searching for new

Searching for New Solutions to an Old Problem

The major scare on Ethiopia’s international image is its incessant association with famine. Ethiopia has a cycle of drought that recurs every decade. Despite efforts to break the cycle and rise above the embarrassing and life threatening challenge, drought and famine still creep up. Despite decades of experience fighting the vice, Ethiopia still regularly struggles against food self-sufficiency problems. The lingering problem necessitates keeping dependable food reserves. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale investigates the problems behind this chronic problems and sheds light on the road ahead.

Ethiopia is not new to human or natural disaster caused shocks. From drought to civil war, the country has lost hundreds of thousands of its citizens to wide range of disasters over the last couple of decades. While drought has been the leading major hazard in the East African nation, it is followed by floods, displacement and internal conflicts. Even though the best option should have been preventing the crises before happening, recurring disasters made the country experienced in managing disaster-related food insecurity. Nonetheless, recent crisis management mechanisms adopted by the government portrayed that there is yet so much to learn.

A case in point is the political violence that claimed the lives of over a thousand citizens and the displacement of three million people last year. Food rations distributed to internally displaced people (IDPs) were insufficient, the specific needs of vulnerable people, such as young children or pregnant women, unmet. Overwhelmed by crisis happening after crisis, for the first time in a decade, the government was supposed to run depleted food reserve stocks. As the country faces critical food gap, prices of basic food items are skyrocketing. Earlier this year, food inflation reached its highest point in seven and half years.

To make things worse, as the government forecasts 30 million people will become food insecure due to the coronavirus, the country once again finds itself amidst a crisis. With over 200,000 hectares of land damaged by locust swarm, over a million citizens are also likely to join another 12 million citizens who are already in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, pouring oil to the flame of the crisis that could burst anytime soon. Taking Ethiopia’s precarious food supply systems into account, efforts are currently underway to boost grain reserves as part of the preparations for any unwanted consequences of such an unpredicted crisis. The country’s outdated, uncoordinated and poor system of risk management system would exacerbate the situation.

Crisis after Crisis
As per UNICEF and global projection, one percent lower growth in global economy translates to between 14 million and 22 million more people going to live in extreme poverty. UN-ECA also estimated that due to the COVID-19 crisis, 48Pct of Africans could be forced to live in poverty in Africa. Furthermore, the advances towards the realization of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) will be jeopardized, a major setback for a country like Ethiopia that met most of it.

Ethiopia’s Job Creation Commission predicted that 1.41 million people in manufacturing, construction and service sector will lose jobs in three months. The forecasts by the Ethiopian Economic Association are far worse as they put the potential jobs to be lost as high as eight million, including those that would be unemployed in the agricultural sector. Following new developments, National Planning and Development Commission (NPDC) slashed this year’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth projection to 6Pct, the least in a decade. While this is feared to worsen poverty, if Ethiopia fails to act faster and together, it would devastate the food security situation in the country.

The agricultural output for the next year will see significant decline, as desert locust already affected over two million hectares of farmland especially in Belg [February to May] rainy season producers in the South and South Eastern parts of Ethiopia. COVID-19 will also significantly affect the next harvest season since only 68Pct of the fertilizers and agricultural inputs required are supplied until the end of April 2020, while sawing starts in May. Lately, Sani Redi, State Minister for crop development at the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) disclosed 3.5 million quintals of harvest is lost due to locust. The amount lost could have fed 1.5 million people for a year.

Ethiopia, a country of over 112 million people, needs at least 22.5 million metric tons of grain per year for consumption based on the minimum calorie calculation.

Data from the Central Statistical Agency (CSA) indicate that Ethiopia’s agricultural production for the 2019/20 harvest season stood at 29 million metric tons (Meher and Belg), up by 14 million MT from last year. Of the total, 88Pct is cereal. Crop production has been growing by six percent on average but it is still not enough to address the galloping demands as a result of population growth. Around 30Pct of grain production is usually availed for market while the rest is consumed at household level.

Data from the Ministry of Agriculture indicate subtracting average post harvest loss, legal exports and the amount smuggled illegally, 20.6 million tons of cereal is available for consumption.

Grossly, there is around two million tons food gap between minimum per capita consumption and available agricultural output, even after importing 2.5 million tons in 2019/20. This brings the annual per capita grain consumption of Ethiopians to 206kilograms. So with the already felt impacts of the virus, it is likely that food insecurity will worsen in the country, if the disaster is not going to be managed systematically.

Disaster management has four cycles: normal, alert, emergency and recovery. Alert involves identifying the vulnerable, preparedness and mitigation actions, according to experts. Ethiopia, however, usually lacks the stage of identifying vulnerability on the ground and taking contingency plan. “The rough assessments are usually multi-hazard and not specific. For instance, there is no vulnerability index on how many pastoralists will be affected per woreda or per 1,000,” Abraham Mebratu (PhD), an environmental engineer at the Institute of Disaster Risk Management (IDRM) at Bahirdar University (BDU). “Due to the absence of such index, we cannot predict how many farmers have no seed for the next cultivation season.”

