The transformation of farming communities in Sodere is clear for all to see. An area that has long struggled to provide an environment even capable of subsistence farming has now become a green land of sugar-coated hope. There is, however, a flipside to the story, with some local farmers suggesting that they feel little sense of ownership over their land, nor the crops they grow upon it. There are also concerns from many that expensive inputs and infrastructure development will remove a huge chunk from their expected returns. With harvesting only every two years, some are riddled with anxiety that their efforts will be in vain and even land them in debt. There are, however, those who claim their lives have been transformed and project officials claim that community development, not profit making, is at the heart of the initiative, reports MIKIAS MERHATSIDK, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER.

Descending down the Awash Valley, near Mount Sodere, lays a vast plain of land. It stretches out across both sides of the tarmac road that ends up at the gates of the Sodere Resort – a weekend hangout for urbanites. Up until recently, this was a landscape reminiscent of the destitution of its occupants, to a biblical proportion. Depending heavily on a sparse annual rainfall, the farming community lived for generations growing teff, sorghum, wheat and corn, just enough for the subsistence of family members.

A businessman from Adama, who has been driving to and from Sodere for almost the past two decades, recalls a place of deprivation, with a sun-scorched terrain sparsely populated by a small farming community.

That has all changed now.

The landscape has transformed beyond recognition, covered with green as far as the eye can see. The scene invokes optimism and promise, suggesting that a community of helpless farmers ought to be pleased. After all, the Wonji Sugar Estate has brought to their doorstep water for irrigation through canals; persuaded them to grow only sugarcane on its behalf and supplied crucial inputs, such as seeds, pesticides and fertilisers. Not only does the company provide them with a market for their produce, it also offers them jobs on their own fields in the meantime, until harvest season comes in a two-year cycle.

That is, however, only the half of the story evident to casual observers.

A closer look reveals a community of close to 400 farmers, in the Hulaga Weleka Kebele, with deep misgivings over the awe-inspiring sight on their doorsteps. Some feel a sense of disenfranchisement from their property, which has been the target of little more than a “land grab” by those in the corporate world – all in the name of national development. The voices shared between one another tell a story of coercion in obtaining close to 100hct of land for the expansion of the sugar estate, where individual consent was an absent luxury. These farmers continue to harbor resentment to their loss, while claiming to be daily labourers on their own farmland.

A powerful sense of loss is felt by the family of Togor Beriso, 72, a father of seven who had been toiling on a two-hectare plot of farmland, located just a few metres off the road to Sodere, for 22 years.

Togor is one of the few farmers in the Ulalga Weleka Kebele of Adama Woreda – in the East Shoa Zone of Oromia Regional State – who has as much as a couple of hectares of land; many have one or two Qerch – a local measurement, equal to a quarter of a hectare. Despite the absence of unanimous consent over their plots, almost all of them have now entered into deals to exclusively grow sugarcane.

The government has spent a huge sum of money building this infrastructure, according to Atakilti Tesfay, general manager of the sugar factory.

“It’s not to grow tomato or onion,” he told Fortune.

Grow they have for the last two years, living with a combination of hope and anxiety. But they are not alone in this. Togor, and nearly all of the farmers in the Awash Valley, are members of one of 18 sugarcane producing cooperative unions, all under the umbrella of the Wonji Area Sugarcane Producers’ Cooperatives Union, established in 2001.

The Factory – first established in the early 1950s, in a joint venture with HVA, a Dutch company – has been undertaking major expansion works in order to increase its production, with an investment of around 70 million dollars.

Part of this expansion, commissioned to an Indian company, involves the creation of a canal, diverting water from the Awash River – penetrating the Sodere Palace, to cross the asphalt road to the resort hotel, watering the vast land as far as Wolenchiti town. Farmers located near to where the canal passes are compelled to abandon growing cereals in favour of sugarcane, although a few, such as Mitiku Gedam, 31, find a way to supplement their income by growing vegetables in their backyard.

To date, the Wonji Union has over 3,000 members, with a total landmass of 7,000hct available for sugarcane cultivation.

