Smallholder Farming

Ethiopia’s Smallholder Farming Under Scrutiny How far Can it Go?

Small scale farming holds a dominant role in Ethiopian Agriculture. Though productivity is still low, it employs almost 85Pct of the population, produce for consumption, export and industrial raw materials. That’s why; transforming the sector has been a priority for the government.
The annual production by small-scale farmers during the main harvesting season increased from 171 million quintals to 290.4 million quintals within the last ten years, showing a 70Pct increment.
However, with the surging population and looming climate change, experts stress that smallholder farmers cannot continue feeding themselves and the rest of the population and be engines for economic growth in the long run. Experts recommend that enough attention should be given to large scale farming. EBR’s Samson Hailu explores the saga behind small scale farming to offer this report.

Hailu Worku, in his mid thirties, lives in Tiyo Woreda, Arsi Zone in the state of Oromia, 185.3 kilometres from the capital. He is dependent on a hectare of land to earn a living for his family.
Hailu usually harvests cereals like barley, wheat and sorghum. However, his main product remains to be maize, which accounts for a quarter of cereal production in Ethiopia. Before ten years, Hailu used to produce 20 quintals of maize per hectare during the main harvesting season (meher) alone. “However, my productivity has been improving in the last decade and currently has reached 30 quintals per hectare,” Hailu told EBR.
It is not only in Hailu’s plot that maize productivity has been increasing in the past. Rather, the national average maize productivity that stood at 22.4 quintals per hectare in 2008/09 now reached at 33.9 quintals. Similarly, the annual production of small-scale farmers during the main harvesting season increased from 171 million quintals to 290.4 million quintals in the same period of time, showing a whipping 70Pct increment. Any temporary crop harvested between the months of September and February is considered as meher (main) season crop.
Close to 12.2 million households were engaged in small scale farming a decade ago, a figure that increased by 25Pct and stood at 15.2 million in the last harvesting season. On the other hand, the area harvested rose by 10.7Pct from 11.2 million hectare to 12.4 million hectares within the last ten years, which testify that productivity increment came not from land and labour increase but from increased use of improved seeds, fertilizers and technology with management practices that augment yields.
Seeing the progress of small scale farmers in Ethiopia, officials stress that the government’s strategy on smallholder farming is based on the right policy direction that can transform the agrarian economy. “It is possible to increase productivity and even revolutionize the agriculture sector by using appropriate and enough inputs,” argues Esayas Lemma, team leader at Cereal Crops Directorate of the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resource (MoANR). “However, it takes time to gain the ability and willingness of small scale farmers to use the right mix of factors of production.”
Since close to 75 million people are dependent on small scale agriculture, the government maintains a policy of supporting Ethiopia’s smallholder farmers to produce farm surpluses of staples and higher value produce for consumption, feed agro processing industries, and even for export.
As a result, improving the productivity of smallholder farmers became the government’s top priority during the first and second phases of the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP I & II) periods. During GTP I, the agriculture sector registered 6.6Pct average real growth rate, which is considered to be high by any measure and enabled the sector to remain a key driver of the national economic growth given the relative weight of agriculture in the overall economy. Although the achievement still fell short by 1.4 percentage points compared to the 8Pct annual average growth target in GTP I, the nation managed to increase agricultural production from 235 million quintals to 270 million quintals between 2010/11 and 2014/15.
GTP II also envisions enhancing the income of farming households through progressive transition from producing subsistence crops into high value crops, putting in place efficient agricultural marketing system and increasing the amount of crop production by smallholder farmers during the main harvest season. This is set to increase by an annual growth rate of 8Pct and reach 406 million quintals in 2019/20.
Stakeholders stress that increasing the productivity of smallholder farmers and achieving the ultimate goal of transforming the dominant smallholder producers into commercially oriented producers can be achieved by supplying the right kind of agricultural inputs. Studies reveal that proper use of fertiliser increases productivity by 20-30Pct while improved seeds can raise productivity by 30-40Pct.
The information obtained from the MoANR, reveals that the use of inputs like fertilizers increased by more than three and half fold from 2.6 million quintals a decade ago to 9.3 million last harvesting season.
Esayas says the comprehensive digital map charting of soil fertility in Ethiopia is serving as an important tool in tackling the country’s low farm productivity enabling to apply the right quantity of fertilizers for each specific soil type. The soil mapping project currently is completed in Oromia, Amhara, SNNP & Tigray.
The nationwide mapping effort, which was launched in 2012, combines satellite imagery with data from the ground and historical information, to analyze soil typs and rainfall in different areas to recommend suitable mix of fertilisers and crop types.
In addition, five plants have also been established in the four states to blend five types of fertilizers and supply to farmers, on top of the usual Diammonium phosphate and Urea, which provides a limited set of nutrients to smallholders who face heterogeneous agro-ecological conditions and cultivate a variety of crops that need a more varied set of technologies. Controlled-release fertilisers such as nitrogen-phosphorus-sulphate and potassium-chloride are among the new addition of nutrients.