The other institutional gap is NDRMC is usually attached to Ministry of Agriculture, which usually focuses on its mandates than giving emphasis to disaster risk management. “The focus should have been applying the scientific management mechanisms, which focus on prior preparation and mitigation than fighting fire all the time,” Abraham Mebratu (PhD), an environmental engineer at the Institute of Disaster Risk Management (IDRM) at Bahirdar University (BDU).

NDRMC projected that 6.7 million MT food supply is required to feed 30 million people for half a year assuming the situation will last for six months. Keeping the impacts of the locusts in mind, addition two million tons of food is also required.

Currently, Ethiopia is imports 650,000 quintals of wheat, 615,000 quintal sugar, 40 million liter edible oil and 399 million liter fuel every month according to Melaku Alebel, newly appointed Minister of Trade and Industry. Normally, Ethiopia imports 600,000MT wheat per year, and additional 600,000MT grains either commercially for food assistance for market stabilization or relief and productive safety net programme (PSNP). Exceptionally the total import reached 1.4 million MT due to El-Niño induced drought in 2017. The latest effort of Addis Ababa City Administration in establishing some 1,200 food banks, including stocks at 800 consumer association stores, is part of the effort of maximizing food reserve ahead of the worst.

Government is also thriving to cultivate all the farm lands, including turning idle sugar farms into cereal farm lands, according to Fitsum Asefa (PhD), commissioner, NPDC. “Unless we supply necessary agricultural input timely, we will miss the upcoming main harvest season. If so, agriculture, our last economic resort, will be affected even for the post COVID-19 era. Food crisis will be higher and it will be difficult to revive the economy.” Fitsum argues the crisis will not amount to an economic recession. However, she recommends regional states to follow the steps taken by Addis Ababa.

Melese Awoke, senior communication associate at World Food Programme (WFP) Ethiopia, says efforts in building food banks like Addis Ababa is essential but the scope of the reserve is limited only to the COVID-19 scenario. “Larger food reserves are critical for the long run inorder to avert the impacts of locust, drought and agricultural failures,” Melese said.“WFP is completely successful in providing humanitarian food supply for over 10 million people over the last five years under El-Niño, continuous drought, flood, internal displacement, ball worm, and desert locust. COVID-19 requires a sophisticated approach and we are working on that too. We are working on how we can operate under the [physical] distancing restriction, besides mobilizing the funds required.”

Debebe Zewdie, communication director for NDRMC, agrees. “Food reserve needs have never been fulfilled from the domestic market. More import is required, as more people are expected to lose job and production will also decline. The COVID-19 national committee is analyzing the impacts and also collecting funding resources,” he says.
NDRC largely operates in rural areas. However, the door to door food supply is expected in urban area too, if the crisis worsens. Currently some regional states and Addis Ababa are making food bank preparations. “This is great but it serves for short time. NDRC is preparing for the long run. The ultimate solution for Ethiopia will be producing surplus agricultural produce and substituting import. The effort started to produce wheat in lowland and replace import, initiated by the PM must continue at large level,” Debebe says. WFP and FAO, however, recommend adequate food reserve for food insecure countries. Food reserve in Ethiopia is critical for Emergency program, PSNP, price stabilization and school feeding.

Revisiting Ethiopia’s Food Reserve System
When the Parliament approved ETB514 million capital budget for National Disaster Risk Management Commission to build new warehouses in Finoteselam, Hosaena, Kebridehar during the existing financial year, the target was to upgrade the countries actual Strategic Food Reserve(SFR) from existing half a million tons and prepare for escalating food insecurity. Food security is ensured when people have physical and economic access to minimum food required for active life. However, SFR requires institutional arrangement, equal to availability.

Ethiopia is located in the Great Rift Valley earth dynamism, on the verge of expanding the Sahara desert and ever changing horn Africa climate. It is largely dependent on subsistence and rain-fed agriculture. That is why institutions such as FAO highly recommend Ethiopia to maintain food reserve to feed vulnerable population for up to six months.

This is also considering the several months it takes to float bid, purchase and import grain from international market, and up to six months time it takes for the next main harvest season since the level of irrigation and cultivating fast crops is limited. Ethiopia, however, has policy of keeping food reserve that covers at least three months. At times of drought or famine times, WFP supplies up to 800,000 MT per year, while non-WFP contributes half of that. Humanitarian appeal usually fetches up to 1.2 million MT.

Food reserve involves two major dimensions, availability and institutional arrangement. SFR is an old practice. It has been practiced in the early civilizations of Egypt, China and Roman. In modern economy, many countries have been relying on international market and aid agencies, until the 2008 economic crisis, after which almost every state started maximizing own SFR. Ethiopia even started banning grain exports like teff and maize, while allowing imports of wheat for selected millers.

To be exact, maintaining grain reserve as an integral part of emergency responses and price stabilization started in Ethiopia when grain board was established in 1950s.

