Friday, February 13, 2015

Farming may be key to Ethiopia’s industrial goals - The Western Producer

Agency tasked with increasing productivity and efficiency in a sector that employs 85 percent of the country’s workforce

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (Reuters) — Ethiopia’s ambition to become a manufacturing hub may hinge on Khalid Bomba’s ability to transform small-scale farming just as much as it relies on new railways and roads.

The 46-year-old one-time investment banker is chief executive officer of Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency. His task is to increase production from a sector that employs 85 percent of the country’s workforce, most of them tilling plots of less than five acres.

“The cheap labour for industrial manufacturing is going to come from the rural areas,” he said.

“You are not going to have people coming off the farm if productivity levels don’t increase.”

Ethiopia boasts some of the highest economic growth in Africa, at eight percent or more a year. Much of it is fuelled by a huge state infrastructure program, which includes a new railway to Djibouti’s port, a city metro in the capital and vast hydro-electric dams, all aimed at attracting industrial investment.

However, agriculture still accounts for more than 42 percent of gross domestic product, high even in Africa. 

The level is about 30 percent in next-door Kenya, yet Ethiopia still has to import basic foods to feed its population of 96 million.

The challenge for Bomba and his team at the agency, which was launched in 2011, has been to work out better planting, fertilizing and harvesting techniques while ensuring adoption by farmers, whose practices have sometimes barely changed since biblical times.

One of the first areas targeted by the agency was production of tef, a grain that is the main ingredient in Ethiopia’s national dish, njera, a kind of sour flat bread. Yields of 500 kilograms per acre were half or less of other grains in Ethiopia.

“The way that tef has been planted and grown has not changed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years,” Bomba said. 

“The fact of the matter is that Ethiopia’s farmers had been planting too much seed.”

Farmers typically scatter 12 to 20 kg of seed per acre, but using just 1.5 to two kg, as well as planting in rows and using a particular seed variety, increased production by 50 to 70 percent, said Bomba, who was born in Ethiopia, studied in the United States and Britain, and spent 10 years with JPMorgan investment bank.

Only two farmers were initially willing to work with the agency, but adoption of the new practices has steadily increased. More than two million farmers adopted the techniques last year, although the rest of five million that were trained were still too wary to use them.

Rising production has driven down market prices of tef to the equivalent of $75 to $95 per 100 kg from $105 to $125. Higher yields also mean farmers can switch some of their land to other crops or even grow a second crop of pulses on the same tef land.

Bomba said tef exports, which are banned to avoid domestic shortages, could start on a small scale by the end of 2015 or 2016, although safeguards would be in place to protect local supplies.

Yields of wheat and corn have also improved. Wheat production has climbed almost eight percent a year since 2006 and reached 3.9 million tonnes in 2013-14, which met more than 85 percent of domestic needs. 

The transformation agency is also studying the nation’s soil to improve fertilizer use.

Promoting better practices has relied on a government network of 60,000 “extension workers”, who help with training. This reflects the strong hand of state in other areas of the economy.

The agency is also spreading ideas by mobile phone.

Just as Ethiopia’s industrial drive has drawn heavily on Asia’s experience, the transformation agency was created after studying how nations such as Malaysia and South Korea grew. 

Bomba led that study when he was working at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a philanthropic organization that still partly funds the agency.

He said roads and railways are the “shiny objects” that often capture the world’s attention, “but at the end of the day the backbone of this country remains the agricultural sector.”

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