The new face of agriculture in arid Ethiopia?

Farmers in the employ of Debebe Belachew sort an onion harvest for market in the Arsi zone of the Oromia region in Ethiopia. Former Ethiopian pastoralists are embracing irrigation and making good money, but the shift has sparked a debate. ANDUALEM SISAY | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

On a sunny afternoon in Huruta Dore town some 200 kilometres south-east of the capital Addis Ababa young riders on their motorbikes noisily kick up some dust. They are the emerging generation of well-to-do farmers of Ethiopia who are reaping from using irrigation.

Found in Arsi zone of the Oromia region of the country, this semi-desert town has been known as a drought area, with the inhabitants used to relying on wheat aid. Today, its over 500 hectares of land is teeming with a rich cover of various crops and vegetables.

Due to the regional government diverting the Awash River to pass through the town five years ago, it is no longer desert.

"In those days it was difficult for our parents to be engaged in farming as they would only get rain once in three or four years," says Bedada Tufa, who now harvests half a million birr (about $27,000) worth of produce every year from his two-hectare tract of land using irrigation.

"They spent more of a pastoralist-type life seeking water for their cattle. Today thanks to this government which diverted this river to pass through our village, we have been producing crops and vegetables three seasons in a year for the past five years,” says 38-year-old Bedada and who has six children.

A few hundred meters away from Bedada’s farm, some eighty farmers are busy collecting onions from a 25 hectare piece of land. Most of them came from the central part of the country known as Amhara region. They are working for Debebe Belachew, who himself came here five years ago to work for another farmer when the news of the Awash River diversion spread.

Profit-sharing basis

They work with the owners of the farm like Debebe on a profit-sharing basis after all costs are deducted including land rent. During a good harvest one employee earns up to 60,000 birr per year ($320) from three seasons of harvest.

"I am building a house in Adama (Nazreth) city and investing over 2 and half million birr ($132,000)," says Debebe, a father of two kids.

"In my account I have over two million birr ($105,000) and my plan is to expand the farm and recruit more people," he says.

About 1,200 farmers have formed five associations to use the water for irrigation. Buying from the government, their associations provide them with fertiliser (UREA and DAP type) for 650 birr ($34) and 775 birr ($41) per quintal measurement, respectively. For a quarter of a hectare, they use one quintal of UREA and 50 kilogrammes of DAP, according to Debebe.

In addition they buy pesticides and seeds such as the onion variety of Israel, which they call, 'faro' or 'bombe' from city shops," says Debebe.

Debebe Belachew now produces onions on 25 hectares of land and has employed 80 farmers. ANDUALEM SISAY

It all began when the Oromia regional state spent over 100 million birr (over $5 million) and diverted the river five years ago. Awash River used to cause flooding often before it vanished into the Afar desert area of Ethiopia.

The Fentale irrigation project is projected to irrigate 18,000 ha and is currently supplying irrigation water for 4,000 ha. This is part of the federal government’s water policy and it plans to convert pastoralists to agro-pastoralism by allowing them easy access to water while providing basic infrastructure and services such as health and education, among others.

Run into criticism

But this plan has run into criticism especially from non-governmental organisations that promote a pastoralist life style and researchers on the issue.

The critics say that the frequent use of pesticides and chemicals for farming on the same land will have a negative impact on the environment and adaptability to climate change.

“Based on our study in the Afar region, we have quite strong indications that converting pastoralists to agro-pastoralism may actually reduce their ability to adapt to climate change,” says Andrei Florin Marin, a Romanian researcher who authored a paper titled ‘Climate change adaptation lessons from Ethiopia’.

Pro-pastoralism scholars argue that mobility is the best method that pastoralists have used for centuries to properly manage natural resources and adapt to multiple social and ecological changes.

Continuous farming of the same plot often with the same crops and using agrochemicals is devastating to the environment, they argue.

"This is mainly because such a change seems to reduce their most important adaptation strategy which is their mobility. I think there is some evidence that irrigated agriculture cultivating similar commercial crops has negative effects on the environment by salinisation of the soils,” Andrei says.

"Such type of agriculture is also energy and input intensive - much fertiliser, pesticides are required – as such they have several negative impacts on the environment which reduce the potential positive effect of producing biofuels."

Innovative approaches

They suggest that instead of converting them to agro-pastoralists, governments can benefit more from pastoralists’ centuries-old knowledge of taking care of their animal resources. In countries like Ethiopia, which is leading in Africa and the tenth in the world for its livestock population, it is better for governments to support the old way of pastoralist life style.

Experts advise governments to consider innovative approaches to sustain the old pastoralism livelihood by considering the use of mobile clinics and education if they need to benefit more from their cattle resources.

On the contrary some scholars have a different view on agro-pastoralism. "In my opinion agro-pastoralism is a sub-set of pastoralism," says Tezara Getahun, the director of Pastoralist Forum Ethiopia.

"It is not evolution and linear kind of social development as many people think. Pastoralists have been practicing agro-pastoralism as part of diversification and adaptation for centuries. The questions should be are they doing it voluntarily?” posed Mr Tezera.

As the debate rages, entrepreneurs like Bedada and Debebe continue reaping from the opportunities created while inspiring their fellow citizens.

"Thank God and this government, the frequency of the rain in this area is increasing. It is becoming moderate and cooler. People are no longer moving from one place to another following their cattle," says Bedada.

"And we are not wheat aid recipient anymore. We are building houses to settle as you can see,” he says, pointing his finger to the house his friend is constructing to later rent out to farmers coming mainly from Amhara region of Ethiopia hoping to succeed like Debebe.

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