Making Ethiopia a hub for agricultural research

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07 June 2014 Written by 

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Mahamoud el-Solh (Ph.D) is the director general of the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), an organization dedicated to investing in agricultural research with a special focus on enhancing productivity in dry areas.

Founded in 1977 in Syria after securing one thousand hectares of land from the Syrian government, ICARDA established its headquarters there. Thus far, Iran, Syria and Lebanon have been focal countries for its research. However, North African, South and West Asian countries have also been selected for ICARDA’s activities. Recently, it has also strengthened its presence in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa following the establishment of its regional research centers in India and Ethiopia. Nevertheless, the organization has a history of working with this country. Prior to setting up its office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia has collaborated with the organization for around thirty years. Henok Reta of the Reporter caught up with the director-general while he visited the capital for the launching of the regional office. Excerpts:

The Reporter: What was the idea behind the establishment of ICARDA?

Mahamoud el-Solh: While establishing ICRDA in 1977 to work in Northern Syria, lowland areas in Lebanon and the highlands of Iran, it had a vision of improving agricultural productivity in the entire region. Since it had the mandate to operate in dry, ICRDA aimed at easing those environmental barriers that hugely impacted the agricultural practice in the region. Due to the civil war and armed conflict in the area, we were forced to be re-established in Syria alone by securing a thousand hectares of land from government. Focusing on germplasm conservation and improvement, particularly on wheat, which is considered to be a very important crop in North Africa and Central Asia, we have had quite an important involvement in supporting farmers.

What were the basic challenges you faced at the time of its establishment? And how did you manage to expand to other areas?

It was pretty challenging to work in such dry areas by enduring all the natural and man-made problems. As you know, the region is one of the world’s most volatile regions and it has gone through a series of civil wars and instability in the past; it was quite challenging really. We are thankful to the Syrian government for help in obtaining land to reestablish the organization at the time, and though we were able to expand throughout North and Central Africa, South Asia and the Nile Valley, Syria will always be our important place to work. You can’t resolve a problem with a silver bullet at once and you should follow an integrated approach towards it. What ICARDA’s thirty-five years of experience tells us is that there is no silver bullet; it is all about having an integrated approach towards the problem. So, we approached problems of many smallholders taking into consideration the region’s natural resource management: water, soil and biodiversity.

What were some of the things you did to help out the farmers in the dry regions?

To practice sustainable agricultural development one should follow these three important, I would say, pillars or mechanisms: due consideration to the natural resource management, an integrated approach towards the crop-livestock system, and lastly, and perhaps the neglected one, is the socio-economic policy. We therefore went through these key steps to resolve the problems of smallholder farmers in the region. So, we have had four important programs to help them. The first is diversity and integrated gene management. The second one is integrated water and land management while the third and forth ones are socio–economic policy research and integration on the diversification, sustainable intensification of biodiversity and production system. With our three major regional centers in South Asia, North Africa, and Central Africa, we are now ready to help smallholder farmers in those selected areas.

How did you pick Ethiopia to be one of your key regional centers of research?

Our collaboration with Ethiopia started in 1978. First we were involved in faba beans, which is a very important crop in Ethiopia covering half a million hectares and the main work was to improve the quality and productivity of this crop. This helped researchers to move from research station to farmers and impact actual change. After fava beans, we focused on barley, which unlike fava beans was not that known in Egypt and Sudan, but still equally important for Ethiopia. Then we proceeded to chickpeas, lentils, and legumes releasing some 17 varieties at different times increasing the productivity of crops in this country. A day ago, I was told by the Minister of State that Ethiopia exported more pulse crops and earned better than coffee, which is believed to be the top Ethiopian export crop. So, the income of the smallholder farms is also increasing. We’ve also started water resource management in Gondar supported by the Austrian government. And the third area, which attracts us to work in Ethiopia, is small ruminants’ value chain in collaboration with our strong partners, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). We have some 11 programs in the Ethiopian regional office, some have direct links to Ethiopian government and EIAR and the others are with other regional bodies. The Ethiopian Institute for Agriculture Research is a key player in this regard though the programs are initiated by ICARDA. We provide technical assistance and the genetic supply so that the national institutions will take care of the implementation.

