Once Invisible Apples Have a Bite of Ethiopia’s Fruit Market

Though popular throughout the world, apples were scarce inEthiopiauntil a few years ago. Introduced by Mennonite Missionaries in the small mountain town just north of Arbaminch the apple was all but wiped out during the time of the Dergue. Now thanks to concerted efforts from non profits and local organizations the Chencha apple is now seeing its consumption increase rapidly and the Chencha area is becoming a source of other fruits new to the Ethiopian market like plums and pears writes YETNEBERK TADELE FORTUNE STAFF WRITER.

Abdulrezak Akmel earns his living as a travelling fruit vendor in Merkato. He focuses on the bustling area around Anwar Mosque in the heart of the majestic open air market. He has been selling fruit for six years, and knows his products well. He had a diverse array of produce but, until recently, never apples.

Now that apples have become available for mass consumption in the local market, Abdulrezak proudly displays them in the wheelbarrow that he guides skilfully through the automotive and pedestrian traffic that litters the streets of Merkato. The sinful red and yellow fruits now sit proudly with bananas, mangoes, papayas and oranges.

“It’s amazing to be able to get apples so easily nowadays,” he says. “I never even thought that apples could grow inEthiopia.”

He is not the only one that was oblivious to the long standing apple production that has been slowly and quietly growing over the last six decades. The history of temperate fruit production inEthiopiafinds its roots in the Southern Region. The little woreda town ofChenchain the Gamo Gofa administrative zone is where it all began. It is a highland area located 37Km from Arbaminch and 520Km from Addis Abeba.

Apple production inEthiopiadates back to the time when first set foot in the region in the 1940s. It was the Mennonite missionaries who introduced the fruits (apples, pears and plums) and taught the locals how to grow them.

The Missionaries took their investment further and also established an apple orchard. The orchard was later destroyed when the Dergue military junta took power from the Imperial Government. The Dergue made it a point to expel most missionaries from the country and subsequently the practice of growing temperate fruits came to a temporary halt.

After the Dergue was overthrown in May 1991, temperate fruit production was resuscitated through the work of theKaleHiwotChurch. Today 70 different varieties of apples are grown in the Chencha area, and the town has become famous for its apple production.

KaleHiwotChurch, considered to be an effective grassroots organization, focuses its attention on poverty stricken rural communities and helps them find products compatible with their environment that they can grow maintain and sell as a source of livelihood. Although the government has attempted to introduce new ideas and techniques in the rural areas, it has had limited success Kale Hiwot Church, found throughout the country and located in the heart of poor communities has enjoyed a much greater success rate in community work. It has committed itself to the needs of the people and through its training events, has continued to educate farmers in the cultivation of fruit trees.

Apples are not the only thing that are coming out of Chencha, even though the area has the ability to grow 100 different varieties. Other temperate fruits are also being sold in the vicinity of the town as well as being transported to larger markets in Addis Abeba.

The lives and the livelihoods of the farmers in Chencha have been dramatically improved. With their learned practices of producing temperate fruits they have witnessed an economic renaissance in their area. Their products are in demand and their work has uplifted them, improving the lives of their neighbours and families.

The economic gains that temperate fruits growers are enjoying in Chencha are visible.

Sheda Shenka is a father of eight; he has been growing apples and grafting seedlings for a decade. The income that he and his neighbours like him have been earning has changed their lives. All their children now attend school, their young people are going for higher education and housing and feeding conditions have improved tremendously.

Some farmers have even begun investing in secondary economic activities like animal fattening and transportation. Even Sheda who used to live in the outskirts of Chencha has moved into the centre of town, able to build his family a 50,000 Br home. Today in Chencha, temperate fruit production is a lucrative business and it is now commonplace to find apples, pears and plums in the backyards of farmers.

Like Sheda has demonstrated, it is not just the fruit that the farmers are benefiting tremendously from. They also sell their seedlings, opening up an avenue to increase their earnings as well as participating in the reforestation of their area. That seedling project is now being administered by theKalehiwotChurch, with the support of the Netherlands Development Organization (SNV); Kale Hiwot started distributing seedlings to local farmers it began supporting in 1988.

Sheda initially started out with 18 seedlings when he first entered the sector 10 years ago. At the time he paid six Birr a seedling. It takes three years for the seedling to bear fruit, and Sheda had, for years, been using his produce for home consumption alone.

“Most people were not aware of the importance of the fruit so I could not take it to the market,” he said.

There have been concerted efforts from non-profit organizations, international donors and local parties alike to increase the production of apples in the area; though many of the efforts were for naught. Despite the favourable weather and soil conditions in Chencha, the preset natural conditions and the concerted efforts of several international agencies have had no significant impact until recently; with apple production just in this decade hitting the highest production figures since its introduction some 60 years ago.

