for two weeks. Then she sprays it at the early stages of plant growth. This is a traditional and no-cost way of preventing stalk borers from causing much damage.

She adds: “We don’t have [a] problem with productivity. We get good production because we provide organic fertilizer to the crop. We can sell the crop for a good price: 600 birr [US$22] for 100 kilograms. Now I have a stable income, and I can store my sorghum so that I don’t need to sell it during the cheap season immediately after harvest.”

Getachew Weldearegai is a crop production expert in Kalu District. He says that experts have been training farmers for years to plant seeds in rows: “We tell farmers to leave a 75-centimetre gap between rows and 20 cm between plants in a row. Most of the farmers use this spacing. This makes it easier to manage moisture, weeds, and to prevent stalk borers.”

Mr. Weldearegai says that creating a trench at the top of the farm helps contain rainwater during the rainy season, when water can wash away fertile soil. Storing the water in the trench raises the water table in the soil, which helps to retain moisture. He also advises farmers to create tied ridges every two or three metres in each row so the water can flow through the rows and every plant gets moisture.

This story was created with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the Staples project in Ethiopia.

Photo: Sendel Ahmed in her field