Paving Africa’s way towards a sustainable, profitable food future with women at the lead

Paving Africa’s way towards a sustainable, profitable food future with women at the lead

Women play an important role in rural agriculture. This International Day of Rural Women, we visit two farmers in Ethiopia who are transforming their rural livelihoods and making a difference in their communities.

Bula Muda is a farmer in a rural area a few hour’s drive from Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. Ten years ago, small, milk-white pea beans were a rare thing and farmers like her had never heard of them. Today, the beans are referred to as “white gold”, because they enable smallholder farmers to buy cattle, send children to school and even build a house. Farmers like Bula Muda can earn three times more income from this bean, which is well suited to agro-ecological conditions in the area, and crucially, meets stringent export requirements of her buyers.

Two hundred kilometers away, Mekonnen Kebede – Bula Muda’s white pea bean buyer – wearing a crisp lab coat, inspects a handful of them in a dimly lit packing house. Pointing to tall stacks of rigorously checked beans, he notes that 80 percent are destined for Europe. In the last decade, his company – Agricultural Commodity Supplies (ACOS) – has played a pivotal role in transforming the grain into a major export.

Sustaining the white pea bean revolution, Bula Muda and Mekonnen Kebede are part of a US$120 million export value chain, linking farmers in Ethiopia’s white pea bean corridor with European consumers of canned beans. Accounting for 10 percent of the global market, Ethiopia is now Africa’s biggest exporter of the beans, and ACOS is the largest supplier. So what happened?

A vital link

The PABRA partnership model, implemented by the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research in partnership with CIAT, brought Mekonnen Kebede and Bula Muda together. Together, the researchers identified and bred higher-yielding white pea beans, more resilient to local pests, diseases and drought – conditions that prevented most farmers in Ethiopia from growing them – and then worked with extension services and farmers like Bula Muda to help them boost their production.

The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA) have been committed for 20 years to a common goal in Africa: helping farmers get hold of quality seed of improved varieties. Varieties that are more nutritious, much in demand at the market, higher-yielding, disease and pest resilient, tolerant and efficient in their use of natural resources like water. That may be a bit of a mouthful. But with all the challenges facing farmers today, it’s unfortunately a short list.

We have learned valuable lessons about how to improve our research, involve farmers and reach the last mile. Not because we don’t have the right technology – we do. Not because farmers don’t want new tools and better varieties: they do. It’s the missing link between them that’s the challenge.

Linking farmers like Bula Muda with buyers like Kebede, and buyers with consumers, has been our forte at CIAT, particularly through PABRA. “Bean corridors” join up the people in the value chain from the farm gate to the supermarket shelf: buyers and sellers know each other and talk to each other, listening to the challenges, and coming up with joint solutions, which will contribute towards poverty eradication in coming years.

Better bean varieties for tomorrow

Now, more than 2 million smallholders are growing white pea beans, and productivity has doubled with improved varieties. Farmers previously harvesting 0.75 tons of the beans per hectare, now harvest 1.6 tons, and the price has jumped from US$200 to US$600 per ton.

Connecting buyers with producers – most of them women in rural areas – and producers with improved varieties, we have a formula for success. We can do the same with other seeds – like livestock forage seeds, as we have the world’s largest collection of these in our genebanks. For livestock farmers across Africa, a key constraint is lack of quality feed – especially during the dry season. In fact, across the whole of Africa, there is no large-scale provider of high quality seeds of the livestock grass Brachiaria, which can boost milk yields by up to 30 percent.

Our researchers are mapping areas where seed production is viable, engaging with the private sector to make high quality forage seeds like Brachiaria available to farmers across the continent. But we need more investment today in infrastructure and distribution channels – as well as cutting-edge research – to provide farmers with better varieties tomorrow.

The Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance is supported by funding partners including African Governments, The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Global Affairs Canada, USAID, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture and Irish Aid.


One woman’s mission to halt drought

When farmers in Ethiopia’s Tigray province made a desert bloom again, their efforts inspired hundreds of farmers to do the same. One of them, Bekelech Belcachew, was so inspired to change her farming practices that she ended up changing the lives of others too.

Back in December 2014, Bekelech was struggling with degraded soil and low productivity on her farm in Hosanna, a district in Ethiopia. She heard about a trip to visit other farmers in Ethiopia – an exchange visit organized by the Africa RISING program – to see how farmers in Tigray had managed to bring their land back from the brink of becoming desert.

What she saw impressed her so much she promised to herself and the team during the visit that she will change her live forever. She started work on her farm as soon as she got home. She dug little gullies in her garden, leading water from the roof of her house towards a water pond. “Maybe in your place, when it starts to rain, you run to your houses,” she said. “I hurry to the field when it rains to make sure that the water doesn’t run away!”

Building a more resilient farm

She constructed additional ponds, ditches, pits made of stone that help to retain and filter water into the soil, and trenches up to three meters deep, to help capture water on her farm which can be used during the  dry season.

As time went on, groups of farmers, agricultural extension staff, district level administration officials and university researchers, visited her plot to see the progress. Joining forces with others in the community, she began spreading her knowledge throughout the Hossana district, helping others make changes too.

Dr. Lulseged Tamene, CIAT’s landscape ecologist working with the farmers to advise them about best practices to improve and protect the soil, said: “Through hard work, Bekelech and other women in the community have drastically improved the soils on their farms and made impressive gains in in their harvest.”

Her work has clearly demonstrated the importance of integrating physical conservation measures, like trenches for collecting water, with biological conservation measures, like planting livestock grasses alongside food crops.

Now, the wider community also understands that building this kind of resilience within the farming system can build productivity and sustainability. The community workin with Bekelech even use an analogy: “A sick person will not recover fast and fully if only he or she takes only medicine, without complementing it with appropriate food and additional nutrients.”

Bringing the community together

Bekelech’s hard work on her farm has inspired others, and now the community works together to keep structures like the ponds intact and maintained. According to Lulseged: “Farmers appreciate that the impact is not just socio-economically but also culturally important. One farmer said they sincerely appreciate the project because it linked people from different parts of the country in Hossana and Tigray with different cultures, which otherwise would never happen.”

To move the project’s activities forward, farmers said they are willing and ready to pay for tested and proven methods that reduce soil erosion. They are aware that the project will end, and are keen to ensure the hard work they have already put in will pay off in the long-term.

The project is implemented with CIAT, ILRI and other partners through the USAID-supported Africa RISING initiative.