Standing up for Ethiopian Farmers Part I By Geletaw Zeleke

August 8th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

In my last article “The Shocking Truth of ‘Double Digit Growth’ ” I spoke of the worsening economic conditions of Ethiopian civil servants over the last 20 years. This decline has resulted in the weakening of Ethiopian civil servants’ economic empowerment (ትዳር የማሸነፍ ጉልበት) by seven times in the face of government claims of “rapid growth”.

In this article I will discuss the deteriorating quality of life of Ethiopian farmers during the same twenty years. In order to understanding the predicament of Ethiopian farmers of today two significant misconceptions need to be addressed first. The first problem is that some people seem to think that Ethiopian farmers are benefiting from the recent, high rise in food prices. The truth is however that the majority of Ethiopian farmers, or more than 80% of farmers who plough farms of less than one hectare of land, do not benefit from increased food prices. The second problem is that the Ethiopian government who proclaims a progressive development policy through its Agriculture Development Lead Industry (ADLI) is not giving adequate support to rural development. In order to elaborate these points let’s take a look at the actual economic life of typical farmers first.

1) Farmers’ economic status

In the sea of Ethiopia’s economic decline the condition of Ethiopian farmers might be examined by observing their relative income. However, since farmers do not have fixed incomes as their civil servant counters parts do, the harshness of their severe economic conditions cannot easily be measured. In fact the severity of the Ethiopian farmers’ economic alienation is best observed by following the hand to mouth existence of farmers struggling to meet their barest expense while their normal sources of income are quickly disappearing.

Since 80% of Ethiopian farmers live in highland areas let’s focus on the average expenses and sources of income of these farmers in particular. For example, a representative farmer living in a given area of the Ethiopian highland, having the average household size of six family members normally needs the following items to subsist. One liter of kerosene currently costing 18 birr as well as one single portion of soap costing 12 birr is sufficient for one month’s use for six family members. As is an estimated 1 kilogram of coffee at 120 birr, 1kg of sugar at 15 birr, 1kg of pepper at 80 birr and 1kg of salt at 4 birr. When we add these average monthly expenses the total expense is 249 birr per month. When farmers cannot grow onions, bean and other necessary food stuffs the expense climbs up to between 350 and 500 birr per month. This minimum expense is merely for bare survival and does not include other basic necessities such as clothing, incidental medicine or the cost of grinding cereals for food preparation.

In addition to this minimum expense now imagine this farmer has to pay 1,200 birr for Urea fertilizer and more than 1,000 birr for DAP. For improved seed function he will have to spend 2,500 birr per quintal. As well he would expect to pay a land tax of up to 200 birr. This means that the typical farmer needs around 10,900 birr ready cash for expenses apart from producible food stuffs. Now, the question is, Is this sum affordable for this farmer?
To tackle this question we must next survey the scant to diminishing sources of income for today’s highland farmers. Ethiopian farmers commonly share the following resources for income generation: selling accumulated wood or charcoal, raising livestock for foods production and growing grains for cereal production.

When we take a close look at the reasons for the disappearance of these income sources we understand just how deeply Ethiopia’s farmers have sunk into economic ruin. Wood from the now wiped out Ethiopian forest of long ago used to cover more than 35% of Ethiopia, but today has becoming harder and harder to find. This problem shows that it is not now easy for highland farmers dependent on wood as fuel and sources of income to gather this valuable resource. A closer look at this deforestation reveals a peripheral and dramatic problem that of unbalanced rainfall patterns.

During the regular rainy season there are shortages of rain offset by unusually heavy rains. Shortages of rain expose rain dependent farmers to the loss of livestock and the under production of food goods. Heavy rains expose sloping highland farms to erosion which results in soil continuously losing fertility. These alarming conditions combined with disregard and inaction by the Ethiopian government signal a persistent worsening of life experience for Ethiopian farmers.

Another problem is population growth has increased alarmingly compared to that of 20 years ago. This reality has created a land shortage in highland area farm distribution. As a result farmers are not able to produce sufficient yields to cover their monthly expenses. Likewise the strain on livestock is not sustainable and because of this livestock is not a viable source of income for farmers either. The reality for farmers is that all of their sources of income generation are collapsing. Due to this the economic situation of Ethiopian farmers will continue to decline.

In the highlands of Ethiopia a farmer with an average family size of 6 ploughs an average of around 0.9 to one hectare of land. Suppose this farmer produces 800kg of wheat per year per hectare while using fertilizers. How can this farmer feed his family throughout the year?
According to relief organization estimates one person needs at least 15kg of wheat per month to survive. This means that this farmer needs 1,080kg of wheat per year just to feed his family and himself. This farmer would have to buy or beg another 280kg of wheat per year in addition to what he produces on his own to insure that his family members could enjoy 1/2kg of wheat per day per person throughout the year. Unfortunately, the biggest problem facing today’s farmers is not only this one. But instead, the fact that as soon as this farmer harvests his insufficient product the government insists that he sell his crops in order to repay his 4,700 birr of fertilizer and seed cost.

This farmer would have to sell around 600kg of wheat out of his 800kg produced to repay his debt, having only 200kg of wheat left for personal use. These circumstances prohibit farmers from using agricultural inputs like fertilizers or improved seed products and as a result their yield is even less than the meager 800kg.

The government, instead of subsidizing agricultural inputs, is encouraging farmers to buy these high priced fertilizers and improved seed products whereby this stimulus forces farmers to sell their knowingly non-surplus product to repay the cost of these inputs. The government is systematically manipulating poor farmers to compensate for the market being otherwise empty. If the market were to be empty the government knows that city dwellers would revolt against the government and its poor policies.

As we have seen the life of Ethiopian farmers today is completely different to that of 20 years ago. Not comparing Ethiopian farmers with developed nation farmers or even other African farmers but only comparing them to their own life of 20 years ago, the quality of life is lost. This is the saddening story for all Ethiopians.

Ethiopian farmers who customarily enjoy coffee two or three times a day may now only enjoy one cup on occasion or stop drinking coffee at all. Farmers who were using kerosene to light their homes in the evening may stop using it and return to using chopped wood as they did in the 1800s. Highland farmers who use pepper and sugar to flavor their meals will stop enjoying it. Those who cannot now afford soap may stop using it to wash their clothes. In the case of an emergency they will no longer be able to afford to get medical treatment.

A discussion of social justice, education and human rights will continue in part two of this article Stand up for Ethiopian Farmers.

Geletaw Zeleke

Comments are closed.