The first ever harvest for farmers like Togor is yet to come, though it is expected in April or May, depending on how soon the sugarcane is ready for collection. They have waited for two years, earning 300 Br a month for a quarter of a hectare in the meantime, and working their respective plots in exchange for a daily wage of 30 Br. Their monthly pay is based on their past farming revenue, the size of their plots and their current cost of living, according to Atakiliti.

On the days there is no such labour work required, they patrol the estate in shifts to protect it from theft and damage.

On Thursday, March 20, Korbu Bedi, a father of four, was doing just that, half way through his 12-hour duty, idly watching over a 40-foot container in the middle of the sugarcane farm where pesticides and fertiliser are stored. He has half a hectare of land for which the Factory pays him 600 Br a month in compensation, and an additional 70 Br for watching over the container and farm twice a month. He also earns a little more money from his labour service, weeding the farm and moving the sprinklers three times a day, earlier during plantation and again once when the sugarcane is ready for harvest.

Korbu finds it impossible to support a family of six with such a meagre income and thus works as a daily labourer at nearby projects too. He is no different from the other farmers in the area, waiting apprehensively for what the result of a promise made by factory bosses two years ago would be.

“We’ve yet to see the result,” said Togor, sitting in the front yard of his thatched roof house, where his wife, Dera Degaga, is preparing an afternoon coffee. “We’re told a hectare could have 2000 quintals of sugarcane worth 32,000 Br.”

Nearby, in his compound, stands a traditionally made silo, empty inside, reminding him of his time farming cereals and grains – now a rare sight in the community. Once herding close to 50 cattle, he has now only three, which were out grazing up on the hill, according to his second oldest son, Edawo Togor, 24, a second year accounting student at Harambie University College, in Adama (Nazareth) town, 22Km north of his village.

On the two hectares of land inherited to his two eldest sons, his family may have produced sugarcane worth 64,000 Br. What comes to the family’s pocket may be nowhere near that amount, however. He and many in the community fear that the costs the Factory incurs in paying them for the 24-month period, as well as for the supply of inputs, will substantially deplete the revenue cooperative leaders have agreed with the Factory to split in half.

There is also an additional percentage that the cooperatives would take in collective savings and for the financing  of future community work.

Kebede Biru, another farmer who has two children, is one of many who fears that they may end up in debt, if their small plots do not produce as much as they have been paid for.

“We feel like we live on credit to be paid from our future income,” Kebede told Fortune.

The feeling of misgiving does, however, run much deeper. A Factory came to their farmland to order them to grow what it wants, but forbids them to use the water provided to their doorsteps for any other purpose than sprinkling the sugarcane. They still have to go to the nearby river to fetch water. Their children wouldn’t dare to feast on the sugarcane either, for a father of a child caught doing that would be subjected to a 100 Br fine, for one piece of stalk. Nor would any farmer dare to refuse to work on the farm, threatened with the potential loss of the plots they have.

“The farmers have an obligation to produce sugarcane and deliver it to the factory,” said Atakalti. “What can we do if somebody says he wants out after all of these investments?”

It is leaders of the Wonji Union who negotiate and sign deals with the Factory, every three years, on behalf of the cooperative members. With some of the cooperatives, such as the one in Dera Kebele, having started much earlier, the ninth agreement was made recently, with expectations that payments will be made at the beginning of April.

“The Cooperative strives to enhance productivity, minimise costs and facilitate markets,” said Teshome Abera, deputy manager of the wonji area Sugarcane Producers Cooperative Union.

This is a Union whose leaders claim to have a capital of close to 16 million Br, while its liquid assets are estimated to have reached three million Birr. The Union plans to build an ethanol processing facility in cooperation with the Factory and export 800 cattle this fiscal year, according to Teshome.

The cattle is planned to be collected from members of the cooperatives, such as Mitiku, who currently herds two oxen and three cows. He is pleased with the project, especially because his land is located in a kebele not known for its fertility.

“It is neither fertile nor wet enough to produce other cereals,” Mitiku told Fortune on Wednesday last week, while busy talking to other farmers inside the office of the cooperative where he is a member.

