Project shows link between healthy soils and healthy people

A unique project is improving nutrition and incomes through better farming practices

African family

A little yellow seed is sprouting big changes for farming families here in the Great Rift Valley, within reach of the Hawassa University extension services.

Chickpeas grown as a double crop after maize are boosting families’ nutrition, providing extra income and helping improve the soils.

Farmers here have traditionally grown one crop of maize, tef and sometimes haricot beans per year on their plots, which are often one hectare or less, with hopes of harvesting enough of these staples to keep the family fed.

But researchers and extension agronomists have been working with families since 2010 to add a double crop of chickpeas to the mix. The chickpeas are sown in August right after the maize is harvested.

Hawassa University soil scientist Sheleme Beyene
Hawassa University soil scientist 
Sheleme Beyene.   photo: Laura Rance

“We’re trying to address the problem of smallholder farmers in some of the areas, the farm households whose average family size of six has less than .5 ha,” said Sheleme Beyene, a soil scientist with Hawassa University in this city, 270 km from the country’s capital Addis Ababa.

“For this farmer with only .5 ha, producing maize alone with one crop per year is really very difficult,” he said. “If you introduce a new idea like double cropping, it is extremely important for feeding families.”

Something from nothing

handful of chickpeas
A second crop of chickpeas provides nutrition for farm families as well as for the soil. photo: Laura Rance

Improved chickpea varieties are grown on land that is otherwise idle, using residual moisture that is otherwise lost. An added bonus is the contribution legumes make to aggregate soil structure and organic matter.

The biggest challenge was getting farmers used to the idea of seeding again right after harvest. If the seeding date was left too late, the moisture the chickpeas need to get started was gone.

Additionally, nutritionists affiliated with the university also extensively trained families participating in the pilot project — both in home visits and in workshops — in how to store and cook chickpeas to add much-needed protein to their diets.

“I can see the change in the faces of my children,” said Sefya Leliso, who farms one ha with her husband Kedir and seven children in a community about 70 km east of the Hawassa.

“Their face and body have changed and the prevalence of illness has decreased,” she said, speaking through an interpreter. Her family has typically been short of food for two to three months before the first crop is harvested in early August. But now she has food, including chickpeas in storage. “Now we have sufficient food, extra income and clothing for our children.”

Kedit Asemo, who farms one ha with his wife Kehirwa and three young children, said his family wasn’t short of food in the past, but adding chickpeas to the family’s diet has made all their food reserves last longer, plus the addition of protein makes them feel less hungry.

“We don’t need additional food in the daytime,” he said.

Extra income

woman and children in Africa
Sefya Leliso and two of her children brace themselves against a dust devil sweeping through their parched yard. photo: Laura Rance

Extra production is sold and this year, the cash was used to pay off the fertilizer he had purchased on credit. Access to fertilizer has helped him expand his crops to include more cash crops such as hot peppers.

Data collected by researchers in several districts now producing chickpeas found they now contribute about one-fifth of the family income.

“Totally, our lives have improved,” Asemo said.

Chickpeas are a low-residue crop, so they aren’t a big help in reducing the soil erosion that is prevalent in the area, evidenced by the dusty haze that tickles the throat and clouds the view this time of year.

But Beyene said the extra crop does improve the soil structure in addition to adding nitrogen and organic matter. “If aggregate stability is increased then the water percolates rather than runs off,” he said.


The chickpea project is part of a partnership between Hawassa University and the University of Saskatchewan dating back to 1997. The collaboration has focused over the years on improving soil health, increasing Ethiopia’s post-graduate capacity, and improving food security and nutrition through plant breeding and increased biofortification through pulse crops. The various initiatives under the partnership have been supported by Canadian government development aid.

Hawassa is now recognized as one of Africa’s two Centres of Excellence in teaching and research in agriculture and nutrition.

A research report prepared by the International Development Research Centre, a federal Crown corporation, said that the improved varieties developed by the program have helped farmers in the southern region of Ethiopia achieve a twofold increase in nutrient-dense chickpea production.

That’s significant in a country with one of the highest rates of protein and calorie malnutrition as well as micronutrient deficiency in the world.

“The problem is especially acute in southern Ethiopia, where three-quarters of pregnant women suffer from zinc deficiency and nearly half of all child deaths are associated with deficiencies in protein and micronutrients,” the IDRC report said.

Key deficiencies were identified in vitamin A, iodine, zinc and iron.

We are what we eat

Researchers have been tackling the issue three ways: introducing new varieties that yield better and offer improved cooking quality, addressing soil nutrient deficiencies, and teaching people how to prepare nutritious diets.

Beyene said research trying to address the human nutritional deficiencies by treating deficient soils with zinc and iron fertilization has produced some interesting results.

Fertilizing legumes planted into deficient soils didn’t increase yield, but the concentration of zinc and iron in the plants increased.

Work is continuing on how best to make that increase more available to human consumers through methods such as fermentation and sprouting, which increase digestibility.

Beyene said the project has identified a compelling link between soil health and human nutrition.

“We can address deficiency by applying nutrients, thereby improving the concentration of those limiting nutrients in the plants, and use those plants for human consumption. So it links soil and plant and human nutrition,” he said.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]



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