John Klassen | December 23, 2018
Ethiopia is a country with an extremely diverse landscape, ranging from beautiful mountain regions to vast plains. Though its economy has been touted by the World Bank as one of the fastest-growing on the planet, the country faces struggles on virtually every front. It faces the same food security question as many of its neighbours: how to feed a rapidly growing population in a changing climate alongside infestations of new pests, too little or too much water, and depleted soil.
Farmers are facing the reality that their land is producing lower yields than in previous years—and decades. They are farming the way their ancestors did but not getting the same results.
The concept of allowing land to lie fallow to replenish the soil is well-known, but in the Horn of Africa, it simply isn’t feasible. The average farm is so small that farmers couldn’t possibly afford to take a portion out of production even for one season. Ironically, this continuous working of the soil is the primary reason their crop production is falling. Soil erosion is degrading their already small plots and the cost of fertilizer is going up. For many, the only answer seemed to be expensive herbicides, pesticides, irrigation, and more back-breaking manual labour.
In this somewhat bleak context, Canadian Foodgrains Bank launched a project in Ethiopia on conservation agriculture, working with Farm Radio International and Terepeza Development Association. Farm Radio International is working with three radio stations in the southern region of Ethiopia to encourage farmers to practice conservation agriculture. The radio programs air interviews with specialists and farmers about conservation agriculture practices, giving farmers the information they need to test the practices in their own fields.
In many communities, farmers listen to the episodes together in community listening groups. In Chifisa, about a dozen farmers come together weekly to listen and discuss what they hear.
Matefie Meja is a single mother of three who farms a half-hectare of land in Chifisa. She can’t afford oxen to plow her field so she must weed it herself. This is time-consuming, which makes it difficult for her to complete both her farm work and her other chores. But when she heard about conservation agriculture, she realized it was a different way of farming that puts less strain on her.
Conservation agriculture is a farming approach that emphasizes protecting the soil and the environment in general for increased productivity. The three main principles of conservation agriculture are minimal soil disturbance (low-till or no-till), permanent soil cover, and crop rotation or intercropping. Combining these three principles along with other good agronomic practices can replenish depleted soils and increase production. For Ms. Meja, conservation agriculture means no plowing.
Ms. Meja intercropped pumpkins and maize, and spread compost on her field to keep moisture from evaporating. Her plants grew tall and productive.
The radio program shared information that motivated her to try these new practices with support from Terepeza Development Association. In addition, the radio program and the community listening group had a second important impact on her and other women in her community.
Ms. Meja explains: “Because of the listening group, the single women farmers in our village felt, for the first time, equal to men farmers. We were involved in the discussion about improving our farms and we felt listened to. This group brought a unity to our village and even love. There is a friendly rivalry among the farmers now—each trying to produce the best results!”
John Klassen is a volunteer with Farm Radio International through CUSO International.
Scaling-Up Conservation Agriculture in East Africa is a five-year program (2015-2020) of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank with funding from Global Affairs Canada to train 50,000 farmers and strengthen civil society and policy support for conservation agriculture in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. In Ethiopia, the program is implemented by Mennonite Central Committee and World Relief Canada with three local partners: Terepeza Development Association, Migbaresenay Children and Family Support Organization, and FH Ethiopia. Program sites are located in East Gojjam (Amhara), Wolaita (SNNPR), and Assosa (Beishangul-Gumuz) respectively. The program’s objectives align with Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resource’s Climate Smart Agriculture Strategy.
Canadian Foodgrains Bank is a partnership of 15 Canadian churches and church-based agencies working to end global hunger through food assistance, nutrition, and sustainable food security programming. This program is being implemented by three Canadian Foodgrains Bank members: Mennonite Central Committee Canada, Tearfund, and World Renew.