Improved malt barley: new income potential for Ethiopian farmers

A new high-yielding, pest-resistant variety of malt barley has the potential to revolutionize Ethiopia’s barley sector, helping to meet growing domestic demand, boost export earnings, and substantially raise farmer incomes.

Barley is a major crop across the Highlands of Ethiopia, where it is grown by approximately 4.1 million smallholder farmers on close to one million hectares (ha). The country is one of the major producers of barley in Sub-Saharan Africa, and has a growing malt beverage sector.

Yet, despite a favorable bio-physical environment, conventional varieties tend to be low-yielding - achieving yields of only 2 tons per hectare (t/ha) - and susceptible to pests and disease. This means that production can only meet 35 percent of domestic demand. Last year, Ethiopia was forced to import over 63,000 tons of malt, at a cost of 38 million USD.

The new release – Singitan – is resistant to shoot fly, a major pest in Ethiopia which can cause yield losses of up to 100 percent during shorter rainy seasons. It is also higher-yielding than local varieties – generating up to 4.1 t/ha - and demonstrates good malting qualities.

Released by the Sinana Agricultural Research Center of the Oromia Agricultural Research Institute using ICARDA germplasm, the variety is the latest in a long line of improved varieties developed by ICARDA’s barley improvement program.

Ethiopia’s barley improvement program

A collaboration with Ethiopian Partner the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research (EIAR), with support from USAID, the barley improvement program aims to raise the production of barley and tap into Ethiopia’s growing market for malt beverages.

In 2012, the program released IBON 174/03, which generated yields that were more than double those achieved by conventional varieties – up to 5 t/ha - and this year HB 1963 and HB 1964 yielded up to 6 t/ha. Crucially, the varieties also demonstrate excellent malting qualities, ensuring they are attractive buys for the malting industry, allowing smallholders to use the new varieties as cash crops to generate additional income.

Barley production has an added advantage in Ethiopia: the crop is highly resilient under conditions of water-scarcity, drought, and extreme temperatures, thereby helping farmers adapt to climate change.

Capacity strengthening targeting barley farmers

In an effort to strengthen linkages between malting factories and producers, the barley improvement program is also promoting modern business models - contract farming, and private sector investment in post-harvest processing will strengthen linkages between malting factories and producers. A modern business approach is expected to raise production; reduce imports – and therefore save foreign currency; boost exports; and deliver improved rural livelihoods.

Efforts to scale-out activities will focus on accelerating the production and multiplication of improved malt barley seed. Community seed production programs are also being put in place, and capacity strengthening initiatives targeting development agents, district officials and farmers will equip beneficiaries with the knowledge and skills to take forward quality seed production, marketing, and the management of local seed businesses.