By Yonas Tafesse, Consultant, IWMI
Smallholder agriculture provides livelihoods for most of Ethiopia’s people. However, as a largely rain-fed system that is dependant on the natural environment, it is hampered by environmental degradation, limited investment, poor agricultural water management and climate change. This reality is most vivid in the Central Rift Valley area, where smallholders frequently suffer from low yields and failed harvests.
Efforts made by the Ethiopian government and development partners to bolster the rain-fed farming sector have thus far been largely ineffective. For example, off-season, water-harvesting technologies built by different actors have performed poorly, with seepage, evaporation, and sedimentation presenting major challenges. Now, new research indicates that making a range of cropping and water-management options available to farmers could produce better outcomes.
Initial work conducted collaboratively between Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture and IWMI under the Participatory Small-Scale Irrigation Development Program, indicated that farmers could particularly benefit when technologies for sourcing, lifting and applying water were packaged with information on appropriate crop options and their water requirements, and underpinned by a cost-benefit analysis. This pilot project which was funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, concluded in April 2022.
Its findings are now being explored further under the Natural Resource Management for Resilience and Economic Development in Rural Ethiopia (N4D) program, led by FARM Africa with funding from the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). This initiative seeks to promote rural economic development, build resilience among smallholders, and conserve biodiversity in Oromia and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s regions of the Central Rift Valley. IWMI is conducting suitability assessments to identify appropriate technologies and approaches, evaluating business models that will best support farmers to finance and implement the chosen interventions, and undertaking capacity development with selected farmers.
Identifying appropriate options
Conducting suitability assessments involves examining a smallholder’s current farming approach and revenue, then identifying types of irrigation and cropping that could likely help them to sustainably boost their income. For example, agricultural water might potentially be sourced from shallow or deep groundwater, surface sources or from roof- or road-water harvesting. These varying sources determine which lifting technologies – including treadle, solar and motor pumps – would be most appropriate for the farmer in question. Being able to irrigate crops outside of the rainy season opens the possibility of harvesting more than a single crop a year.
For smallholders in the Central Rift Valley, high-value cash crops (such as papaya, avocado, lemon, onion and cabbage) are financially viable and have lower water needs than traditionally grown crops (such as teff, maize and wheat) once established. Different irrigation methods – including furrow and pot irrigation, overhead application and drip systems – can be used according to the chosen crops and local environmental conditions. The hope is that, armed with a range of options, farmers will be better placed to cope with the challenges of climate change.
Testing the approach
The benefits of taking a bundled approach to climate-smart farming are already becoming apparent for one smallholder, Mr. Worku Mideksa, who farms in Dugda District of Oromia. Fifty-year-old Mr. Worku, who is a particularly hard-working and diligent farmer and father of seven, undertook capacity development training from IWMI under the N4D program. As part of the initiative, Mr. Worku was provided with a plastic ‘geomembrane’ pond liner, treadle pump, and other equipment. Together with neighbouring farmers, he was also trained in how to use these technologies.
“Mr. Worku is the leading farmer to swiftly develop a traditional pond in his small backyard for the cultivation of fruits and vegetables,” says Dr. Amare Haileselassie, IWMI Principal Researcher. Having formerly grown traditional crops, he now undertakes beekeeping in conjunction with fruit and vegetable farming and has enough food for his family. “I am farming green pepper, banana, lemon and cabbage on my tiny plot of land, thanks to the technology support from IWMI,” agrees Mr. Worku, happily. “My wife is also selling the fruits and vegetables from our private shop for earning additional family income.”
Spreading the word
Thanks to his commitment in trialling the new approach, Mr. Worku’s income is growing and this success is helping his family to enhance their standard of living. Meanwhile, other farmers in the vicinity are able to see the postive changes that have occurred as a result of his switching crops and employing water-harvesting technology. The aim is that the word will spread and, given suitable financing options, that other farmers will follow suit. “IWMI and Farm Africa have thus far given water-harvesting technology bundles to 50 farming households, and this act is really empowering all of the farmers in our area,” witnesses Mr. Hajii Dori, a Development Agent with Dugda District Agriculture Office.