Using Less To Get More: Crop Intensification in Ethiopia

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The Central Rift Valley is Ethiopia’s predominant vegetable production belt. In this region, there are over 20,000 smallholder farmers engaged in producing over 200,000 tons of vegetables per year on about 10,000 hectares of irrigated land. Despite access to irrigation, agricultural practices have remained traditional, irregular, and unsustainable in terms of their economic, social, environmental, and ecological impacts. The agronomic practice and input application patterns are not only haphazard but also cause significant damage to the soil, water, ecology, and human health.

During our fiscal years 2015 and 2016, BGR partnered with Oxfam America in a two-year project to increase the productivity of vegetable crops (tomato and onion) by teaching farmers the System of Crop Intensification (SCI). This is a report about two Ethiopian farmers who learned this system and became qualified to teach it to other farmers in their region. The report was provided to us by our partner, Oxfam America.

Ethiopia 3-CroppedEsmile Johar is a farmer who lives on the outskirts of a fast-growing town called Ziway, 165km south of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A major contributor to the recent agricultural growth is the increasing number of farmers engaged in small-scale irrigation using nearby Lake Ziway. In the last few years, farmers like Esmile Johar, a 42-yearold father of four, have seen how adopting efficient, climate-smart water-use technologies and good agronomic practices can improve agricultural production, food security, and resilience to climate shocks.

About ten years ago, Esmile and most of the surrounding farmers worked as laborers on their own land. Remembering the hard times, Esmile explained: “We had to rent our land to rich investors who had money to buy irrigation pumps, and inputs such as seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. We didn’t have the necessary tools or know how. So our only choice was to rent our land and work for them as daily laborers.”

Things started changing when development agencies and the government introduced measures to enable smallholder farmers to use their land to overcome poverty and improve their livelihoods. Among them was Oxfam and a local organization, SEDA (Sustainable Environment and Development Action). Oxfam and SEDA began their partnership in 2000 with a focus on small-scale irrigation for vegetable production in the Central Rift Valley. More recently, Oxfam and SEDA have collaborated on introducing an innovative agricultural methodology called the System of Crop Intensification (SCI), which promotes efficient, climate-smart techniques to increase productivity and reduce costs for two major vegetables—onions and tomatoes.

SCI focuses on the careful application of inputs and adopting good agronomic practices. Said Esmile: “Even though we have a general knowledge about the necessary inputs, we didn’t know exactly what combination of things will give us the optimum yield. So considering the increasing cost of inputs, learning how to use things efficiently and avoid wastage was very important to us.”

Peer learning and agricultural experiments

To reach more farmers and encourage peer-to-peer learning, a “five to one ratio” structure was established whereby one demonstrator would attempt to reach five followers. In this intiative, 50 demonstrators and 250 followers were selected by the Water Users Association members to learn and practice SCI. “I was selected to be a demonstrator,” said Esmile with pride. “Everyone knows how hard I work and I have many years of experience growing vegetables.” Looking at his 1/8 hectare backyard covered with onion seedlings, tomato, carrot, cabbage, lettuce, turnip green, collard green, papaya, avocado, coffee, and banana, it is not hard to imagine why Esmile was selected to be a demonstrator.

Ethiopia 2Rukia was another person selected by the Association to be a demonstrator. Rukia served as a cashier for Abine Germama WUA, and her dedication and strength had earned her the respect of her community. Surrounded by onion seedling in her backyard, she said with a smile: “I was confident I could do it, and proud to be selected. For a long time I learned new ways of doing things by following others. So I was very happy to teach others. It is a proof how far I have come.”

One other exceptional element of the project was the high level of attention given to its participatory approach, where various experiments were used to demonstrate and increase SCI adoption rates. The project looked at farmer-designed farmer-managed efforts versus researcher-designed farmer-managed efforts on 10ft x 10ft plots in a comparative context. Esmile participated in both experiments—one in his own backyard and another on a small parcel he owned across the street from his home. He said: “I was glad to try both the traditional and the new methods and to see the difference for myself.”

Following the selection process, the 50 demonstrators were trained on the principles and practices of SCI. They were also provided with the necessary inputs, such as improved seed, fertilizer, and pesticide. Most of the farmers opted to try the experiment on onions rather than tomatoes. “Tomatoes are more profitable but need more care than onions. The risk is high so for now I chose to work on onion,” said Esmile.

“Experts came to my house and showed me in my own backyard,” said Rukia. “They taught me how to prepare the land, how much seed, fertilizers, and pesticides to use, and how many times I should water for best results. I was so excited that even when my pump broke in the middle of the experiment, I didn’t mind pulling water out of a 12 meter deep well to water the vegetables and finish the trial successfully.”

Throughout the trial period the five followers worked closely with the demonstrators. The setup encourages mutual learning where they continually share knowledge, ideas, and experiences. At the end of three months, the farmers were very happy and quite surprised with the outcome of the experiments. “I knew the research will improve my productivity but didn’t expect this much,” Esmile said with a smile. “Even though I used almost half of the seed and fertilizer and only watered the onions two days instead of five, my yield doubled compared to the traditional method.” Rukia was also very happy with the result. From her backyard plot she got almost three quintals of onion.

Visible signs of improved livelihoods

“Now I produce up to four times a year and I can easily meet the needs and wants of my family,” said Esmile, who is more than happy to show all the wonderful things he managed to buy and do. Among them were, healthy children who are eating a balanced diet, a better and bigger house, a comfortable bed to sleep on, a bicycle for his son to go to school, and so on.

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Rukia is investing in her children’s education and on inputs to adopt what she learned on her half hectare land nearby. Her backyard is already covered with second round onion seedlings following the new SCI method she learned.

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