How capable do you think EIAR is to proceed with the program? And what will you do to strengthen their capacity?

We have always been confident with their capacity and they will do it once we have provided them with the technical assistance and some financial support. ICARDA is proud to have some seven or eight agricultural scientists and managers even from Ethiopia here and that makes our trust solid enough. Our work with Ethiopia is historical, I would say. Despite the fact that our work with Ethiopia is tremendous and vital, I have to emphasize the fact that during the last eight to 10 years the results have been quite impressive. This government has put agriculture at the top of its agenda and has been working hard to realize the potential of the country’s enormous resource through various activities like this one.

That has been the case since Ethiopia spends ten percent of its national budget on agriculture, but what should be done to reassure this commitment and to have more success stories with the smallholder farmers?

Things are not resolved overnight. Things take time. There is an interest in more rural development in this country. It always takes time to achieve a certain goal. To be honest with you, the infrastructure changes carried out during the past three and four years in this country are tremendous. I used to travel from Bahir Dar to Addis Ababa for two days, it takes me a day; even the Holeta Research Center was a half day trip, now an hour is enough. And do not forget that you have a vast country with a large population. If you were a small country you would probably have seen it long ago. As you are big the impact is gradual. This is what the people have to understand. This is about achieving equity and closing the gap. It can be about making a middle-class society, and you are improving.

So, what should be done then?

Value should be added to what you produce, and expansion of businesses should be realized. As I told you earlier your crops have had pretty nice value in the market because of research-based improvements, now small ruminants are also to go through such a process to make farmers better producers. Milk and cheese can also be done with a small technology at the farmer level. Again, market outlets should be facilitated. To me, the government should not give out subsidies in cash, but instead it should give them in the form of facilities to access such infrastructures. I think these are certainly possible.

Do you think rural development in this country has traveled far enough to make farmers capable of carrying out their work in a better way?

It might be a bit far-fetched. Anyway, this is what we call infrastructure and sustainable agricultural development. There should be a mechanism in which farmers can adopt these advanced ways of production.

What merits would accrue to this country by hosting the regional office in Addis Ababa?

Of course there is a benefit for Ethiopia though we have already been posted here with 13 staff members of which seven are international scientists and a lot of projects are set to be implemented here targeting small farmers benefiting your country. Including fast deployment, providing frost-resistant wheat seeds to farmers is vital because your major problem with the wheat is that you have a stripe rust in many parts of the country and the loss can be up to forty percent of the production. Through this project, we are planning to reach out more than a million hectares. So, that is more than thirty percent of the major wheat producing areas. In the second phase, watershed management will be another key area to work on and another project on livestock and fish and value chain in these products. The livestock project can go far up to the Nile Valley.

What about teff, the crop that has long been a traditional food for this country? Will there be any program that fosters this huge resource? What about cattle rearing?

Teff is this country’s most famous staple crop and we don’t have a particular program for it because our program focuses much on crops cultivated in the dry areas. On the other hand, it covers 2-3 million hectares of land so that it will be a bit difficult to our task force. Although it is considered to be the most important crop, we don’t encourage farmers to grow teff every year. Our integrated approach doesn’t allow farmers to stick to a certain crop. If they grow teff this year, then wheat should come up next. With regard to the cattle, this can be part of our program, maybe in the long term as we become capable of doing a job on both small and large livestock production, and for the time being we will leave it to the ILRI.

What about the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA)? Do you have a relationship with them?

Yes. I have met with them twice and we have some common grounds to work on, and I think it will be a great collaboration to increase the national agricultural production in the coming years.

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Sourced here:  http://www.thereporterethiopia.com/index.php/interview/item/2075-making-ethiopia-a-hub-for-agricultural-research

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