From the Field Towards smart farming in Ethiopia: sharing experiences for successful adaptation of small-scale irrigation and value chain assessment

Flood irrigation on a potato field during a farmer-to-farmer field visit in Addisgae Kebele

Members of the Alliance’s Multifunctional Landscapes Team report on recent capacity-building experiences for small-scale farmers in Ethiopia.

From October 12-13, Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT researchers joined 25 farmers, four agricultural development agents (DAs), and nine local agricultural experts at Debre Birhan city, 120 kilometres northeast of Addis Ababa, for a farmer training on enhancing the production and productivity of small-scale farmers. The training aimed to support the community transition into smart farming.

At this site, as one of the key interventions under the realm of creating multifunctional landscapes, we found local experts and farmers already inspired by the success stories of the youth from a neighbouring village that adopted smart farming approaches. The Basoana Worena Woreda invited farmers and DAs from two Kebeles that are planning to adopt smart farming approaches. One of them (Kormargefia) has been operational for the last three months, and the other (Addisgae) is yet to start.

In Kormargefia, furrow irrigation, water pumps, and tractors are some of the technologies being applied for off-season production of potatoes, onions, garlic, and carrots. In Addisgae, flood irrigation systems are used for potato and carrot production.

The use of furrow irrigation and water pump during a farmer-to-farmer field visit in Kormargefia Kebele

Learning from interactive sessions

On the first day, farmers were invited to an interactive training on the production of potatoes and carrots using irrigation, with emphasis made on the benefits of growing the vegetables, application of fertilizers and composts, weeding, water use, crop rotation, harvesting, transportation, and storage. Facilitators made use of the farmers’ experiences and challenges as case examples for the subsequent session on effective agricultural water use that covered discussions on watering, water demand of crops, soil characters, irrigation land preparation, irrigation structures and maintenance, as well as on hydro-sociology.

In addition, the team dedicated a whole session to the discussion of value chains that covered production quality, productivity, marketing strategies, and the role of unions. Mr. Mamaru Belay, a representative from Sun Chips, a new potato processing factory located near Sheno, informed farmers on the company’s  quality requirements, market interests, supports to the potato value chain, and linkages with suppliers, and presented samples of expected production outputs.  Farmers had an opportunity to taste samples.

A representative from Sun Chips Ethiopia describes the potato value chain and shows processed products to farmers

The second day continued with tips and discussions on the use of water pumps focusing on to-dos before and after operation, placements on the field and storage, maintenance, types of irrigation, water requirement for crops, and the optimization of productivity.

Enthusiastic farmers actively engaged with the trainers, sharing their new experiences, challenges, and needs.

”We have always had plenty of water but have failed to use it during off seasons, but now that we know how to use irrigation and water pumps, we have managed to water our land just fine. We now need to know how to manage our water resources, and care for the infrastructures,” commented Mr. Abebayehu, a farmer from KorMargefia.

Another farmer agreed with him and raised the need for research-farmer interaction, saying, “We need further support from research centres in finding solutions to issues that hinder our production, such as seed supplies and pests.”

The farmers from two different Kebeles (45 km apart), also took advantage of the sessions to discuss their respective water resources, soil characteristics, irrigation approaches, irrigation scheduling systems, types of vegetables produced, and experiences on the adaptation process.

Visiting Farms to exchange experiences

For a practical session, the team visited farms from both kebeles. During the farm visit in Kormargefia, Mr. Mekonin Mengistu, an irrigation department official at the Basona Worena Woreda agricultural office, stated that off-season production was kicked off three months ago with two water pumps donated by the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, but had since grown to include 14 pumps. A total area of 10.5 ha previously considered unproductive and left for growing grass has been successfully converted to produce potatoes and other crops. With that introduction, the platform was left for the farmers to discuss their production approaches.

Farmers exchanged ideas on irrigation techniques (furrow vs. flood), farming techniques (tractor vs. oxen), seed sources, soil characteristics, planting methods, weather (i.e. frost), pest management, and conflict management approaches based on their experiences and in consideration of the soil type, water availability, and crops planted.

At the second field visit in Adisgae, the farmers sampled smart farming approaches and had an opportunity to consult with their peers from Kormargefiya on field preparations and plantation approaches, distances they should maintain between rows while preparing their fields for planting potatoes, adopting furrow irrigation, and the importance of  intercropping for optimal utilization of their farmlands.

Flood irrigation on a potato field during a farmer-to-farmer field visit in Addisgae Kebele

This practice of experience-sharing was deemed beneficial by the famers, who expressed strong interest and expectations in working further with research centers and local agricultural offices to address issues on farm infrastructures, seed supplies, and pest management.

Optimizing water use

Meseret Dawit, a PhD candidate in the University of Delft and a fellow of The Climate, Food and Farming, Global Research Alliance Development Scholarships Programme (CLIFF-GRADS) at the Alliance, requested that the farmers record the planting, weeding, flowering, and harvesting of their crops in order to match the record of irrigation water provided to each farm. This could help estimate crop water requirements and actual water use for the optimization of agricultural water use.

Noting that “flood irrigation” resulted in water wastage, the team from the Alliance strongly recommended the creation of a system that would provide farmers with guidelines on the operation of smart farming.

“The community has developed irrigation scheduling after two-three weeks, thus they needed to ‘flood’ to maintain moisture within the soil until the next schedule. In addition, farmers generally tend to plant cereal crops under dry-season irrigation because of lack of information on market, storage and management of fruits and/or vegetables. In addition, they fear diseases such as white rot that affect fruits and vegetables”, stated Kalkidan Mulatu from the Alliance.

“By rectifying the above challenges, it will be possible to turn the current exercise into smart farming”, concluded Meseret Dawit, PhD student on irrigation engineering attached to the Alliance.