From ‘untouchable’ topic, to spreading throughout the country

Friday, April 30, 2021
Our News
Women in field

I feel so happy whenever I hear government staff talking about their conservation agriculture agenda. It used to be an untouchable topic a few years ago.

Frew Beriso

How conservation ag is taking root in Ethiopia and beyond

Frew Beriso is emotional when it comes to how he’s seen conservation agriculture methods take root in his home country of Ethiopia. For a long time Ethiopian farming systems were based on tilling the land each season, something farmers practicing conservation agriculture are urged not to do.

He recalls the day the Government of Ethiopia officially announced it was making conservation agriculture part of its official curriculum. It happened midway through the five-year Scaling-Up Conservation Agriculture in East Africa program.

“I will never forget that day and how I rejoiced,” says the conservation agriculture technical specialist. Tilling farmland is a deeply ingrained practise in Ethiopia, yet something conservation agriculture practitioners are urged to minimize. That conservation agriculture would be widely accepted, including at the highest levels of government, is unprecedented. “I feel so happy whenever I hear government staff talking about their conservation agriculture agenda,” says Beriso. “It used to be an untouchable topic a few years ago.”

Farmers in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania take on a challenge for lasting change

Back in 2015, Ethiopian farmer Habitamu Temesgen was up for a challenge. The land he’d inherited was poor and degraded, unable to grow any high-value crops like wheat and teff, a widely consumed Ethiopian crop. His farm never produced as well as he thought it could. Habitamu was ready to put in the work to try something new—conservation agriculture. He received training through Migibare Senay Children and Family Support Organization, the partner of our member Mennonite Central Committee Canada.

Man crouching in field

Ethiopian farmer Habitamu Temesgen tends to his farm in southern Ethiopia. (Photo: Submitted.)

Habitamu was one of the first farmers to take part in the five-year Scaling-Up Conservation Agriculture in East Africa program. The program was implemented by our members Mennonite Central Committee, Tearfund Canada, and World Renew, and their locally based partners. The goal of the project, funded by Global Affairs Canada and donations from Foodgrains Bank supporters, was to have 50,000 small-scale farmers practising conservation agriculture by 2020.

Conservation agriculture, used increasingly in Canada since the 1930s, is a set of farming techniques that emphasize minimal soil disturbance, soil cover, and crop rotations and variety. They can increase the health of degraded soil and improve the land’s production. It might seem like a straightforward thing for a farmer to try.

However, these techniques can also make a plot of land look messy, with some weeds, and mulch and compost over the soil to help lock in nutrients and moisture. This is a challenge in a rural Ethiopian context like Habitamu’s, where a nicely tilled plot of land has been synonymous with hard work for generations, and seen by locals as the “opposite of laziness”.

Five years later, Habitamu’s efforts have paid off. He’s progressed to growing wheat, maize, teff and faba beans on his land, and harvested 4,650 kg of wheat where previously he’d harvested just 3,000 kg, a 50 percent increase in crop yield.

The impacts of the program have been far wider than just more food, though.

Women in field

“Now, with even a small amount of rain, I can harvest something. I also do not have to pay for any labour as before and have time to do other important things. With my extra time, I am able to go to the market in the morning and sell some porridge to make some more money. I could never have afforded the money or the time before to do this.” – Naomi Ndunge, a Kenyan participant in a Scaling-Up Conservation Agriculture project of our member World Renew. (Photo: Phil Maher/World Renew.)

Kevin Koech is the CEO of Anglican Development Services Central Rift in Kenya, the local partner of our member World Renew. He says the impact of the project on women’s lives has been significant. “The reduction in women’s labour from needing to weed their plots has been reduced by over 70 percent,” he says. “Women have also become decisionmakers on selling produce and use of the land. Previously, they didn’t make these kinds of decisions.”

Joyce Ngumbau is a Kenyan farmer who participated in a project managed by Utooni Development Organization (UDO), the local partner of our member Mennonite Central Committee Canada. She’s seen her crop yields increase through the program.

“Before, my husband used to carry the keys for the food cupboards after giving me the ration for the day to control and monitor how the food is used. After using conservation agriculture, the decision on what to cook and how much is in the store is entirely mine. He doesn’t carry the keys anymore, because we have more than enough food,” she says.

Across Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya, it’s people like Joyce and Habitamu who will ensure that the program will live on beyond the life of the project. We are grateful to all the Foodgrains Bank supporters who made this program possible through their donations over the last five years. Thank you!

Amanda Thorsteinsson, Senior Communications Officer

Share this story