Vegetables were once a rarity in this community located three hours northeast of Asosa in the remote Benishangul-Gumuz region of Western Ethiopia.
If onions, potatoes and tomatoes were available at all, they had travelled a long distance and been on at least three trucks. They were expensive, often prohibitively so, and poor quality.
Two of the women in the group of 20, who gathered in the shade of the newly constructed farmer training centre here, said they occasionally bought them for their families. But most said they didn’t eat vegetables at all.
That is, until a small-scale irrigation project gave them the opportunity to start growing their own.
A six-hectare irrigation project that pumps water from a nearby river up the hill to a gravity-flow system shared by 23 farmers not only supplies vegetables for these families, there is enough surplus to supply the whole community with reasonably priced fresh produce.
That generates badly needed income for these small-scale producers. But arguably the biggest benefit is the project’s contribution to local nutrition.
“We were buying from the market, but it was not the same at all,” said Bedane Etane, speaking through an interpreter. “Now we are using these vegetables in our homes. It has improved our nutrition and health. Now to provide the vegetables, we don’t have to sell anything.”
These farmers are among nearly 40,000 people in the impoverished Benishangul Gumuz state bordering Sudan who have benefited from an ambitious Canadian-funded development project that began in 2010.
Despite being well endowed with farmland, 86 per cent of the population is short of food for part of the year.
Major change coming
And the region is about to face a barrage of change with encroaching development of its minerals, forests, and agricultural lands, not to mention the looming shadow of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile River, which will be the eighth largest in the world when completed in 2017.
The dam will create a 1,800-square-km lake in the Sirba Abay district, displacing thousands of people, but also opening the door to unprecedented economic growth in the region.
The Benishangul-Gumuz Food Security and Economic Growth Project tried something that has never been done before. It drew seven NGOs (six of them Canadian) into a consortium to work with local state government in delivering $20.4 million in Canadian taxpayer funds.
The six Canadian NGOs, Save the Children Canada (SCC), Canadian Hunger Foundation (CHF), Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief (CPAR), Food for the Hungry (FH), Oxfam Canada (OC), World Vision (WV) were joined by a Chinese intergovernmental organization, the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) in delivering the program.
They were tasked with delivering the program through the regional government on behalf of Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development, which was the sole funder of the project.
Although the participating NGOs had project staff in the region, their role is supporting the local regional government through assets and training.
The target areas for intervention included agriculture, natural resource management, nutrition, gender mainstreaming, disaster risk reduction, and value chain and market-led development.
It has achieved some impressive gains. Over the past five years, average maize yield has increased 75 per cent, sesame and sorghum have increased 33 per cent and 20 per cent. There has been an increase in soil conservation and water management activity and the number of underweight children has been reduced to around just under 16 per cent from 45 per cent.
What’s more, farmers’ returns from their sales of products such as sesame, honey, incense and bamboo rose dramatically after they organized and began to deliver higher-quality products. Sesame production from the region is now consolidated by co-operatives into consistent lots that can be traded on the Ethiopian Community Exchange. Honey from the region is now separated from the wax, cleaned and sold as a premium organic product.
But although the overall aim was to improve food security and incomes for the largely agrarian population, this project was about much more than coming in with hard assets such as irrigation technology, better genetics, tsetse fly-resistant oxen and training.
As important as those assets are as a foundation for transforming the local economy, this project recognized from the beginning that sustainable development could only occur if the local people were freed from traditional beliefs that prevented half of the population from fully contributing.