Mechanizing Ethiopia Agriculture’s much needed facelift

As Ethiopia’s most important sector, agriculture is a fundamental component in addressing the country’s development challenges. While agricultural output is improving, there are still major gaps in productivity that mechanization can help bridge. And while the benefits of mechanization are immense, the introduction of automated farming processes in Ethiopia has been limited. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale explores the issue and highlights the efforts taken to improve the situation.

For the Ethiopian government, increasing agricultural productivity and production is a top priority. As a major share of the country’s GDP, this primacy is essential to the transformation of the economy. This focus has three objectives: improving the livelihoods of people in rural areas, achieving food security, and increasing agricultural supply for industries and export. This requires the introduction of modern and scientific tools. The use of such equipment however, has been insignificant in the country.

Ethiopia has managed to double agricultural production in the past decade to 290 million quintals in the last harvesting season. This was achieved while still using traditional farming systems that depend on smallholder farmers. However, feeding the rapidly growing population and producing raw materials for the manufacturing sector, cannot be achieved using the same outdated farming methods.

Demisse Demal, a private investment advisor in the agricultural sector and author of a number of books on the nature, level, and potential of Ethiopia’s agriculture, asserts that the growing demand for agricultural commodities cannot be satisfied by the output of small-scale farmers. “Unless agricultural productivity increases massively, it will be very difficult to sustain the current momentum of economic growth,” he argues. “Doing so requires introducing agricultural mechanization on a massive scale.”

Indeed, the introduction and expansion of new technologies, including mechanization aimed at smallholder farmers, is essential. This is because none of the country’s economic aspirations can be achieved without giving serious attention to such farmers. The experience of many countries proves that agricultural mechanization enables farmers to increase productivity while preserving natural resources and coping with weather variability and uncertainty.

“In the past, the approach was a ‘boots on the ground’ kind of principle, which focuses on a labor-intensive farming system,” says Demisse. “This perspective, however, should be changed to focus on technology, and scientific systems that maximize agricultural output.”

Habtemariam Abate (PhD), Innovation and Large Scale Demonstration Project Team Leader at Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) says mechanization can play a major role in maximizing production and productivity. “Mechanization can increase agricultural productivity by 30Pct, at least,” he explains. “While the country is pursuing ambitious plans to transform the economy; mechanization has remained at the periphery of the strategy.”

The analysis made by ATA in 2014 reveals that farmers in Ethiopia can earn an additional USD2.5 billion in ten years if just 20Pct of them use agricultural machineries while planting Teff. The additional produce is equivalent to the required agricultural commodities needed to feed 6 million individuals.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) defines agricultural mechanization as a process of improving the labour productivity during farming by using agricultural machinery, implements and tools. This involves the use of power sources, and mechanical assistance from simple hand tools and draft animal power to mechanical power technologies.

Studies conducted on the matter reveal that agricultural mechanization can increase production, increase the quality of outputs, minimize effort and time, and reduce the required agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers. For instance, according to the ATA’s estimate, threshing Teff with machines can reduce post harvest loss by as much as 30Pct. Mechanization can also reduce the number of days required to plant a hectare of land with the correct seeding rate, to a few hours.

Agricultural mechanization is not a new concept in Ethiopia. In fact, its introduction dates back to the 1950s when the then Jimma Agricultural Technical School employed the use of mule pulled ploughs. This was followed by different attempts by different comprehensive package projects established in the 1960s; including the Chilalo and Wolaita Agricultural Development Units. To support such initiatives, the Alemaya College of Agriculture (now Haramaya University) started training students in agricultural engineering in 1959.

In his research entitled ‘Agricultural Mechanization in Ethiopia: Experience, Status and Prospects’ (2015), Friew Kelemu, researcher at Melkassa Agricultural Research Centre indicates that more emphasis was given to agricultural mechanization during the Dergue era. After 1975 especially, the government acknowledged the importance of large-scale mechanization and established big mechanized farms. To assist this effort, seven institutions were established; the Agricultural Equipment and Technical Service Enterprise (AESTSE), was engaged in the purchase and distribution of agricultural equipment.

