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Looking into Ethiopian agriculture

Looking into Ethiopian agriculture

Micheal Francom is an agricultural counselor and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) liaison to the African Union. He has been in Ethiopia for more than three years following various activities that relate to agriculture. He has been visiting some of the remote areas in Ethiopia to understand the agricultural practices in this country. Recently, there was a forum that channeled the idea of providing access to biotechnological products or Genetically Modified (GM) solutions as alternatives to the conventional or local varieties. He has a strong position on letting the farmers decide what works best for them. And that they should only understand what alternatives are available in the market. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter caught up to Francom at the U.S. embassy Addis Ababa to learn more about his thoughts regarding Ethiopian agriculture: the prospects and the challenges. Excerpts:

The Reporter: How would you characterize the agriculture sector of Ethiopia?

Micheal Francom: Ethiopia’s agricultural system is very subsistence oriented. Farms that are smaller than one hectare, probably closer to half-a-hectare, create some challenges. You have some small land holdings that make it difficult to achieve certain economies of scale that you normally would find with larger land holdings. The fact that 80 to 85 percent of the population is employed in agriculture is an indication of the significance of the sector not only for individuals’ lives but also for the country’s economy.

Sometimes it is found to be paradoxical that 85 percent of the population being agrarian it still couldn’t feed itself. When rain fails huge number of the society would need emergency assistance. How do you explain that?

We have seen that for several decades now Ethiopia is receiving aid from different donors including the US. Most of Ethiopia’s agriculture is a rain fed agriculture and when the rains don’t come or they don’t come on time, or if they don’t come with the right amount, productivity goes down or there is a possibility of that happening. Looking to the future, I think, we have already seen that investments are made to improve the water usage and the irrigation systems of the country. Because we will inevitably see more of these climatic shocks in the future. Hence, the US partners, the Ethiopian government, the private sector and the like have to work together to realize water usage and irrigation schemes to be realized.

Irrigation might be a good solution but it is also a capital intensive undertaking and probably hard to say what time such schemes would be made ready, depending on harvest seasons and the need for production. What is your take on that?

These kinds of discussions have been going on for many years: the need for irrigation. But I think there are some challenges associated with that. Farm sizes are so small that farmers face difficulty to raise the necessary capital they need to make that type of investment. Yes, there are some challenges that are holding us all back in terms of making those investments. The other piece of the puzzle is that we have to look towards greater use of inputs, new technologies, husbandry and other technological inputs that can help boost productivity. When we look at some of the numbers the government puts out with regards to the production of grains, for the last seven years, production has gone up significantly. Well, I might have a different opinion on what those numbers are. But certainly, the trend is there and we have seen those increases and part of that is because of the new inputs. We have to think generally that because there are so many people in the farming sector in the rural area, the government recognizes that as being a challenge. I think Ethiopia has one of the largest rural populations in the world and certainly in Africa. Many of these people have a very small plot of land and the plots just keep getting smaller and smaller as families get the more of subdivided plots. When that happens, families produce way too small to even feed themselves let alone have surplus for the market. I think there has to be greater use of inputs and this is recognized by everyone that involved in the agriculture value chain. Intensification and consolidation of lands is necessary. One of the elements to that, I should say, is the industrial parks development. Some of the Industrial Park development projects are focused on agro-processing. These facilities will help to bring in some of the surplus labor from the rural areas and put them in the manufacturing sector thereby allowing the farms to grow in size, capturing those economies of scale.

Do you think mechanization works for small holder farming communities?

It can work. It is interesting to see as you travel across the country, the different practices that are occurring. You see somebody using a wooden plough pulled by an ox. Then you see that gentleman pulling out his cellphone and talking to somebody, may be checking the weather or something. You see these kinds of varying degrees of technology and adoption. Farmers want to increase their productivity. When they see something better coming along or if their neighbor is doing something different they want to know that; they don’t want to be left behind. It happens all the time in the US as the farmer next door is seen planting new seed and watching it from the other side of the field, his neighbor would want to know what that farmer is doing and want to have the same results. The same is true here. Despite the small farm sizes and slow diffusion of new trends, you see similar things here as well. Farmers are adopting newer technologies. Mechanization is something a little bit different than what it would be in Ethiopia. You see tractors and other larger agricultural machines. But it is challenging when to introduce those technologies of mechanization to smallholder farmers. In some instances, the technology is there but getting it to farmers and making it accessible is sometimes difficult. At the end of the day, it’s the farmers who decide which works best for them. The market needs to be able to work to allow them to make those decisions. Farmers are smart and they will do and adopt the technologies that give them the best results.

Once President Jimmy Carter was here for a meeting on agriculture and suggested that farmers needs to be put in groups in the form of unions and be given access to land and technologies instead of foreigners taking huge chunk of land in the name of commercial farming. Some people might not agree with his advices, but do you?

I think you need to start somewhere and from my observations, I think you can do that. You have to consider what the country wants, what do you want to produce as a value-added product. There is nothing wrong with commercial agriculture but trying to find the balance between the rural implement and the urban is not easy. But, we have to start somewhere; somewhere from medium to large size approaches. Giving to the existing farmers the tools and the opportunities they need to increase production would afford them other opportunities to capitalize on.

