Healing the Earth for sustainable agriculture: An Ethiopian story

Million Belay tells the story of 83 villages who are working with an NGO in northern Ethiopia to show the sustainable way forward to food security. This was one ray of hope that reached Johannesburg while the official summit stumbled along.


THIS is a testimony from one of the poorest nations in terms of food security. The main message is that it is by healing the ecology of an area rather than by treating one part of a system that sustainability in agriculture is achieved.

The experience of the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD) and the Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Tigray (BoANR) shows that there is little need for genetically manipulated seeds to improve the livelihood of poor rural communities. The experience outlined below shows how farmers can control their lives by combining their knowledge and science instead of putting themselves in a cycle of debt and despair by borrowing money to buy chemicals and improved seeds.

The project was started with four villages in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, and grew to 83 villages, involving more than 2,000 households. It has become the programme of the government of the Tigray region, with the potential of spreading to other parts of Ethiopia. The demand for the project is already huge and the ISD is preparing itself to facilitate its introduction to more areas.


The ISD started from a workshop that took place in Tigray in May 1995. The challenge was to find mechanisms for poor rural communities to improve their physical environment and capacity to produce crops without them becoming dependent on external inputs. The means chosen was a research project. It was conceptualised and promoted by Dr Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher1 and his wife Mrs Sue Edwards2.

Land degradation is one of the most serious problems facing Ethiopia today. An estimate of yield reduction due to the loss of topsoil each year is alarming. Population pressure and low yields are forcing farmers into abandoning fallowing and crop rotations - the system they have used for millennia to maintain their livelihoods. Tigray has a highly degraded environment where over 85% of the population are farmers who struggle to feed their families from crops producing very low yields. One of the factors contributing to the low yields is the poor condition of the soil. The Tigray Bureau of Agriculture has adopted the Sasakawa Global (SG) 2000 package based on high-yielding varieties (HYVs) and chemical fertilisers as one strategy. Elsewhere, serious problems have emerged from the long-term use of agro-chemicals. More importantly, rainfall is highly variable and one or two seasons of poor rain will probably leave the already poor farmers heavily in debt.

To find an alternative to chemically supported agriculture, the ISD have started an experiment on organically supported agricultural development with four rural communities in Tigray. These are Abomssa, Adi Nifas, Guimse and Ziban Sas. The experiment started in 1996. It is an experiment to the ISD and the Bureau of Agriculture but it involves the livelihood of the farmers. Therefore, the necessary measures were taken not to disturb the daily life of the farmers.

The experiment

The experiment is being carried out in pairs of village communities through, on the one hand, monitoring the current extension package of chemicals and high-input-demanding seeds and, on the other, applying technologies for increasing biomass and water retention (soil and water conservation including the construction of trench bands, check dams and ponds, application of natural fertilisers, mainly compost and animal manure, and planting of trees, forage and grass species), the use of heterogeneous seeds, ecological pest and disease management and recommended agronomic practices. The effects of these two strategies are being followed so as to determine which is the more sustainable alternative. The project is also intended to empower local communities so that they retain active control of their development process.


After five years it was felt that a comprehensive evaluation of the project should be conducted to see where the project is heading in terms of achieving its objective. The evaluation was based on:

·        The review of the proposal that was prepared at the beginning of the project and used as a resource document for planning and implementing the interventions of the endeavour.

·        The repeated site visits and reports made by ISD staff from Addis Ababa as well as by the project staff in Tigray over the past five years, and the reports that were compiled on the experiences of the project.

·        The Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) made by the ISD in February 2001 which included stakeholder analysis and group discussions with farmers and those living adjacent to the project sites.

·        The stakeholder meeting that was held during the Axum Workshop on the morning of 19 November, in which experts and officials from the Tigray region and from project zones, including the BoANR, from the top level to development agents, farmers, ISD staff and representatives of other governmental and non-governmental organisations participated.  

Strong points

·        Improvement in production: It appears that, except for maize, applying compost can result in similar yield increases to those obtained from applying DAP and urea. The effects on the yields of the pulses, faba bean and field pea are very impressive, with yields two or more times higher than the checks. This is important for food security and nutrition as, in many places, the area sown to pulses is decreasing because of pressure to increase the area with cereals.

·        The result from the PRA also shows that productivity was perceived to show a marked difference in all the project sites. The farmers also said that both productivity and the variety of seeds that they are planting have increased.

·        Improvement in grazing land: At one of the project sites, Ziban Sas, the success of the project is in the rehabilitation of a grazing land that was left as wasted and was rocky. Now this area is almost rehabilitated and green and farmers get their income from fattening and selling cattle. Animal husbandry is an important part of rural livelihood in Ethiopia as the animals are used both as a means of income and as a means of transportation. They are also used for tilling. Improving grazing lands, therefore, has a wider implication for food security.

·        Soil improvement: There is a general consensus among the project farmers that their soil was in a bad condition at the start of the project but now has improved considerably.

