The Quest for Robust and Inclusive Agricultural Policy in Ethiopia

Shimelis ArayaMarch 15, 202114460

The negative impact on African economies of the COVID-19 pandemic was easily evidenced by the shrinking real GDP of all countries, according to reports released from international organizations. Reports further demonstrated that the extent of the economic slowdown in most countries is linked to the level of integration to the global value-chain, particularly to trade and tourism. A drop in world demand leads to a decline in prices for many of the primary commodities. Specifically, the economic contraction is bigger for exporters of fuel and horticultures. This hugely affected production and export of all economies. African countries through the African Union (AU) are calling to the world’s creditors to reduce or cancel debt. The demand for debt reduction is mainly due to the pandemic that has a devastating effect on the continent’s economy.

The occurrence of the pandemic has coincided with other problems, such as severe weather events and desert locusts, exacerbating the crisis and further reducing efforts to alleviate the impacts of the pandemic on the overall economy and human livelihoods in eastern Africa. The second wave of the pandemic is hitting the advanced nations hard and currently many of these countries are in serious lockdown measures. As a result, managing these crises on their own efforts brings an enormous challenge to African states which have already accumulated substantial amounts of external debt for many years into the future.

Given the role played by the agricultural sector to GDP contribution and employment opportunities, these African nations should design robust agricultural growth policies to strengthen resilient farming systems so as to realize agricultural growth in the short-term post-pandemic world and ignite sustainable agricultural development in the long-term. In this regard, developing and implementing context-specific policies that aim to increase agriculture investments will keep unemployment rates understandably low and trigger overall economic growth in many of the countries located in the sub-Saharan Africa region.

Ethiopia should also look for a new agricultural policy to transform the sector in order to catalyze the overall national economic development. This is because agricultural development is vital for food and nutrition security, poverty reduction, rural development, and is a transformation vehicle for industrial expansion through backward and forward linkage. For Ethiopia’s internal political challenges to be improved sustainably, it is not an easy task to find a long-term solution by only adopting political reform, as many politicians and activists are advocating. This is to mean that holding free and fair elections alone so as to improve the democratic environment will not bring the desired stability in the country. The bread question in Africa in general, and particularly in Ethiopia remains the major unresolved issue.

We do not need government officials to lecture us about economic crisis appearing in studios of state-owned propaganda machines, citing basic neoclassical economic theories and models. For that, we have enough experts to tell us, teaching at various universities in the country. The public wants to see action. We did not want to listen to empty talk from governmental authorities. This is because the situation in the future is to be more complex and difficult than today. Ethiopia’s population is expected to be doubled by 2050. This booming population will result in an expanding urban population and will further lead to a decline in per capita land holdings. This is a demographic time bomb. Climate change is another global phenomenon with enormous impact on developing countries because their economies are hugely dependent on rainfed agricultural production. We cannot avoid the occurrence of climate change; however, it is imperative to put in place a timely agricultural policy that is capable of addressing the booming population and climate change challenges.

The Asian continent passed through a similar challenge (booming population) and managed to transform its agriculture and feed its growing population with the help of the green-revolution strategy. In the 1960s, research findings reported that serious food insecurity and famine plagued many Asian countries. However, agricultural yield and output doubled from the mid-1960s to the 1990s with the help of applications of improved varieties, increased fertilizer use, irrigation and extensive public spending in infrastructure and agricultural research. With such a robust policy reform implemented, many of the Asian economies effectively managed to change the structures of their economies in a manner that is impossible to revert to an earlier stage of development. That achievement was one of the most transformative episodes in the history of agricultural development witnessed globally. The speed and scale with which it solved the food problem was remarkable, and it contributed to a substantial reduction in poverty and the launching of broader economic growth.

This has led to renewed calls to emulate the best practices from Asian achievements to promote agricultural investment in Africa since the 1990s. Most of the countries in sub-Sahara Africa have begun to show an urgent need for implementing a green revolution strategy. To counter the chronic food insecurity challenge of the continent, African policymakers have agreed that increased public investments in agriculture is a must to transform the traditional agriculture into one that uses modern technology and commercial practices. To this end, prominent initiatives such as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) and the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) were established in the 2000s in Africa. AGRA is an Africa-led organization established in 2006, with substantial funding support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as well as the Rockefeller Foundation, to deal with agricultural development in Africa.

However, many are criticizing AGRA for working to legalize the genetically modified (GM) crops in Africa given its connection to the philanthropists. The CAADP framework rooted in the 2003 Maputo Declaration calls for African agricultural research institutions, farmers’ associations, African governments, and the private sector to collectively develop, heighten investment, and stimulate agricultural production and growth. The declaration urged AU Member States to invest at least 10Pct of their national budgets towards agricultural activities so as to generate approximately 6Pct annual agricultural growth rate.

