Why Starvation repeats: A perspective on a less spoken cause

By Tadesse Nigatu –

We have heard many reasons why starvation repeats in Ethiopia. Two of the widely mentioned causes are: absence or shortage of seasonal rains and poor governance or leadership of past and present governments.

It is true both have some contribution to cause our recurring starvation problems. I will say more about them latter. But I want us to think of something else in this write-up and that is the state of agricultural technology in the country.

We all know that starvation means shortage or lack of food for a prolonged time period. We also know that food comes from farming. Food is produced by intensive agricultural processes which I call here agricultural technology. Agricultural technology, be it at a subsistence farming level (underdeveloped) as that of our own or at more advanced level, it is a very involved practice. Just to mention some of its key steps, at a minimum, it involves the selection and storage of seeds, land preparation, sawing, irrigation (in absence of rain), cultivation and weeding, protecting the harvest from birds and wild animals, harvesting and storage. In short it consists at least eight intensive steps. Let’s look at each step a bit closer. It will me make my point. Bear with me.

Seed selection and storage: Farmers select and stores the next year’s seedling from the current year’s harvest. In doing that the best among the harvest is selected and stored in places where there is no moisture, rodents, pests, rats and other competing creatures. Because moisture can rot it, rodents destroy it and termites can damage it. And yes, there is a big chance some is lost to those competitors.

Land preparation: The farm land needs to be softened by pre-plowing, be clear of major weeds, and fertilized. The traditional way to fertilize is to add digested manure to the farm or burn the weeds and remnant stacks and dead leaves on the land. Lately some farmers (the fortunate ones I may add) apply manufactured fertilizers. As hard as farmers try to do their best, it cannot be done perfect. There is a chance for some lose as it is hard to cover all the surface with the fertilizer.

Sawing: When the sawing season arrives, farmers manually spread the seeds on the farm plot and dig the land to bury the seeds under the soil using oxen drawn plow. That is, if they have access to oxen. Otherwise they would have to do it manually using spade. Again, every seed will not be buried and birds can pick them, which will be another loss.

Irrigation: It is true the majority of crop farming in Ethiopia depends on seasonal rains. But in absence of rain and when it is possible farmers resort to irrigation to divert water from revers or springs to their farms to grow their crops. Even in the case of rain, there is problem associated with it. One of the problem is that it can be too little (drought), it can also be too much and damages the crops or it can come at the wrong time. Irrigation has its own challenge too. First it is very labor intensive. Second, since the water is made to travel through the ground significant amount is soak and get lost on its way to the farm. In all this, there is a challenge to the maximum benefit.

Cultivating and Weeding: assuming there is rain (or irrigation) and the seeds germinated and have grown, then comes the duty of cultivating (make nutrients from the fertilizer accessible to the plant) and weed out weeds and make sure that the plants are not too close to each other to compete for nutrients. This is also done manually and is very labor intensive. And probably has to be done more than ones to achieve a healthy harvest. Still, there will be weeds remaining which take nutrients away from the plants thereby reducing yields.

Protecting the harvest: If all goes well and the plants bear grains, then come competition from birds and animals (both domestic and wild ones) who want to take their share. The farmer has to be there day and night to make sure that those competitors do not take too much as it is very hard to prevent them fully. But again, it is impossible to keep all of them away completely and some will be lost to the birds and animals.

Harvesting: When the plant is ripe and ready to harvest, the farmer (with help of fellow farmers and family members) come out with their sickles (the common harvesting tool) and collects the harvest manually. Then they haul it on their shoulders or on the back of donkeys to a prepared surface. Then after all the harvest is brought to the surface then the process of separating the grains from the holding stalk begins. This is done by beating the stalk manually with a heavy stick. The farmers may use heavy domestic animals and make them walk on the stalks of plants such as teff, barley or wheat. He makes sure that the mouths of the animals are tied. Otherwise they will eat the harvest and the farmer would lose a lot. When the farmer is sure that at least the majority of the grains are separated from the stack then he winnows it with help from the wind to collect the pure grain. To assume that all the grains are separated from the stalks is unrealistic as it will be hard for the farmer to know that. As the result, there will be some loss of grains. There will be some loss of grains from winnowing as well.

Storing the grain: The next and final step is to store the grain gathered in the above manner so that the farmer and his family uses it at a later time. Storing is traditionally done underground in a dug hole that is cemented with cow waste or in large pots prepared for this purpose. It is important that the storage is dry and free of termites, ants, and other rodents as well as rats which can be very hard to do. In fact, experts estimate that farmers lose 25 to 30% of their harvest to moisture, pests and rodents.

So why bother to go through all these steps? you may ask. For one thing it is to appreciate how intense farming is and how arduous farmers are. And they do their best at each steps. But there are other points that I wanted to highlight.