For example, it was a black sticky vertisoil soil for Abomssa farmers, making movement in the farm almost impossible during the rainy season, red and infertile for Guimse, and stony for both Ziban Sas and Adi Nifas farmers. Farmers of both sexes, across the project sites, contend that their soil has improved.

·        Change in livelihood of the farmers: Farmers across the project sites said that there was a shortage of food, clothing and household materials before the start of the project. The women also said that they could not send their children to school. Their social activity, like attending weddings, was also affected. This is because culturally a woman has to take a gourd full of flour as a contribution to the wedding to be accepted socially. They all perceived a positive change. They all said that there is more food, more clothing, and more household materials now. They can also send their children to school. The reason that they gave for these changes is improvement in soil fertility and increase in productivity, which were brought about mainly by soil and water conservation and the application of compost.

·        Halting of gullies: One site, Adi Nifas, had been losing fertile land through a gully that started at the base of the neighbouring hillside. The farmers built a series of check dams up the gully, and in one year sufficient soil was captured to encourage the planting of grass and trees. This is also happening in other project sites.

·        Institutionalisation: Perhaps one of the great successes of the project lies in its becoming the project of the regional government of Tigray. This means that, if the ISD pulls out, the programme will still be running. The secret of this success lies in its beginning where almost all of the stakeholders were involved during its planning. The other reason for the institutionalisation is that the implementers of the project were development agents of the regional bureau rather than the ISD. The role of the ISD was mainly research and technical backup. The regional government has spread the project to more than 2,000 households in more than 83 villages.

·        Experience acquired from the project: On-site capacity-building exercises were done for the past six years, which imparted knowledge about the elements of sustainable agriculture to a number of staff members of the regional bureau and farmers. This can be used when the ISD spreads to other regions in Ethiopia and elsewhere where the need arises.

·        It was learnt at some stage of the project that farmers have choices that suit their ecology and their social setting. Farmers at Ziban Sas were keen on soil and water conservation while farmers from Abomssa were interested in compost-making and application.

Things to be improved

·        Compost: There is a need to improve both the quality and quantity of compost. Transportation of compost also needs site-specific solutions. Training in the preparation and use of compost is also needed. A training workshop was organised in August for farmers and government experts on compost-making and forage development. The result of this exercise was to be evaluated at the end of the Ethiopian New Year, 11 September.

·        Stone bunds and rodents: The stone bunds made for soil and water conservation (SWC) are serving as a breeding place for rodents. The rodents feed on crops and the emerging shoots of planted tree seedlings. Therefore, the problem of rodent pests needs to be solved for SWC activities to be sustainable.

·        Improving biomass: There is a need to increase the amount and use of biomass where it is lacking, and to improve its management where it exists, for animals and for energy.  Strategies, including the cut-and-carry system, should be put in place and promoted.

·        Women-led households: There is a need to address the problem of women-led households and women in poor households. A well-being ranking exercise, categorisng the members of a village as rich, average, poor or very poor, done as part of the PRA in 12 villages, revealed that women-led households are invariably found under the ‘very poor’ category. This highlighted the fact that the project has to address the needs of women-led households and women in poor households if it is to address the problem of food security in rural households.

·        Data collection: The data collection has not been comprehensive and needs improvement. For example, there is a report that farmers adjacent to and far from the project sites are adopting some of the activities and there is a need for documenting their reason and how they coped with it for use in the introduction to new sites. A systematic documentation and dissemination of the findings and the experiences of the project should be in place.

·        Training: Training in areas of compost-making, data collecting, documenting, etc., is needed for both development agents and farmers.

·        Water harvesting: Rain is the major source of water for the project sites; so, farmers need to learn water-harvesting techniques.


There is an effort by transnational companies to promote genetically engineered crops as a solution to shortage of food in poor countries such as Ethiopia. Experience from this project shows that:

·        Improving the soil and conserving water by soil and water conservation activities, increasing the fertility of soil by adding compost and manure and increasing the biomass of the area by planting tree and grass species, will heal the ecology of the area and will both increase productivity and improve the livelihood of the community.

·        High dependence on chemical inputs, which increased the debt burden of the communities, showed that a technological fix to a systematic problem will be disastrous whereas an improvement in the whole environment will pay dividends in the end.

·        There is no need for farmers to pass the ownership of their seed to companies, as will be the case if they start buying genetically improved varieties from companies.

·        The project area is very rich in agro-biodiversity, which has been tested and improved by farmers for thousands of years, but introducing untested seeds will increase the risk of food insecurity by contaminating the farmer’s varieties and by increasing the potential of creating super weeds.

·        Getting the active involvement of farmers needs a careful selection of choices and alternatives rather than a prescription for improving one part of a system. The project came with choices and farmers took whatever suits their ecological and social setting.                                                         

Million Belay is  team leader and research co-ordinator of the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD). Address: PO Box 171, Code 1110, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Email: Tel: +251-9-235043, 200834.


1    General manager of Environmental Protection Authority, Ethiopia and winner of the Right Livelihood Award.

2 Director of ISD.