Let’s talk about cash crops.

Which one? I heard there is a shortage of Khat here.

Not about coffee, or sesame either but about cotton. There is a shortage of cotton here. The country imports a lot from abroad. There are some moves by the government to change that. But, what do you see trending with the up and coming BT cotton?

The government’s decision as it was described to me (by the time I wasn’t here) was that there has been an interest in developing BT cotton as an option for farmers to increase productivity which has been reduced by bollworm that infects the cotton flowers. Since that time, like seven years ago, there has been gradual movement in the regulatory system to allow for the cultivation of BT cotton. Hence, in 2015, the biosafety law was amended. Subsequent to that, the directives were written and published for public consumption. In the meantime, the government has moved to the confined filed trails to see how the BT cotton performed. I haven’t seen it but from what I understand those trails have gone well. But I am sure you would get a more thorough response if you talk to the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change or the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research. But, the bottom-line is that the government sees BT as one option to help improve productivity.

What would you say about the use and production of GMOs in Ethiopia?

I am always happy to share my opinion. A few weeks ago, we had discussions on connecting African women in agriculture and then we had discussions with the regulators. One of the important points raised was that this is just an option. We are not suggesting that GMOs are a magic bullet that can solve all of the productivity challenges of this country. But, it’s one of the potential options the growers can have. They can grow conventional or they can grow biotech. Some of these commercial operations want to have that flexibility. Whether it is the pest, the bollworm or the current army-fall worm, they want to have that flexibility to shift into whatever preferred crops they want to cultivate. But, whether it’s conventional, BT cotton or biotech, it’s up to them. Our goal is to give them those options and allow for the market to decide.

Let me bring one of the arguments the anti-GMO groups raise. They say introducing GMOs would make the country dependent on the seed companies which are supplying them.

That argument can be made for almost everything. You are importing your oil from the Middle East. You are importing aircraft from the U.S. and I think it is easy to say that we are going to become beholden to the technology. I don’t think that is a fair characterization. Nobody is forcing the farmer to buy the seed. They certainly have the option to grow whatever they want and whatever gives them the best yield with the least cost. But, if they want to use biotech they can. The option should be out there.

There are other groups in the extreme that suggest the use of only local varieties. They argue it’s the farmers’ variety that prevails through odd circumstances. How do you see that?

You have to find that balance. If it is a cotton seed we are talking about it is a US seed called Delta pine which has been in use here for several decades. Over that course of time, it is important to be able to improve. There might be a newer variety out there. Hence, instead of using what is already there for long, a newer variety that has a better yield should be considered.

We can say that large scale farming hasn’t been that productive in Ethiopia. The government is of the view that large scale farming still has hope in Ethiopia. Do you agree with that?

From what I have seen reported in the press, there are challenges. But there are challenges anywhere you do business. Doing business in the US has challenges as well. But, it is how you overcome that challenge which makes the difference. Without naming names, I can give you examples of larger farms that haven’t done what they had hoped to do. There was one farm here that put up a quite a bit of money in its venture. It doesn’t matter which company but its bottom-line was not good. Then there are other companies facing issues with land. There is sensitivity around land and ownership. Despite such challenges, some farms are doing a good job and would do rather well to scale up investments. Some companies’ method of work will allow them do good and others might struggle for whatever reasons. Access to roads, electricity, water and then clear plans, ownership, policies and direction are very helpful to decide how and what to invest on.

In the context of the Ethiopian agriculture sector which areas do you expect to see progress? Which areas are more promising?

Probably, I think it will be the agro-processing industrial parks. I think they will have a real catalytic effect and potential to really derive the economy. I think given the current setting, doing agriculture sustainably for the long time will be difficult. There needs to be changes to the restricting smaller farm sizes. I think the industry park scheme is a great lead to alleviate some of the pressure from the land and provide jobs and economic opportunities. It can also go along way, for example, in terms of substituting imported food items. For instance, if you walk into some of the kiosks in town you would find many imported pasta. Ethiopia is producing pasta as well. But in the future, I can see a time when you no longer need to import pasta. You may very well need to import some wheat to make the pasta here. It may become cheaper to bring in the wheat and process it here. Doing that also creates more jobs. There are a lot of things happening in the broader economy in addition to the agriculture sector. You are setting up factories to process textile and make shirts. But you need to be able to supply them with products consistently with safe and quality products.

Yes, both industrial parks and agro-processing industrial parks are in the making. But, the concern is whether the local agricultural production could supply them with the required inputs. What do you see there?

I think local sectors have a lot of potential. We shouldn’t forget when we talk about food security that imports play significant role. The US, Brazil and a lot of countries are importing a lot of food stuffs despite being food sufficient. Certainly, we want to maximize local produces but in time if those are unavailable then there should be a means to import. If you don’t have enough local production and if these companies are forced to operate below capacity, that is not economical. International businesses like to have the flexibility to import the necessary items when local supplies are not available. Mechanisms and strategies need to be put in place to allow that to happen. If you look at the case of PVH, these companies need to have some vertically integrated systems. They have to use what is locally available but when they need to, they want to have that flexibility to import what is needed for their line of work.