The first is to show how primitive 0ur farming technology is. At best, the majority of our farmers are still using the oxen drawn plow for digging the soil. In other cases, they use spades and iron fitted digging sticks manually. By the way, Ethiopia is one of the countries that started using plow farming technology thousands of years ago and our generation is still using it in the 21st century. We are still using sickle as a harvesting tool and sticks and wind to separate the grain from its stalk. Our grain storage is very wasteful to say the least. If our farmers did not have each other and cooperate in the form of Debos or Guzas as we call it in Harar) they are left alone with no help.

The second point I want to highlight is the amount of waste at each step in the farming process. Let’s recall each of the eight steps in the farming process. It is not difficult to see how inefficient each step is. If we conservatively assume that the farmers lose just 5% from the first seven steps, they are roughly losing 30 to 35% of the would be harvested amount. I already mentioned that farmers lose about 25% from storage due to moisture and pests. Add the two together, farmers are losing at least 50% of what would have been useful to the farmer.

The point is that, preventing these losses of grain due to inefficiency could have been good enough to save the farmer’s family if the rain was not to come the year after. So the excuse that shortage of rain is the cause for starvation is very weak.

Poor leadership in government has certainly a role to play for the inefficiency. It has been more than sixty years now since college level agricultural education, including engineering and extension programs are being offered in Ethiopia. Over the years, the schools have been training and graduating thousands of professionals in the field. One wonders how the governments (including the current self-proclaimed developmental government) were launching the graduates to serve the agricultural community?

I am not talking about advancing the agricultural technology to the next level. I am talking about making the age old farming method (that is being practiced for thousands of years) more efficient so that the farmers keep their hard earned produce to themselves but not to the weeds, birds, poor collection and storage.

Let’s push the argument just a bit and talk about rain (water needed for farming). Ethiopia is a vast country with all kinds of rivers, moisture level and agricultural landscape. As it is the case in any other big country (geographically it is), due to climate changes, rain is not expected to rain every year in Ethiopia as well. But responsible governments are expected to be prepared and utilize all resources (rivers, springs, lakes, agricultural fields etc.) efficiently so that people cannot become vulnerable during hard times.

That is what Californians did when they did not have rain for three years in a row. In fact, they thrived from it. They adapted quickly to the new reality and as the result, their agricultural products and related business did better than the years they had rain.

If this government was truly a development government, it would have been democratic, that allowed the people to unleash their creativity and to solve their pains and problems during the last two decades. But it is not pro-development government and starvation is back.

It is time that we the people start solving our problems. Ethiopia has a lot of smart people with good technical skills and kind heart to improve our agriculture in all its aspects. I am sure there are talented Ethiopians who can improve our plough shares, sickles, harvesting sticks, winnowing practice, grain storage methods, irrigation technics and others if they find each other and put their mind into addressing them. It is the dependence on undependable governments that put us down. We have seen not one but three governments that let us down to be the world’s beggar nation. We need to stop this and we citizens can do it.

Let’s put our minds and hands together and organize around agriculture. It is the profession which 85% of Ethiopians depend on. Let’s find a way in which the skilled and talented collaborate and then connect with our fellow farmers and nibble down the outdated agriculture one step at a time.

Nothing will stop citizens united for a Nobel cause.

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Posted by on January 24, 2016. Filed under COMMENTARY,VIEWS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

2 Responses to Why Starvation repeats: A perspective on a less spoken cause

  1. Zewdu Reply

    January 24, 2016 at 6:48 AM

    The main reason why Ethiopia is having recurring famine is because of population explosion. The average family size in Ethiopia is 6, conservatively. With so many mouths to feed per family, it is no wonder that the majority of Ethiopians are malnourished all year round, even in good harvest years. This is the reality.
    If population growth exceeds economic growth, there will always be famine every few years. That is common sense.
    Hence, what has to be done is impose population control like China as it is more humane than see our people waste away in undignified manner.
    As for improving our agricultural practices, it is not as easy as the writer thinks. I was an agricultural engineering student at Alemaya College and did work for a year as an agricultural extension agent with farmers. Adapted agricultural tools were tried; model farms were being run under the auspices Extension and Project Implimentation Department (EPID) under the Ministry of Agriculture. It is not like nothing was done under Haile Selassie and Derg.
    To sum up, there is not a lot of room to increase the output of agricultural products because of the topographical nature which is not suitable for mechanization. The improvement of existing plows, hoes, storage systems, grain separation from chaff system, etc will help, but not significantly.

  2. Sisay asefa Reply

    January 31, 2016 at 11:42 AM

    What is missing in other wise good article the issue of land tenure policy. There is no incentive for farmers to engage in what author is saying since land controlled by state or one irresponsible land lord. This began in 1975 when Derg under Mengistu leadership confiscated land from Ethiopians and Late Meles government that trend and made it worse. For example we should understand why North Koreans are starving their sister state South Korea a vibrant middle class Asian giant. The difference is freedom citizens. North Korea extorts food from US and South Korea dangerously armed by one man or family rule. South Korea went through land reform that subject land to market transactions subject to regulation against land concentration under good governance and leadership.

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