Contrary to popular belief, the share of the arable portion to the entire land mass of Ethiopia is less than modest, at least according to data by the World Bank. Suggesting that only 15.12pc of the land was arable in 2014, the online economic indicator Trading Economics agrees with the estimate. Agricultural land, for its part, covers more than a third of the country’s entire geography.
But it does not mean all of that can be used to produce staple grains, which require replanting annually. Instead, it includes arable areas, permanent croplands and pastures, which could be grass and shrubs, according to the definition of the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN).
Although lack of extensive arable lands does not necessarily mean reduced productivity, the deficiency becomes especially evident in times of drought, flooding or other natural and man-made disasters. The Central Statistical Agency (CSA) can very well testify to this.
Recently, the Agency released the headline inflation rate of Ethiopia for August 2017. At 10.4pc, it ought to have been particularly painful for the Administration of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to admit. For 22 months, year-on-year inflation index has been, though high, in the single digits. A relatively impressive achievement for a country where demand far outperforms supply, if trade deficits are anything to go by.
Despite the high hopes of both the first and second editions of the Growth & Transformation Plan to keep inflation in the single digit, the latest numbers signified that the economy is not healthy, nor heading in that direction. A primary reason for this was sharp increases in the price of food items, comprising no less than 60pc of household consumption.
Headline inflation rose mainly due to an increase in the price of cereals, according to the Agency. The prices for food items has inflated by close to 13pc, compared to the same month last year. Price of grains was the main culprit, with maize and teff taking the lead.
Although contradicted by the Statistics Agency, sample surveys which show that total production of cereals has increased (and do not account for the increase in the price of food items), the financial information service, BMI Research, predicted inflation would pick up because of a fall in crop productivity. For the rise, BMI singled out poor rainfall as the main problem.
There are similarities here when inflation reared its unpleasant head high last time; it was during the period where El Nino-induced drought hit most Eastern African countries a year ago. The drought had shown signs of abating but below average rain in the southern parts of Ethiopia exasperated the situation. In its aftermath, it left over eight million people currently in need of emergency food assistance, while the rest of the country has to make do with high food prices.
Thankfully, its population was not left to its own fate. While aid kept flowing in, the administration resorted to combating food insecurity importing some of the most important staple crops into the country. Take for instance the imports of wheat, of which 1.5 million tonnes had entered the country just last year. It was not enough to meet the required food stock though; an official ban was imposed on exports of crops like sorghum and maize.
It is hard for the administration to claim it is not caught off guard with the drought last year and the low rainfall afterwards, although neither of these is rare in Ethiopia. A country of mostly subsistence farmers, largely reliant on traditional tools for farming and irrigation, the ancient East African nation is just as noted for the early 1980s famine as it is renowned for its stealthy track-and-field athletes.
If more developed economies are measured by their ability to provide jobs for their citizens, the state in a country like that of Ethiopia is quantified by its capacity to ensure the populace has three meals a day. For the current regime, its single feature of success has not been ensuring good governance or the creation of credible institutions but an expanded economy. All it could claim – rather undisputedly – is that it has fed more people than all the previous regimes. Thus begins the game to walk a tightrope between appearing healthy without actually being so.
It only takes little in the form of imagination to foresee the consequences on a country with dysfunctional politics, if it also faces a lingering stagnation of its economy. The signs are worrisome, to say the least; and, nowhere is this more evident that the economy is starved of foreign currency.
The Administration appears to be mindful of this fact, judging by its desperate moves to beef-up the national coffer. Ethiopia exported half a billion Birr worth of maize to Kenya in June 2016, although no less than 7.8 million people were in need of emergency food assistance during the same period. Contradicting the World Food Program (WFP) and United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the Ministry of Trade (MoT) lifted the ban on export of crops such as maize and sorghum, claiming that there was enough food reserve in the country.
Such moves could only expose the knee-jerk response by the Administration, which at times make little sense. Ironically, such approaches are expected to continue as there are no indications that the problem with crop productivity – at least not to the volume claimed by cadres at wereda level – will abate in the future.
In the coming Meher season, when farmers will start harvesting, Ethiopia will soon feel the assault on over a 100,000ha of maize field by the Fall Armyworm – a type of moth which feeds on grasses and grain. The areas affected, which compound for almost 10pc of the entire land cultivated with maize, are located in six regional states, including the two most populated, Oromia and Amhara regions.
The long-term outlook is even bleaker.
Ethiopia’s population stands at around 94 million and is growing by well over two percent annually, according to the CSA. It is at least two million more people the country would have to feed every year. Demand, which is already unmet, will continue to grow in the foreseeable future, and not under environmentally favourable circumstances. Climate change, recurrent droughts and flooding are expected to affect crop productivity in different parts of the country severely. As the UN body, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has warned, the African continent will warm up 1.5 times faster than the global average.
The circumstances point that focus needs to be realigned and active – not reactive – reforms in the agriculture sector need to be taken to offset the shocks from artificial and environmental factors. The Administration’s emphasis on the use of fertilisers and irrigation methods, although commendable, is by no means a sufficient way to curb the threat of a future loss in crop productivity.
The solution can lie with science. Researching plant breeding can help identify which soil types work better with what kinds of crops. For instance, although climate change would make growing cereals in Africa harder, the UN body has pointed out that highland areas could find it easier to grow maize than the lowlands.
To its credit, the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), under the stewardship of KalidBomba, has done a remarkable job in mapping Ethiopia’s soil micronutrients. What remains is to take the findings to the farms for optimum results in the same way the Agency accomplished in its introduction of broad or line sowing. It was no small feat to the Agency, which took many farmers away from broad casting, a method of planting by scattering of seeds by hand all over the farmland, and practices that endured thousands of years of farming in Ethiopia.
Largest scale adaptation of genetically modified (GM) crops would be yet another adequate prescription. GMs help to increase yield by almost 22pc, according to a research by German agriculture experts. Indeed, there are understandable concerns over the widespread use of GMs which destroys biodiversity. This too can be addressed with the use of more scientific methods such as making second-generation GMs sterile or dependent on chemicals for fertility, as Science in the News (SITN) at Harvard University has found out.
The gateway to improving crop productivity, though, lies mainly with government policies. There is little farmers can do if market access, infrastructure and incentives remain suboptimal. Commercial farmers will go wherever the wind takes them, as has been witnessed with the conversion to non-food crops over the past years.
The share of farmland dedicated to growing khat and coffee has increased as the produces are more profitable. Although regulating the market is not advisable, incentives in the form of provision of finance and land allocations could give food crops the competitive edge. Yet, recent events have demonstrated that even doing so in the absence of competent oversight is as much a challenge as it can be with inaction.
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