Ending the cycle of famine in Ethiopia

Originally published
International Food Policy Research Institute
"I lost one of my children two weeks ago," says Fadmo Muhammed to a BBC reporter in the Somali region of Ethiopia. "She died of diarrhea, diarrhea with blood. This was because she was malnourished. We have almost no food. Only donated wheat, and a little oil. But no milk. Our children are weak and malnourished. I am very frightened that my two other children will die as well. They are both sick."

As news reports call attention to a burgeoning food crisis, as many as 15 million Ethiopians could face famine in the coming months.

The situation may seem particularly puzzling, as Ethiopia has increased its food production by 70 percent since the 1980s. Last year, the country experienced its second consecutive year of bumper crop production. Yet, the current crisis looms as large as, or potentially even larger than, the 1984-85 famine.

Why does it keep happening? What can be done to prevent future famines?

There are four main issues underlying Ethiopia's recurring food crises: poor governance (mostly in the past), the vulnerability of its farmers, problems with the production of food, and markets that don't function.


At the heart of any food crisis is the issue of governance. Governments and other institutions must be accountable and transparent to the people they serve, and they need to ensure the participation of all sectors of society. In the case of Ethiopia, the country emerged in the early 1990s from three decades of protracted civil war and a repressive, centrally planned economy. In the 1990s, the new government shifted its priorities to a mixed economy, liberalizing markets, decentralizing decision-making, and investing in agriculture.

In spite of these positive measures, the recurrence of famine suggests that further steps to good governance remain and that even with the best of policies, it takes an extremely long time to redress Ethiopia's severe problems. Unfortunately, the poor governance of the past has left a deep legacy of poverty, which will take many years to overcome.


Ethiopia's millions of small-scale farmers remain rooted in subsistence agriculture. They are almost entirely dependent on the weather, and the country is prone to drought three to four years out of every ten. Little investment has been made in irrigation or other systems to manage water supply - only about 5 percent of potentially irrigable land is irrigated. Not surprisingly, when the rains failed last year, the number of needy people swelled dramatically.

People who are desperately poor do not have the capacity to withstand the loss of food and income from crop failure or the death of livestock due to lack of rain. The average annual income in Ethiopia is only about US$100 per person. About 5-6 million people simply do not have the money to buy food, even in periods of surplus.

Food-for-work programs, crop insurance, and other safety net measures would help to reduce the vulnerability of poor farmers. The government should also invest in systems to better measure and forecast production and weather patterns. They also need to improve management of food aid, including the purchase of surplus stocks in good years, in order to cope with whether-related disasters like those that occurred in 2002.


Grain yields average little more than one ton per hectare in all of Ethiopia. these yields are lower in drought-prone areas - and are much less in drought years. By contrast, U.S. farmers average nearly six tons of grain per hectare.

These low and uncertain yields result not only from unreliable rainfall, but also from severe land degradation stems from intensive farming on steep and fragile lands with limited use of soil and water conservation measures and very little recycling of organic materials, such as manure and crop residues to the soil. These practices have led to severe problems of erosion - which averages nearly ten times the rate of soil formation on cultivated land in the Ethiopian highlands - and loss of soil fertility.

As a result, many of the soils are shallow and have little capacitate to hold moisture, greatly exacerbating the vulnerability of farmers to the effects of drought. Because of the risks associated with drought and moisture stress, farmers in drought-prone environments are also reluctant to adopt expensive inputs, such as fertilizer and improved seeds, contributing to low yields and depleted soils.

Ethiopia also suffers from low livestock productivity. Milk yields are only about one fourth of the average yield for all developing countries, due to limited availability of feed and grazing, unimproved breeding stock, and diseases.

Underlying these problems are several root causes, including high population pressure and lack of access to markets, infrastructure, appropriate technical assistance, and other services. High population growth has forced farmers onto smaller and smaller tracts of land with each generation, even as forests disappear to accommodate land for farming and grazing. Declining forest and grazing area contributes to soil degradation on croplands, as households are forced to burn animal dung graze all available crop residues, rather than returning such materials to the soil. Farmers in remote areas also find it difficult and costly to purchase fertilizer and other inputs and transport them over long distance to the nearest market town is nearly 40 kilometers.