In the early 1990s, Ethiopia launched the Agricultural Development-Led Industrialization strategy, in short known as ADLI, with the aim of generating fast agricultural growth in the country. The strategy aspires a ‘technology first’ approach to replicate the success of the Asian green revolution. Despite policy efforts to accelerate growth since the 1990s, various studies reported that rapid and remarkable agricultural expansion in Ethiopia were recorded mainly during 2004–14.

Studies further noted that Ethiopia is one of few African countries that meet the CAADP commitment to spend 10Pct of the national annual budget on agriculture using its various five-year development plans put in place in the country for successive periods. Following this state-led substantial spending on agriculture, total production of all crops in Ethiopia increased significantly. However, this is largely dominated by cereal production. The sharp national production increase was mainly driven by intensification (yield increases) rather than extensification (bringing more land under cultivation). The most significant growth has taken place in Ethiopia’s maize and wheat production. The maize revolution in Ethiopia is prominently linked to the increased adoption of hybrid maize varieties in potential maize surroundings.

Despite these achievements following the ADLI initiative, there are various issues in Ethiopia that have departed from the Asian green revolution way. The first concern is how budget allocation is prioritized. Despite the recognition of meeting CAADP targets, public expenditure was mainly done on expanding agricultural extension and infrastructural facilities (mainly connecting districts through rural road networking) as opposed to what has been done in the Asian green revolution: targeting research and development (R&D). The government has assigned extension workers (also known as development agents (DAs)) in all Kebele administrative structures across the countryside. To this end, three extension workers specialized in crop cultivation, animal production, and soil and water conservation practices were stationed at grassroot locations. The key mission of the extensionists is to provide training and education to smallholder farmers and provide information on how to adopt soil and water resource conservation and management practices.

Attracted by these fancy goals, a substantial amount of development funds was transferred to the Ethiopian government but ended up serving political interests of the ruling regime. According to studies, these extension workers were hugely involved in non-extension activities such as spending excessive time collecting data related to input demand and distribution all over the country similar to what private input dealers in other countries do. This is because the government had a strong desire to use the extension system as a political control mechanism. Therefore, the government hid the intention of using the extension program as an instrument for political control to secure electoral support in contradiction to the grand mission of the extension system.

The agricultural research and extension linkage is very weak in Ethiopia. Breeding centers are mainly mandated to develop uniform varieties aimed at providing high-yielding crop varieties for rainfall rich and favorable locations. The problem is that the same crop varieties were distributed to the drylands and areas affected by frequent drought, all based on the national initiative of ‘scaling up of best practices in technology adoption’. In general, this ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategy is a misguided approach because farmers have heterogeneous characteristics and hence, they need a wide range of diverse crop varieties to meet their varying demands that satisfy their specific household requirements and agroecological conditions. With the existing breeding practice, farmer households located in marginal and environmentally harsh areas are benefiting very little the breeding improvements.

Most importantly, ADLI neglected the livestock sub-sector. Given the potential of the livestock sub-sector in the lowlands and pastoralist economies, there is a need to revisit the existing agricultural policy with a goal to take into account the significant role played by the livestock sector

Linking Ethiopian smallholder farmers with the latest crop and livestock technologies requires a supportive policy environment. The government should intervene in input and output markets through subsidies and compensation measures to make sure that farmers are paid adequately each year for their produce, proving the technologies profitable. Big farmers located in the developed world such as Germany enjoy attractive subsidies from their governments annually and they also have access to unlimited credit facilities at lower interest rates. This boosted their agricultural investment and became highly productive (on average eight to ten metric tons of wheat per hectare). Accordingly, 1Pct of the German population who are totally engaged in farming is capable of feeding the entire population of the country with the remaining surplus produce exported mainly to Africa.

The new agricultural policy should take into account current developments in global agriculture and future contextual conditions as well as challenges. The most dominant challenge hindering sustainable agriculture is inadequate agricultural research and development (R&D). Thus, policymakers should convene to increase investment towards modern agricultural R&D and innovative activities to address the problem of food insecurity in an effective way. Modern agricultural technologies have the potential to make agriculture more productive, competitive, and sustainable. These technologies should also include state-of-the-art 4th industrial revolution technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) enabled precision agriculture technologies, blockchain technologies, greenhouses, and modern livestock farming. Currently, international development organizations are using blockchain solutions to help farmers access quality agricultural inputs in the face of information asymmetry concerns by fostering digital and e-commerce marketplaces, micro-lending and financing platforms, and crop insurance services.

For instance, neighboring countries like Kenya and Rwanda have utilized AI-enabled drone technologies to apply pesticides on crops, improve irrigation schedules, and field management.
In conclusion, sustainable intensification of crop and livestock production systems will have significant benefits in supporting food security, creating wealth and jobs, promoting trade, and competitiveness. To radically change Ethiopian agriculture, the country must focus to invest in cutting-edge modern agricultural technology R&D. Now, it is time for Ethiopia to address food security by utilizing appropriate modern technologies (including of modern irrigation techniques) to become the food basket for the African continent and the Middle East. The new agricultural policy should address these critical issues.


9th Year • Feb 16 – Mar 15 2021 • No. 95

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