A local farmer's success growing apples reflects the Ethiopian government's plans to invest in farming and achieve growth
Dadi Yadete with one of his apple trees.
Fields of red sorghum in terraced fields that stretch into the distance are a common sight in the scenic mountains of eastern Ethiopia, giving a misleading impression of bountiful harvests despite this year's drought in the east Africa.
Farmers tie five or more tall sorghum stalks together so they support one another, and the red seeds at the top of the plant grow heavier as the plants ripen, giving them a triffid-like appearance. A common plant and an important staple crop for millions of poor Ethiopians, sorghum is ubiquitous in the region around Dire Dawa, 352km north-east of Addis Ababa, the capital.
Apple orchards are a more surprising presence. Dadi Yadete, a bearded 72-year-old, took a gamble three years ago and started growing apples, a fruit that he didn't know. Hesitant and doubtful initially, he planted 12 trees, but the experiment has paid off. Located 2,300 metres above sea level, these Ethiopian highlands enjoy a temperate climate, almost alpine, where apples can thrive.
Yadete, who has two wives and nine children, now has 70 flourishing apple trees on his small plot of land – about 0.5 hectares – where he also has a large avocado tree. He also grows barley, a few coffee bushes, sweet potato, green pepper and bright red hot chillies.
"Life was very difficult when I was trying to grow maize and barley," said Yadete. "I was producing nothing and I was receiving food aid, now I don't need food aid." He gets about $600 a year from the sale of his apples, and he owns four cows and two oxen, which makes him a relatively wealthy man.
One cow and one ox count as wealth in Ethiopia, which ranked 174 out of 187 countries in the 2011 human development index. Ethiopia is to receive £331m ($521m) in British aid a year until 2015, making it one of the biggest beneficiaries of UK development money. Growth has been impressive in recent years, although its human rights record is frequently criticised.
Others in Yadete's village of Thefebanti, which has about 200 households (five people to a household on average) are also prospering through the sale of apples, as well as the production of seedlings. A few steps away from Yadete's plot, a group of women are packing little pots with soil and compost as the village also has a tree nursery. There are rows of tree seedlings, including prodocarpus – good for timber – and hagenia and juniper.
The village is doing well, despite initial impressions of extreme poverty. A bumpy unpaved road runs past homes made from mud and wattle with corrugated iron roofs, but a regular market in the village and proximity to the main road give it an advantage over remote villages higher in the mountains.
Yadete and his fellow villagers are the beneficiaries of Meret (from the Amharic word for land), a joint venture between the UN's World Food Programme and the Ethiopian government. A response to the food crises of the 1970s, Meret targets chronically food insecure communities with the WFP providing food for those involved – 3kg of cereal every work day – to each participant for three months. Meret also provides technical advice for farmers to reforest barren hillsides, and build or refurbish terraces. The key is to win the commitment and trust of the villagers.
In contrast to the top-down approach of the notorious Derg – the Mengistu regime that ruled from 1972 to 1991 – Meret workers discuss with farmers their problems and the steps they need to take. In the case of Yadete and his fellow farmers, agreement was reached to close off the top of the mountain slopes above the village to farming and grazing for two years. Trees were planted, terraces built or repaired, and the slopes dotted with mini water barriers made of stone and earth in the shape of a v (herrings), or semi-circles (eyebrows) that help to retain water and to heal the land.
About 45% of Ethiopia's land is above 1,500m, with mountainous terrain, plateaux, steep slopes and deep valleys. Despite extensive groundwater resources, 90% of agriculture depends on rainfall rather than irrigation. Rains, which tend to occur in bursts concentrated in three to four months of the year, has grown more erratic in recent years, which has been attributed to climate change.
Because of population pressure – at 79 million, Ethiopia is Africa's second most populous nation, after Nigeria – much of the land in the highlands has been overfarmed, and trees have been cut down, allowing rainwater to flow downhill instead of being retained. In parts of this region, the terraces look bone dry and the sorghum stunted.
The Dire Dawa sub-office covers 59 Meret sites in 13 districts, a total of 35,500 households, taking in 175,000 people who benefited directly from the programme this year. The sites cover 53,866 hectares but, as Meret officials point out, it is a drop in the ocean, despite a big push on agriculture.
Ethiopia is devoting 17% of its budget to farming, well above the 10% commitment agreed by African governments. In its ambitious growth and transformation plan, Ethiopia has set an overall target of at least 8.1% growth in agriculture between 2011 and 2015 as part of its goal to reach middle-income status by 2025. It calls for more than doubling the production of key crops from 18.1m to 39.5m tonnes.
Agriculture is key for Ethiopia, accounting for 45% of economic output and employing about 80% of the population. Despite its dependence on rainwater, agricultural experts see no reason why the country cannot be Africa's breadbasket if it realises its agricultural potential. "As long as you can control the water, you can grow whatever you want," said a private investor, who is leasing land for dairy cows.
In 2008, the prime minister, Meles Zenawi, commissioned the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to write a review of agriculture to see why the country was not getting a bigger bang for its birr. The review concluded that despite significant investment, there was a lack of co-ordination among government agencies and a lack of skilled staff to implement largescale initiatives.
The review looked at other countries, such as Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea and Chile, that had successfully transformed agriculture, and found that a common denominator was an institution that drove change. Meles liked the review, and decided to set up the Agricultural Transformation Agency. Unusually, he appointed someone from the Ethiopian diaspora – Khalid Bomba, 45, a former investment banker at JP Morgan – to lead it. The ATA office in Addis, which opened in August, fizzes with the energy of a start-up as young, eager staff bustle about in stark contrast to the sleepy atmosphere over at the ministry of agriculture.
Bomba explains that the ATA's job will be to identify bottlenecks in the system and try to come up with solutions, and to co-ordinate the activities of key players from the agriculture ministry to the country's four biggest regions.
Bomba gives an example of the kind of hurdles he faces in the planting of tef, a cereal used to make Ethiopia's spongy flatbread staple, injera. "We have carried out promising tests that show farmers can grow more by using less seeds and planting in rows instead of a scatter approach," said Bomba. "It's counter-intuitive, but the yield is higher by sowing 5kg of tef instead of 25kg-30kg per hectare. The problem is that we don't have the people to train the agricultural extension workers to spread the message to the farmers."
The jury is out on the ATA, although Bomba has Meles's ear, which counts for much in what one development official described as the world's last Albanian-type Marxist state. As long as Meles is around, other ministers will have to pay attention to the ATA, which is overseen by a board chaired by the prime minister himself. Bomba sees himself staying in the job for three to five years to train Ethiopian officials to take over and run the agency themselves. The plan is for the agency to phase itself out in 15 years' time.
While Bomba and others in Addis grapple with policy issues, Yadete is doing his bit for Ethiopian agriculture by growing his apples. Despite his successful adoption of a fruit that he had never tasted until three years ago, Yadete and his wife hardly eat their apples, which he describes as tasting like bananas. "I don't eat the apples," he says, "Whenever I see them, I see money."