For a decade until 2014/5, Ethiopia’s (SFRA’s) minimum food reserve volume was 405,000MT, which is contentious among scholars. SFRA’s stock declined from over 200,000MT to just 7,600MT in September 2008, owing to unusually continuous high food inflation. The government, through SFRA, planned to increase strategic food reserve from 405,000 MT in 2014/5 baseline to 1.5 million by 2019/20, but half of which is achieved so far.

The Strategic Food Reserve Agency (SFRA), former Emergency Food Security Reserve Administration (EFSRA), was the main food reserve institution in Ethiopia before it merged with NDRMC, which now stocks food at its eight major warehouses at Adama, Kombolcha, Mekele, Shashemene, Shinile, Wolayta, Woreta. Capacity utilization of SFR warehouses stood at 63Pct. Over 62Pct of the storages in Ethiopia have capacity and standard to store only for less than three months, while other countries have up to nine months. Out of the total 2.8 million tons warehouse capacity in Ethiopia, WFP rents around 700,000 MT, while SFRA/NDRMC around half a million tons and the rest are run by ministries and agencies.

Basically, NDRMC do not directly give reserves to the food insecure people. It buys grains from domestic and international markets and stores it. Relief agencies borrow the food when ministerial board established to administer the reserve approves.

Government also borrows to stabilize market through consumer associations like in subsidized bread flour. Once their fund is released, shipment arrives or harvest is marketed and the borrowers return the grain back to SFRA.
Ethiopia usually fails to maintain the planned SFR due to high storage cost. Cost of storing a ton ranges between USD20 and USD46, according to case studies done in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Mali by IFPRI. ‘Increasing stock level can potentially has large negative consequences: Especially in the absence of the right institutional designs, optimal stocks, and integration with the safety nets, it can depress market prices and increase subsidy bills.’

Countries with reserve stocks have been able to respond more quickly and cheaply than those with limited or no reserves. According to FAO, 43 countries reduce tariff and customs fees to encourage import and stock food, 35 countries sell grain from public stock or import, 23 countries suspended or reduced taxes, while 25 countries restricted or banned exports. Some 21 African states control grain price.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 70Pct of the countries maintain public food reserves for emergency and price stabilization. Countries like Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Mali, Sudan and Ghana maintain relatively small stocks for emergency relief, while other states like Zambia, Malawi and Nigeria have larger programmes.

Ethiopia, with over 110 million population and higher vulnerabilities, currently keeps around 400,000 MT reserves, enough to keep 10 million people for four months, calculating 40KG per head. Nigeria’s strategic grain reserve policy mandates 15Pct of total annual grain harvest should be held in reserve, this is very high compared to Ethiopia’s 1.4Pct. Zambia’s food reserve agency holds over 350,000 tons of maize alone, over one tenth of its production.

Due to lack of regional food reserve institution, Informal Cross-Border Trade in East Africa (ICBT) comprises 60Pct of the overall trade, according to Muauz Gidey (PhD), delinking ICBT and violence for regional integration in the horn of Africa, Mekele University.

According to EU 2018 case study on food reserve trends in Ethiopia ‘Public FR play only a minor role in the current food system, essentially functioning as working stocks that expand temporarily to facilitate emergency relief operations, while the institutions charged with management of food stocks and emergency relief have grown increasingly effective in addressing crises. Nonetheless, because the country remains susceptible to drought, Ethiopia will continue to need well-chosen public investments and well-functioning institutions to maintain or surpass the remarkable improvements in food security it has achieved over the past two decades.’

Experts recommend Ethiopia to invest in irrigation, mechanization, commercial faming, to end dependency on subsistence farming. They also focus on the need to divert resources from highland to the vast fertile lowland in the eastern part of the country. A large proportion of fertile land has been idle since the beginning.

“Under #Covid19, government can provide money if there is production on the market, like USD1,00 per person in USA. But if the agriculture is affected, supplying food door to door is critical. So far agriculture is good. The major problem in Ethiopia is drought, which escalates demand but decrease supply. This necessitates import of grain and food stock. For the long run, Ethiopia must gear its economic policies towards irrigation, mechanization, end dependence on subsistence farming, reducing post harvest loss, besides industrialization,” says Abraham.

Aklilu Hailemariam (PhD), a senior expert at Center for Food Security Studies at AAU, agrees. “The worst impact of #Covid19 might be stopping food circulation in the market. Producers and buyers might be afraid, or restricted from going to market. Middlemen suppliers also might hold supply to inflate price. There are also many systemic problems ahead like acute shortage of foreign currency to import grain.” he says.

The country has no local fertilizer production, which might affect continuing farming under extended Covi19, according to Aklilu. The acute shortage of foreign currency to import agricultural inputs will also exacerbate the problem. “Farmers might not be able to access extension services too,” he says. “Under such circumstances, the country will lead to a cyclic food and economic crisis.”

Aklilu urges preparing recovery plan for post Covid19 is equally necessary. “The country must focus on local capacity building and import substitution. Agricultural items must be exported after fully addressing local demand. To avert this, it is important that the country pays due attention to boosting domestic production of [agricultural inputs and supplies].”EBR


9th Year • May.16 – Jun.15 2020 • No. 86

Ashenafi Endale


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