In 2007, the SNV, which has been working inEthiopiasince the 1970s by strengthening the capacity of local organizations, got involved in the sector to increase the production through its programme for the development of horticulture value chains.

Jan Vloet, country director for SNV Ethiopia, told Fortune that the organization felt that temperate fruits were being neglected inEthiopia, a place ideal for their production, consumption and export.

“We have tried to help by to establishing individual and community nurseries to cultivate the fruit,” he explained. “We have also made sure that farmers in project areas were provided with technical training and assistance to pilot apple production on their farms.”

Since the implementation of the programme hundred of households in the area have planted apple trees, while efforts are underway on a wider, more national level to secure new markets for the product, according to vloet.

The fruits are being sold predominantly to supermarket chains, Embassies and hotels inAddis Ababawhereas the seedlings are sold to farmers and private establishments in various parts of the country. Today, the Chencha apple brand is very popular throughoutEthiopia, according to the SNV.

The organization initiated the project “Agribusiness Development in Fruits” to provide financial and capacity building support from 2012 to 2015. The project will be implemented mainly in the Gamo Gofa, Wolayta, and Sidama zones of the Southern region. The project aims to scale up tested innovations in the sub-sector particularly in fruits to Gedo and Gurage zones. SNV has entered into project agreement with the regional administration for implementation of the project.

The effects of the roll out can be seen on the ground in urban centres, most especially Addis Abeba. Apples are now available at any food retailer, whether on the streets or in a fancy supermarket.

A’esha Abdullah lived inSaudi Arabiafor eight years. While she lived in the Kingdom, she worked at a large supermarket chain. There she became familiar with apples, their varieties and quality. When she moved back to Addis Abeba nine months ago, she was thrilled to find inexpensive, fresh local apples on the market.

“The one thing I learned abroad is the importance of fresh produce,” A’esha told Fortune. “I care deeply about how my food tastes, and where it comes from. Locally grown apples are fresh from the farms and are not processes or refrigerated, I am guaranteed a clean, fresh delicate flavour every time.”

It is because of the concerted efforts of organizations such as SNV and the Norwegian Embassy inEthiopiathat the production of temperate fruits at its peak. Farmers from Chencha have flooded the local market with their products.

The Norwegian Embassy offers seminars three times a year which draw a large number of participants from all overEthiopia. They include theoretical as well as practical lessons in apple growing, cultivation and harvesting.

“The seven-week seminars have equipped participants with the technical knowledge and skill required to pursue temperate fruit production. As a result, temperate fruits, particularly apples today are found growing in many parts of the Ethiopian highlands,” elaborates the website.

In 2006 Self Help Africa brought 3,800 apple trees fromSpainand distributed them to farmers in the Oromia region ofEthiopia. More than 40 individual and community nurseries grafted the fruit, while lead farmers in project areas were provided with technical training and assistance to pilot apple production on their farms.

Private commercial farming involvement is still small in the country. According to the Ethiopian Horticulture Association, there are only two private companies involved in large scale apple production. Kifle Bulo, who once worked as a rural development and forestry expert left his job to establish Kifle Bulo Apple Seedling Producer (KBASP).

KBASP was established in 2007 with a 15,000 dollar award for an innovative project idea by the World Bank and the then Ministry of Trade and Industry (MoTI). Kifle’s winning idea was producing low-chilling apple tree seedlings for distribution to communities in Oromia region, Sululta town.

The Oromia Region topped the award to Kifle by providing 10,000sqm of land for the establishment of the nursery and a farmers’ training centre free from lease payments.

Despite its potential to grow temperate fruits, the total land area covered by fruit orchards inEthiopiais very small and mainly smallholder-based.

According to MoA, the area used for fruit cultivation in 2005 was about 43,500ha with a total annual production of about 261,000tns. Less than two percent of this figure is allotted for exports. But the country, which has the same potential as South Africa, imports about 10pc of its demand from South Africa, with the remaining coming from the United Arab Emirates, according to 2012 data from the Ministry.

Much of fruit’s poor performance has been attributed to supply and demand. Technical know-how is scarce while interested farmers have not been given access to adequate training; a requirement for the cultivation of apple plants. There has also been a lack of incentives for farmers to grow fruits unlike other agricultural policies, explained Vloet.

For example grain production has been given priority by the current administration, which, according to a senior horticulture expert at MoA, has marginalised the development of fruit production.

A study submitted in July 2009 jointly by Belgian and Ethiopian academics on the Tigray Region titled “Climate Conditions in Northern Ethiopia” analyses in great detail the adversity that apple production inEthiopiais facing.

