Tracing Agricultural Transformation in Ethiopia

There is a “new talisman” on the African continent. According to the Financial Times, it is Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s recently-installed, Obama-esque premier, widely hailed for his promises to open political space, usher in economic liberalization, and remake the country’s poor record on human rights. To use the language of the recent letter nominating the prime minister for a Nobel Peace Prize, Ahmed has been “a symbol of peace and justice.”

However, to truly transform his country, Prime Minister Ahmed must first transform agriculture. Agriculture, after all, is the nucleus of the economy and by far the largest employer.

The problem is that agricultural transformation—a process in which farmer incomes go up, crop productivity expands, and market inefficiencies diminish—has proven to be elusive.

It’s not that there hasn’t been growth in the agricultural sector. Scholars have shown that, between 2004 and 2014, real agricultural output in Ethiopia grew by an impressive 7.6 percent per year on average. Driving this increase were public investments in the adoption of things like chemical fertilizer and improved seeds.

Yet the economic growth chorale in Ethiopia has been singing a similar song about farming for five decades. A 1969 report by the Stanford Research Institute, The Development of Agriculture and Agro-Industry in Ethiopia, maps almost perfectly onto the agricultural policy goals cited in the country’s 2010-2015 strategic plan. The themes are consistent—intensify production, promote commercial investment, and strengthen public institutional support—and, by appearance, they embody a certain apolitical logic that construes growth and development as technical projects with technical solutions. Hence their relatively changeless nature over time.

Indeed, there is a sense among many that Ethiopian agriculture has fallen into arrested development: transformation either isn’t really happening, or it isn’t happening fast enough. Such, at least, were the modulated perspectives the Global Food Security Project heard on our recent research trip to Ethiopia. We spoke with a wide range of stakeholders involved in agricultural development—representatives from multilateral institutions, non-governmental organizations, research groups, senior government officials, policymakers, and donors. The question on the status of agricultural transformation elicited a consistent response: meh.

There is a sense among many that Ethiopian agriculture has fallen into arrested development: transformation either isn’t really happening, or it isn’t happening fast enough.

But when we spoke with Khalid Bomba, the CEO of Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), his answer was considered. “There is no question that agricultural transformation is well underway in Ethiopia,” he said, citing a significant increase over the past fifteen years in the share of farmers using improved seeds, organic and inorganic fertilizers, and modern agricultural practices. At the same time, “much more could and needs to be done to accelerate and institutionalize this progress.” For Bomba, this includes engaging women and youth more effectively, increasing access to mechanization, and building resilience among smallholder farmers to shocks stemming from climate change.

That learned nuance belies the prolifically innovative ferocity of the ATA, founded in 2011 with support from the Gates Foundation to address systemic bottlenecks in the country’s agriculture sector. Amid relentless scholarly and multilateral noise on poor governance in Africa, the government agency is simply getting work done. Case in point: ATA’s EthioSIS, the Ethiopian Soil Information System. This digital soil fertility map covers 748 of the country’s 800 woredas (districts) and is built from information gleaned from hundreds of thousands of soil samples and remotely-sensed satellite imagery. Since its launch in 2012, ATA has published soil-based fertilizer recommendations and maps for major regions such as Amhara, Harare, SNNP, Tigray, and Oromia, with the remaining regions slated to be completed this year. The Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research is leveraging these data further to develop crop-specific fertilizer recommendations.

Amid relentless scholarly and multilateral noise on poor governance in Africa, Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency is simply getting work done.

Since healthier soils are a prerequisite for healthier plants, and soil needs vary across agro-ecological zones, fertilizer maps could be one major component of effectively closing the gaps between potential and actual yields in African agriculture. Better yields, in turn, can help strengthen food security. In other words: effectively identify soil fertilizer needs, and you’ve taken a critical step towards improving food security for smallholder farmers.

Source: Agricultural Transformation Agency

The ATA has also developed a hotline for smallholder farmers with interactive voice response and short message service (IVR/SMS) capabilities. The number is easy to remember: 8028. It’s toll-free and provides farmers with seasonally-pertinent information: when and how to plant different crops and how to identify and treat diseases like Wheat Rust and Fall Armyworm. The service fields questions in five different languages. The number of registered callers to date? Over four million . That’s a third of the country’s smallholder farmers.

Bad governance noisemakers have a point, of course: the problems are real. And, as the American anthropologist James Ferguson observed, when it comes to development, technical innovation isn’t the same thing as deep political reform; focusing on the former has the potential to depoliticize problems that are unquestionably political.

Consider Ethiopia’s fertilizer sector. Fertilizer is imported by a state enterprise, the Ethiopian Agricultural Businesses Corporation (EABC). So replete are the EABC’s fertilizer supply chains with high transaction costs that smallholders end up paying two to three times what they should for inputs like DAP (diammonium phosphate) and urea, according to some research. According to people knowledgeable on the issue, EABC runs the fertilizer sector for what it sees as a good reason: to avoid monopolistic outcomes like price gouging. That is ironic and perhaps reflective of a conviction that, where smallholders and their needs are concerned, most everything is within the purview of the state. The private sector, consequently, is simply crowded out.

So, what does this mean for ATA’s EthioSIS fertilizer maps? Are such technological innovations, aimed at agricultural transformation, inconsequential when compared to those other structural bottlenecks that—like fertilizer access—seem to be politically intransigent? What, by the way, does agricultural transformation practically entail? And how can U.S. policymakers effectively support the efforts of organizations like the ATA to deliver it?

These questions are at the heart of our forthcoming report on the ATA’s past wins, present endeavors, and future challenges. Our top-line message is straightforward: if Ethiopian agricultural transformation is the goal—and stagnation the danger—then donor countries like the United States need to give institutions like the ATA the capacity and latitude for genuinely radical leadership.

Christian Man is a research fellow with the Global Food Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Christian Man
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Global Food Security Program