It was raining in Addis; persistent, driving rain, punctuated by the occasional drenching downpour forcing residents to run for cover. The rainy season has come early in Ethiopia. Traveling north, through the band of hills which ring the capital, the soaked countryside was green and lush. A perfect day to visit agricultural projects in the Debre Libanos Woreda.
Ethiopia launched a highly ambitious plan in 2010 to double the size of the economy over five years, and raising productivity in agriculture is key.
Our hosts, Habtu from Sasakawa and Chimdo from Oxfam America were keen to talk about preparations being made for the project’s second season. We began in a small concrete building in the middle of the town housing three new computers with the only internet connections in the area. This Extension Resource Centre is managed by two of the 60,000 or so government-employed Development Agents, often young graduates, who are working to inform and educate famers on new techniques and technologies. Working with a network of ten Farmer Training Centres in the area, the computer room is a valuable source of information.
Traveling further north we made our way to a picturesque village, built around a striking Orthodox Church. On the outskirts, we were met by a pastoral scene of small plots boasting potatoes, onions and water-cress, a fish-breeding pond, and grazing cattle. This Farmers’ Training Centre is one of 215 pilots scattered across Ethiopia, where the local community can learn and put into practice ways to increase their productivity and income from their lands.
Along the road, we passed children wearing bright red jerseys making their way to school clutching their books and papers.
One example of improvements came from a women farmer who had been growing the local cereal, teff, which is used to make the staple Ethiopian bread rolls called Injera. For years, she had been using the same variety of seeds that her mother and grandmother had used, scattering it by hand over tilled soil and letting the elements do the rest. Through the Farmers Training Centre she had access to a new variety of seed and learned about planting in rows and irrigating the crops regularly with a watering can. Her yield increased threefold – from one tonne of teff per hectare (equivalent to almost 2.5 acres) to 3 tonnes per hectare.
Not only was her income boosted by the bigger crop, but she had grown more seeds than she needed for this season and could supplement her earnings by selling on the surplus. An empowering outcome had resulted from some small but significant changes in her farming practices.
The following day, it was still raining in Addis. We drove south, past rows and rows of new apartment blocks being built by the government as part of a new social housing scheme. The landscape unfolded before us as green rolling hills and valleys, dotted with beautifully constructed wooden dwellings with thatched roofs. Along the road, we passed children wearing bright red jerseys making their way to school clutching their books and papers. Stalls of fresh fruit and vegetables, and the occasional butcher, peppered the sideway. A dead hyena and an overturned bus warned of danger on the two-lane highway.
We stopped at Butajira for breakfast and then travelled on until we arrived at a cluster of houses, down a dirt road, past a mosque made of corrugated iron sheets. And the sun came out.
Bill Gates had visited the Germana Gale Health Post a month earlier. You can read Bill’s views and watch a video here. Our host, Betemariam, from L10K, introduced us to Yitagesu, a Health Extension Worker who, along with a colleague, provides care and advice to over 500 households in the area, earning two dollars a day.
At the clinic, there’s a delivery room for expecting mothers, family planning tools and literature, stocks of medicines and refrigeration for vaccines. Shelves were stacked high with family health records and walls were covered with charts and tables measuring health targets and trends.
We met some of the villagers who are part of an army of volunteers, each responsible for monitoring and advising on the welfare of five individual households and feeding the information back to Yitagesu. This extension programme provides a live network of real time information across Ethiopia’s health system. While there are still problems, such as a regular supply of malaria drugs to Germana Gale Health Post and some resistance to family planning advice, Ethiopia has been improving the overall health of its population.
It’s still too early to say whether the agriculture extension programme will have a similar impact, and enormous amounts of work and money are needed to improve the performance in Ethiopian health and agriculture from their historically low levels. Still, substantial progress is being made.