Assefa Admassie (PhD), associate professor of Economics at Addis Ababa University stresses that the availability of various fertilizer types provides a choice to farmers who are cultivating a broad variety of agricultural produces in different agro-ecological conditions. “This move is important to achieve the [maximum] productivity of the crops.” Assefa holds a PhD in Agricultural Economics from the University of Hohenheim (German) and used to teach at Haramaya University.
For the 2017/18 harvest season, the government plans to distribute 14.2 million quintals of fertilizers. The state of Amhara will receive 4.4 million quintals of fertilizer, which accounts 31Pct of the total while the sate of Oromia and SNNP will get 4.1 and 2.9 million quintals, respectively, according to a report released from the MoANR.
Esayas says it is not only the variety and use of fertilizers that is increasing in Ethiopia. “The use of improved seed also increased by more than 100Pct in the past decade; However, the level of improved seed use still remains low.” he conformed.
Indeed, small scale farmers in Ethiopia used 219,512 quintals of improved seeds a decade ago. That figure grew to 496,599 quintals in ten years.
Yet, less than 10Pct of the total agricultural land area is covered by improved seed varieties. The rest is covered by informal seed systems, which include self‐saved seed or farmer‐to‐farmer seed exchange.
In 2017/18 harvest season, the government plans to distribute 1.47 million quintals of seeds. Out of this, 37.5Pct (551,250 quintals) is expected to be improved seeds. “By using improved seeds we can revolutionise the agricultur sector,” argues Esayas.
Despite such increment in the use of fertilizers and improved seeds in the last decade, the supply could not match the demand. For instance, the demand of fertilizer was estimated to be 24.5 million quintals in 2014/15 harvesting season; a level that is not matched with enough supply even at this time.
The same goes to improved seeds. The current demand for food grain seeds is approximately 1.4 million quintals per year, according to the MoANR. However, the county only managed to supply 496,599 quintals until last harvesting season.
Rebka Amha, project manager of Farm Service Centre believes that supporting the government’s effort is important to increase the supply of agricultural inputs, which in turn, boosts productivity. “Such programmes are also important to increase the participation of the private sector.” she added.
Implemented by Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture, an international development organization, partnering with USAID, Farm Service Centre programme is a market based, private sector model that applies matching grants and training methodology to establish small and medium-sized enterprises that deliver farm supplies and services.
Two of the five Farm Service Centres, located in Iteya and Robe woredas of Arsi Zone in the state of Oromia were inaugurated in March 2017 while the third Centre at Tiyo woreda of the same zone was opened on May 23, 2017.
“The centres are located in semi rural areas to meet the needs of farmers to provide a range of agricultural inputs such as fertilizers, feed and seeds as well as machinery and pesticides,” Rebka told EBR. “The remaining two centres will be opened in the same zone soon.”
Getachew Teka, a farmer who is engaged in medium level farming in the past two decade is the co-owner of the farm centre at Tiyo woreda. He decided to involve in this programme because there is a shortage of agricultural inputs in the area. “There is a big gap between supply and demand for agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and seeds, even at this season,” explains Getachew. “We don’t even have the right pesticide in our area for most of the time.”
Getachew stresses that on top of the supply shortage, the support of agricultural extension workers, have been minimal in the past. “It is possible to increase agricultural productivity even in small plot of land. However, the right amount of factors of productions coupled with technical assistance should be available.”
In the past decade, Ethiopia managed to build a massive agricultural extension workers army to support the national agenda of transforming agriculture by providing appropriate information and assistance to the farmers. Within this period, the number of extension workers increased from 32,241 to 67,938.
This increment enabled 7.4 million small scale farmers that cultivate 4.3 million hectares to receive technical assistance from extension workers in the last harvest season. The number of small scale farmers assisted by extension workers stood at 2.5 million ten years ago.
“It is not only the number of extension workers that matters,” argues Sime Debela (PhD), currently working as private agricultural consultant. “Despite having a large number of extension workers, the country still did not achieve food self-sufficiency because of the failure to unlock the potential of its resources partly using technical assistance.” In the past, Sime served as a researcher and director general of Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research.
He says, motivation of extension workers and coordination with agricultural researchers and other institutions is essential to increase the contributions of the agricultural extension programme. “When I [sometimes] visit the rural area, I encounter extension workers who are studying other fields of study instead of developing their knowledge and skills related in agriculture,” he says. “This is one indicator that reveals the low interest and motivation of extension workers.”
In his commentary published on EBR’s Year 4, 37th edition, Tesegaye Tegenu (PhD) senior lecturer at the Department of Social and Economic Geography, Uppsala University (Sweden), argues that the growth of small scale farming is determined by the quality of the inputs, which require investment by the farmers. “Small scale farmers in Ethiopia do not focus on high volume and high turnover to pay back their investment because they are demographic units of production not business firms. Even if the inputs are available, smallholder farmers can not significantly use modern inputs such as chemicals and fertilizers due to low level of saving and investment,” he stated.