A major problem that was identified by the study was the lack of chilling options during the dormant season. Temperate fruit trees need a certain amount of winter chilling (traditionally, temperatures less than 7 degrees Celsius) to break down internal growth inhibitors and allow for normal bloom and leaf emergence in the spring.  Tropical climates do not offer such harsh winter conditions, meaning that harvested trees do not have the opportunity to hibernate, which in turn affects the fruits that the tree yields.

Trials carried out between 2004 and 2006 in tropical mountain areas in the Tigray region, where chilling conditions are poor, were conducted with the aim of improving and synchronizing the bud breaks and blossoming period of apple trees. It was concluded that with the aid of chemicals and constant monitoring, the yields of some varieties of apple trees reached the desired size and weight, while a majority yielded fruits that were smaller than standard sizes. The final recommendations were that the farmers take a more hands on approach to the trees after receiving adequate training in the maintenance and nurturing of the plants.

“Trained manpower in the area of horticulture is extremely small,” said the horticulture expert from the Ministry.

Another major reason attributed to the low performance of the country’s apple production sector is the lack of an organized marketing strategy that would help the fruit gain popularity and expand its market base. Additionally, the shortage of appropriate and adaptive apple tree seedlings at the local levels along with the technical limitations of the farmers further cripples the industry forcing it to stay in an infantile state.

“The trends are changing and more farmers are beginning to participate in apple production,” says Kifle. “The demand for the fruit is high and more private companies should get involved.”

An average, healthy, maximum-yield apple tree produces, on average, 400Kg of fruit each season. However, if more than 200 trees are planted a square kilometre, crowding reduces the yield by one kilogramme for each tree over 200. The fruit is harvested twice a year, in March and June. An apple tree can also potentially yield fruit for up to 50 years.

Apples are now finding a new home on the local market. With a larger supply available, appreciation and purchases of the fruit are growing. Even as consumers are asking for more, demand for seedlings by growers is increasing and imports are rapidly decreasing.

Until last season KBASP had sold about 17,000 seedlings to the farmers at the cost of 60 Br each. It projects that it will sell 15,000 seedlings in the coming season.

Sheda, who started from humble means, is now the proud owner of 150 apple trees. During the last harvesting season, he sold 13,000 Br of the fruit to his cooperative. He also sold 80,000 Br of seedlings to local farmers at 32 Br each.

“I have 4,000 seedlings ready for sale for the coming rainy season,” he told Fortune.

Today, the Chencha Highland Fruits Marketing Farmers’ Cooperative, to which Sheda belongs, is a well known producer and distributer of apples and seedlings in the country.

In the year 2010, the total outreach stands at 35,000 small fruit producers; total fresh apple production in Chencha has increased from 32tns in 2007 to 135tns in 2010, according to the SNV.

Ethiopia’s import of the fruit has also dropped notably in recent years. In 2011 the country imported 376,144Kg, at a price of 520,249 dollars. Those figures were down to 151,949 dollars and 211,843 dollars in 2012.

It was beginning of 2011 that vendors like Abdulrezak began to see apples on the market. When they first became available, he was tentative about the amount he bought. He limited himself to 10Kg to make sure that they market had potential consumers for the local fruit.

“People were not aware of local apples,” he recalls. “Most people did not even think that it was a real apple and would not even test it for free.”

This year, however, the demand for the local apple fruit has grown dramatically.  Abdulrezak unlike a couple of years ago is having a hard time buying enough apples to meet the demands of his customers.

“It is so different now,” he said. “I was hard-up to buy 10Kg and sell them before they spoiled. Now I buy up to 40kg of apple at 35Br a kilo.”

Abdulrezak then sells a Kilo for 60Br a close to 100pc profit margin.

No matter what the weight he purchases, everything is piled on the trusty wheelbarrow and pushed to readily waiting customers. Most importantly, he sells his entire stock by the end of the day.

Nowadays it is commonplace to see greengrocers regularly carrying apples or local vendors sitting with a pile of the fruit in front of them. A’esha makes it a point to stop at one of them if she is ever walking through the central areas of Merkato, Piazza andMexico Square, evidence enough of the increase in local production.

“I can pick and choose or look for better bargains, but most importantly, I can get fresh fruit whenever and almost wherever I want,” says A’esha.

The government also seems to be paying attention, even if rather belatedly. The horticulture sub-sector is now addressed by an agency at the Ministry of Agriculture. The unit has grown much larger and is currently working on collecting data on apples, growers and the areas of land available for production.

“We have to get the facts and the figures in order to review the Ministry’s policy towards the sector,” said the MoA expert. “For now, are looking to lend it support by producing and distributing suitable seeds for the country’s highland areas.”

Kifle is also planning to expand his seedling farm to meet the high demand for the seedling of the tree whose fruit is currently being sold for 60 to 70Br.He is expecting to earn upwards of 280,000 Br for the upcoming season.

“Apples have changed my life,” he said.



Published on April 21, 2013 [ Vol 13 ,No 677]



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