Hailu Sebsibe, agricultural mechanization consultant and former general manager of AETSE, says that although there were no official policies pertaining to agricultural mechanization during the Dergue regime, the government strongly encouraged the use of agricultural technologies by farmers: “Although most state farms did not have much success due to various reasons, the government’s commitment to expand agricultural mechanization was strong.”

After 1991, the attention given to mechanization declined as state farms were dissolved and smallholder farmers returned to operating small-scale farms. Friew stated in his research that the level of mechanization remains small due to the insignificant land holdings of the majority of farmers.

Currently, the share of mechanized farms constitute less than 3Pct of the total cultivated area in Ethiopia according to data obtained from the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources (MoANR). In the last harvesting season, 12.8 million hectares of land were used for cereals, pulses, oilseeds, and the like. This means only 522,000 hectares of land were cultivated using agricultural machinery.

Officials say, however, that after close to two decades of disregard, the government is now giving attention to agricultural mechanization. “The government is taking concrete steps to expand mechanization and modernize the agricultural sector,” says Tamiru Habte, director of Agricultural Mechanization Directorate at MoANR.

The directorate Tamiru is currently leading was established three years ago, just after the introduction of the first National Agricultural Mechanization Strategy. The strategy, to be implemented between 2015 and 2032, envisions increasing farmers’ productivity and income and supporting the industrialization efforts of the country by increasing the use of mechanized devices.

Acknowledging the introduction of the strategy, Demisse stresses that it requires more than a strategy to expand agricultural mechanization in Ethiopia. “The structure and level of the agricultural system in the country should be analyzed thoughtfully in order to consider farmers with different plot sizes, their exposure to technologies, and their differing awareness levels”.

According to the information obtained from the MoANR, although farmers in Ethiopia are diverse, small-scale farming dominates the sector. Based on plot size, farmers can be classified into small, marginal, semi-medium, medium and large farmers. Small farmers, who have less than 0.5 hectare of plot on average, constitute 36Pct of the rural households while marginal farmers that make up 24Pct of rural households have an average farm size between 0.5 and 1 hectare. On the other hand, 40Pct of rural households can be grouped under semi-medium, medium and large farmers’ category with average land size ranging between 1 and 2 hectares, 2 and 10 hectares and larger than 10 hectares, respectively.

Demisse argues that mechanization is not essential or suitable for farmers that have less than one hectare because of factors like financial capacity and economies of scale. “But, those farmers with more than one hectare of land can easily boost productivity through mechanization,” he argues. “Government should also facilitate access to additional plots, at least on contractual basis, for the maximum utilization of agricultural machineries.”

Demisse points to the relatively high price and rental cost of agricultural machinery to prove his assessment. For instance, a duty free, imported tractor currently costs close to ETB500 million. A tractor can farm four hectares of land per day, which is the equivalent of several months’ work when done using draft animals. On the other hand, a combine harvester can be rented between ETB50 to ETB120 per quintal, while a tractor ranges from ETB1,600 and ETB2,400 per hectare.

Hailu, on the other hand, disagrees with experts that doubt the relevance of mechanization to smallholder farmers. “Of course, concrete studies should be conducted to assess the farming system and specific agro ecology of the country before introducing agricultural productivity improving techniques and machineries,” he explains. “However, since agricultural mechanization is all about decreasing production costs and increasing productivity, it can be applied by almost all farmers regardless of plot size. All it takes is to know which types of machineries and tools are appropriate for each category of farmers.”

The strategy highlights that the tools that can be used for agricultural mechanization in Ethiopia, can be categorized into three groups. The first group incorporates hand tool technologies that only require manpower (shovels and picks and the like). Machineries that employ animal muscle as the main power source (the traditional plough being an example) belong to the second group. Agricultural machineries that use mechanical power as their main power source, including tractor-mounted planter and engine-driven thresher, are in the final category.