Assefa, however, argues that there is still room for increasing the productivity of smallholder farmers. “The use of affordable technologies can bring a relatively high growth,” he says. “However, the intervention should consider and give emphasis for the needs of diversified smallholder farmers and the type of grains they produce.”
Medium farmers have farm plot not more than 10 hectares according to CSA’s Land Utilization Report published in 2016. Getachew, who partly owns the farm centre at Tiyo woreda belongs to this group. Starting with 0.5 hectare of land 20 years ago, he currently cultivate on 10 hectare of land.
Drawing from his experience, Getachew explains to EBR how productivity in small holding farm is possible. “Last harvesting season a research centre picked my plot to experiment with improved seed variety of wheat. They used the right agricultural practice and I was able to collect 68 quintals per hectare.” The average yield of wheat per hectare stood at 25.35 quintals in Ethiopia last harvesting season.
This means wheat production cab be increased to 114.8 million quintals from the current 42.2 million quintals under the right circumstance. The average yield of wheat per hectare stood at 25.35 quintals in Ethiopia last harvesting season. In addition, a finding of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research reveals that wheat productivity can reach up to 80 quintals per hectare in plot administered by agricultural research centres.
Yet, Assefa still questions the fate of the smallholder farming after achieving maximum productivity. “Agricultural production is increasing by 6Pct annually in recent years. However, due to the rate of population growth which currently stood at 3Pct, there is a widening gap between food supply and demand,” he explains. “This shows that small scale farming cannot feed the population as well as produce enough raw materials for [industries] even if it achieves maximum productivity.”
Assefa’s argument holds water considering the fact that Ethiopia imported 22 million quintals of wheat during 2015/16 fiscal year to satisfy the local demand. The figure is expected to increase in the near future due to high population growth that is marching at faster pace than local production capacity.
As a way out, Assefa recommends to give equal and enough emphasis to large scale agriculture. “It is by expanding large scale agriculture that the country can achieve industrialization. This is because a small intervention in inputs or technology will have a dramatic growth effect in large scale farming than small scale farming.” he ascertained.
Although large scale agriculture has huge potential in supporting the local economy, this opportunity is not yet proved in Ethiopia. In fact, according to a study conducted by Tsegaye Moreda entitled ‘Large-scale land acquisitions, state authority and indigenous local communities: insights from Ethiopia’ and published in 2016 on Third World Quarterly, a peer-reviewed academic journal , Ethiopia has an estimated 51.3 million hectares of land suitable for large scale farming in the peripheral lowlands. Out of the total potential, however, only 11.7 million hectares are currently cultivated. Tsegaye, who did a masters study in development studies with specialization in rural livelihoods and development, is currently a PhD student at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University, the Netherlands. He has been teaching at the University of Gondar before beginning his PhD study.
The GTP I document presented that a little more than 473,000 hectares of land were transferred to large scale agriculture investors between 2010/11 and 2014/15 fiscal year despite plan to lease 3.3 million hectares. Currently, large scale agriculture accounts less than 5Pct of the annual production.
Some of the major issues that contributed for the low contributions of large scale farming are delays in investors’ participation due to financial and technological limitations. Even then, “the productivity of large scale farming is way lower than small scale farmers,” says Esayas. “The private sector should increase its participation in more meaningful way by going to the lowlands.”
Tesegaye on the other hand, argues that smallholder farms contribute to agricultural development if and when they dissolve themselves in to a market based employment economy. “Small farms cannot even save themselves and be an engine for economic growth at the same time under the current condition and population growth.”
Esayas on the other hand notes that the government is working to integrate the fragmented land under small scale farming to boost productivity and satisfy the growing need for raw material for agro processing and manufacturing companies. “We are attempting to introduce geographically-based initiatives that aim to integrate interventions in smallholder farming,” explains Esayas. “These integrated farmlands will receive equal and constant supply of inputs as well as technological assistance.”
Along with the introduction of GTP II, the government introduced Agricultural Commercialization Clusters to bring rapid, sustainable and inclusive development of priority commodity value chains through a geographically-focused approach.
For the next harvesting season, the government plans to integrate small scale farms in 239 woredas in different corners of the nation, according to Esayas. “These smallholder farms located in high productivity areas like Arsi, Bale and Ada’a are expected to produce specifically selected 14 types of commodities and produce 345 million quintals of harvest. The outputs will directly go to the agro processing parks that are under construction.”
Recently, cornerstones have been laid to commence the construction of four agro-processing industrial parks out of the 17 agro-industrial growth corridors that were identified, which is expected to enable Ethiopia to grab the opportunity to accelerate economic development and achieve its industrial development goals. The selected sites are in Central Eastern Oromia, Southwest Amhara, Eastern SNNP, and Western Tigray. EBR

5th Year • August 2017 • No. 53

Samson Hailu


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Ethiopian Business Review | EBR is a first-class and high-quality monthly business magazine offering enlightenment to readers and a platform for partners.

2Q69+2MM, Jomo Kenyatta St, Addis Ababa

Tsehay Messay Building

Contact Us

+251 961 41 41 41