The Cooperative, whose establishment came after the construction of the irrigation canal in 2012, has 403 members, cultivating a total area of 230ha. Its members work in groups, but their production is measured based on the size of plot each owns.

Mitiku, for instance, has one hectare, from which around 2,300 quintals of sugarcane is harvested in one cycle. He also grows vegetables, such as tomatoes and onions, leasing a plot from farmers whose land was not included in the project, as they are located up on the hills. He does so to support his family and raise additional income. After receiving his last payment from the Factory this time last year, he has built a house with a roof made from corrugated sheets. Now he plans to buy more cattle and send his children to better schools in Adama.

“Our lives have changed for the better after we started the sugarcane production,” Mitiku told Fortune.

His is a story officials at the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation (ESC) say proves what the project is intended to do, in helping to assist both the national ambition and the local farmers.

“As a governmental development project, the main focus is on helping the community,” said Zemedkun Tekle, public relations head of the Corporation under the directorship of Shiferaw Jarso, a senior leader of the OPDO, a party governing the regional state. “The motive of this type of public project is not profit making.”

His Corporation has a grand vision of boosting national production to 2.25 million tonnes of sugar and 1.8 million metre cube of ethanol a year. It also plans to spread the six high yield cane varieties developed through research, in a bid to enhance productivity from 145 to 155 tonnes a hectare. Hoping to create job opportunities for more than 200,000 citizens at the end of 2015, the Corporation wants to realise the national ambition of exporting 1.2 million tonnes of sugar annually.

Developing the production capacity from the current 300,000tns a year is where its managers have dedicated much of their time. They project an increase in Ethiopia’s per capita consumption from six kilograms in 2009 to 11Kg in 2015. This is not only with the desire to close the gap of 200,000tns in demand, but also to make the country a net exporter of sugar.

While there are 10 sugar mills and estates under development, such as the one in Tendaho, Afar Regional State, enhancing the capacities of existing factories was made a priority. Wonji and Fincha are two of the three existing plants where the Corporation has been investing part of the 640 million dollars obtained in a loan from India.

The oldest of all, with an annual production capacity of 75,000tns, Wonji’s expansion was carried out 17km from the oldest mill, by the Indian UTTAM Sucrotech. The Factory is set to have the ability to produce 7,000 quintals of sugar a day, crushing 6,250tns of sugarcane cultivated not only on its own 20,000ha estate, but also by using the small hold farmlands of the thousands of farmers within a 100km radius.

Corporation officials defend the process by which these plots are made available to the Factory as “democratic and based on negotiations and discussions.” Atakilti says there was “continues consultation with the farmers, where every level of local administration was involved”.

“The process has been fully participatory,” Zemedkun agrees.

Neither would the farmers deny the existence of a consultative process before the decision was made to change what they grew on their respective plots. They contend, however, their lack of understanding in what was in store for them and blame their cooperative leaders for coercing with the interests of the estate.

Yet, these are farmers from the expansion project that have not yet started cultivation, due to delays in project implementation, according to Atakilti.

“This may explain their frustration,” he told Fortune. “There may be grievances here and there. It is natural in a project of this scale.”

Indeed, walking through the labyrinth of sugarcane, hardly any of the farmers in the Ulaga Welkawa Kebele feel that what is unfolding before their eyes belongs to them. Rather, it has become a project that has transformed an entire community from producers of what they consume to net consumers; from grains to merchandise sold in the market two kilometres from where they live. Makeshift kiosks are now sprouting up in the midst of the community, carrying items from yeast to edible oil, and soaps and tissue paper to hair oil, demonstrating the change in lifestyle.

One such kiosk, found by the main road, is run by Edawo, who sells a kilo of sugar, the very product that led to the loss of their plots, for 21 Br. How much of this goes back to their pockets is something none are prepared to tell for now.

Nonetheless, they will continue to cultivate sugarcane on their plots for the next two cycles, until the Factory allows them to rehabilitate their plots, growing grains in the fifth year. Even then, they will not be at liberty to pick their choice of grain, but will rather be forced to grow negro-beans, which agronomists believe will help to rejuvenate the land for another cycle of sugarcane plantations.


Published on March 23,2014 [ Vol 14 ,No 725]



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