Low mechanization implements that are categorized under the first and second groups are relatively affordable and straight forward, while larger implements need additional source of power other than human and animal muscle.

Because there are such variations in mechanization tools, the predominance of smallholder farmers has no impact on the mechanizing effort. This is according to Bisrat Kassa, director of Mechanization at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) who says, “the government is inclined towards expanding mechanization by the smallholder farmers.”

Mulugeta Tamiru, food technologist at Melkassa Agricultural Research Center (MARC)—the only government institution working on agricultural machineries and tools—also says the government’s focus is mainly on expanding mechanization technologies among smallholder farmers. “This is because medium and large-scale farmers have the capacity to utilize and afford technologies.”

Established 30 years ago, MARC (directly funded by the federal government) has a comparatively coordinated mechanization department. It develops, adopts and modifies mechanized technologies that operate with human, animal and engine power; such as machineries used in pre and post harvest stages.

But, with limited capacity, it is difficult to expand agricultural technologies and tools on massive scale, according to Muhammad Yusuf (PhD), head of MARC. “Most agricultural research centers are inactive because their budget covers only operational costs. Agrarian and fast growing countries like Ethiopia need tremendous investment in R&D facilities at key agricultural production zones.”

To expand agricultural mechanization, the ATA and the MoANR are implementing a program called Agricultural Commercialization Cluster (ACC), under which farmers in nearby areas cultivate the same crops at the same time, making the use of agricultural machineries more convenient. The effort is to integrate the small plots owned by subsistence farmers and cultivate it as a single commercial farm. 239 woredas in four regions are already clustered. ACC is hoping to produce major crops and directly supply the agro industries currently under construction.

“ACC makes it convenient for farmers to buy mechanization technologies as a group, or rent them from service providers,” explains Habtemariam, the Innovation and Large Scale Demonstration Project Team Leader at Agricultural Transformation Agency. “The program is effective because farmers can use machineries across the plots, at the same time. It can be scaled up to a national level. ”

“Animal and human driven agricultural machineries can be used to increase productivity at the small-scale farmer level,” argues Mered Mengesha, General Manager of Selam Hawasa Business Group, one of the few private companies involved in the manufacturing of improved mechanization technologies.  “Engine driven machineries like tractors are not a must for smallholders. Yet, they must be able to access threshers, harvesters, and cleaners, at least by renting.”

Mered points out two factors for the low level of agricultural mechanization: “The first is farmers’ low awareness about the improved mechanization technologies and their limited access to finance. So far, our buyers are only the government and NGOs. The second is, our company has limitations in finance and in the skilled manpower necessary to invest in R&D, and produce for the market in large quantities.”

Yikunoamlak Tesfaye(Cap.), Marketing Head at Metal and Engineering Corporation (METEC), a public company involved in the production of agricultural machineries also stresses that the lack of finance has a big impact on the expansion of agricultural mechanization in Ethiopia. “Large stocks of mechanization machineries METEC produced are warehoused due to farmers’ lack of access to finance.”

Providing agricultural implements alone is not enough, according to Mered. “There have to be organized after sale services. Before importing agricultural machinery, there should be a thorough assessment on the importance and relevance of the implement and it has to be tested both in terms of operation, and mechanics.”

The expansion of mechanization in Ethiopia has faced a number of challenges in the distribution and use of agricultural machineries. In this regard, the major factors have been the lack of agricultural mechanization policy and strategy; as well as institutional capacity to unite stakeholders and provide focused support to increase the use of mechanized implements.

The fact that many farmers operate on land that is smaller than 1 hectare is also a major challenge limiting agricultural productivity through increased mechanization, according to the strategy. As a result, agricultural mechanization utilization remains insignificant in Ethiopia and limited to few geographic areas where large-scale farming is located. Given that agricultural mechanization is used only by a small subset of farmers, considerable effort needs to be made to effectively catalyze mechanization and reach a majority of farmers.

6th Year . January 16  – February 15 2018 . No.57


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