Despite these problems, IFPRI research in the highlands of northern Ethiopia has shown that investments in roads, technical assistance, credit, education and other services have improved conditions.

Averting food crises in the future requires increasing the incomes of the vast majority of the population, in part through investing in research and extension to assist farmers in producing a diversity of crops and livestock, including high-value products.

Such investments must be tailored to local conditions to be effective. Ethiopia is made up of 18 distinct agro-ecological zones, ranging from mountains to deserts. No none-size-fits-all strategy will work in all areas. Research and extension must also be demand driven, providing a menu of options and facilitating local adaptation. For example, while fertilizer use is risky and less attractive in drought-prone areas than in high rainfall areas, construction of soil and water conservation structures such as stone terraces has been found to be more profitable and hence more widely adopted (and adapted) by farmers in such areas. Agricultural research and technical assistance programs must build on such local differences and local innovation to be effective.


A major root cause of the current crisis is the inability of markets to efficiently and adequately perform the distribution of food from surplus areas to deficit areas. This is not a new problem. In 1984, there were reports of surplus in the south while one million people died of hunger in the northeastern regions of the country.

With poor roads, lack of market information, and no access to credit, traders are sorely challenged to buy food from farmers and sell it in places where it's needed. Only a quarter of food produced reaches the market. That locks poor farmers into subsistence agriculture, which condemns them to poverty.

In the 2001-2002 season, farmers in some regions achieved excellent harvests using high-yielding seeds and fertilizers. Unfortunately, they were unable to get their crops to markets located far beyond their own communities. With a glut of grain concentrated in small areas, the prices plunged by as much as 80 percent, even as other regions suffered from food shortages. As a result of low prices, farmers were unable to recoup production costs and repay loans for fertilizer. If farmers can't make money from their crops, they can't buy expensive inputs, and as a result, production is dropping dramatically.

Ethiopian grain traders are mainly small-scale entrepreneurs, operating with very few assets. Only one third can access bank finance; six percent own a vehicle; and less than half have a telephone or permanent storage facilities. Traders also have very little formal business training, and most have not completed high school. They operate on a small-scale basis over short distances, and therefore do not benefit from cost-savings of scale and distance.

The markets in which this fledging private sectors operates are poorly developed. Ethiopia's transport and telecommunications infrastructure is among the least developed in the world; there is virtually no commercial legal system available for enforcing contracts; there is no public market information system; and there is no system for inspecting and certifying products. As a result, transaction costs of marketing are very high - with consumer prices up to five times the producer price, linked to high transport and handling costs that are directly caused by the lack of appropriate infrastructure and institutions.

Abdu Awol, a grain wholesaler based in the purplus-producing region of Wollega in western Ethiopia, is one of the rare Ethiopian grain traders who once attempted to move grain over long distances in order to reach new markets. He transported maize 900 kilometers across three regions to northern Ethiopia, where he heard prices were higher. It took him two and half weeks to get there, instead of the two or three days it should have. He was stopped on numerous occasions by road checks and incurred much expense in bribes and administrative fees, in addition to transport and handling costs. The poor condition of the roads meant that he lost a considerable amount of grain along the way as the sacks burst. When he arrived in the market town of Mekele in Tigray, he could not find the buyer who had agreed to purchase his grain. At the end of the day, when he completed his balance sheet, he realized he had lost money. He has never repeated this attempt.

In order to make markets work for poor and hungry people, Ethiopia must develop ways to disseminate market information, offer financing to small-scale farmers and traders, provide contract enforcement, certify product qualities, and reduce risk. The government and international aid donors must invest in infrastructure: roads, telecommunications networks, and modern storage.

The long road

Ultimately, Ethiopia can make great strides in reducing poverty and breaking the cycle of recurring famine, but it will take time.

Because 85 percent of its population is agriculture-based, Ethiopia must remain committed to developing this most critical sector. Agricultural growth can serve as a springboard to achieving broad-based economic growth. Impoverished rural people need alternatives to subsistence farming - high-value crops and livestock, as well as non-farm sources of income.

Even as the Ethiopian government and international community focus on famine relief, they must not overlook these critical issues.

Addis Tribune
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