“Small-holder farming can generate over one trillion birr”


– Getachew Tikubet, (pictured, above), operations director at Bio-Economy Africa 

09 August 2014 Written by   

Getachew Tikubet holds a PhD in Biology with specialization on ecology and integrated systems. Together with his wife, Selamawit Assefa (PhD), he set up Bio-Economy Africa, a nonprofit organization that has been working on farmer training and agricultural research for some 15 years. Headquartered in Addis Ababa, Bio-Economy Africa has been stretching out to other African countries, embracing DRC, Côte d’ Ivoire and Mozambique, and recently Uganda and Ghana.

Getachew argues that integrated bio-economy system, which typically binds social, economic and ecological capitals, can make a visible difference in the life of the farming community in Ethiopia and beyond. He firmly argues that attention should be given to organic farming since the practice can yield two to three-fold in production compared to chemical fertilizer-oriented farming methods. He dreams that millions would benefit from the systematic, ecology friendly farm approach and amass a trillion birr net profit annually. For that to be real, he demonstrated how it could be made possible; how to make a lot of money just on one hectare of land on his site in the capital and seven others across the country. He is committed to introduce industrial biogas production in Ethiopia as it has become a way of life in DRC recently via his project. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter sat down with Getachew to catch upon the notion of organic farming vis-à-vis the trillion birr net profit that he claims to be possible in contrast to the traditional and modern farming practices. Excerpts:

The Reporter: What were the objectives of Bio-Economy Africa when it was established? 

Getachew Tikubet: The establishment of Bio-Economy Africa rests on the pertinent challenges of food insecurity, poverty and environmental degradations in Africa and the organization was set to assist and help those affected by such life-threatening situations in the continent.

Small-holder farming captures the life of the majority of farmers in Africa who are confined to a tiny plot of land to subsist on.  These farmers were not self-sufficient by way of organic farming for ages. In contrast, you are out to prove organic farming is possible. What basic difference do you think you can make in this area?

Small-holder farmers are the majority of food producing society across the globe.  However, they could have even much bigger yields than what they are getting at moment via what we call an integrated bio-economic system. The system helps them to produce more and depend on themselves. Without degrading the surroundings and by creating more employment opportunities, they can improve productivity. That is what we are looking for. In order to meet such objectives, we have assessed the conditions of farm lands. We provided basic knowledge with adaptive and modest technology aiming to prevent land degradation. Say a square meter of land could generate higher yields than a severely degraded one by simple application of organic manure and similar add-ons, say insects, fungus, bacteria and the likes. The more such add-ons are in the soil, the more fertile the land gets. The prime concern should be on deep and qualitative work to bring about such changes. Factors like seed selection, water intake of the soil and other ingredients needs to be appropriate for better productivity. That is what we are striving for. Agriculture is more profitable than many businesses. It is the only sector which can generate a lot of produce from a drop of a seed. Yet, knowledge matters; there is a lot to grasp regarding what can be obtained from organic farming. We have proved that it is possible to get high yields in limited area. Vertical agriculture is one of the possibilities to maximize yield from a small sized farm.

For thousands of years, farmers depended on organic farming. However, it has become evident that this is not the right way to go on. It has become impossible with the exponentially growing number of people. Hence, modern chemical applications, seed varieties, pesticides, among other things, were required for better yield in recent times. You keep saying that organic farming is far better than such modern practices. I want you to be more practical about implication of what you are saying.

When we say organic farming, it is not merely to say that prudent measures and inputs are no longer required. The basic difference here is the knowhow. Critical technologies together with what the farmer knows best can improve yield two-fold or more compared to chemical oriented practices. We have proven that. We did demonstrate in practical terms and we can show it to anyone concerned. We even have used basic materials available around for cost effective methods. With minimum price and cost, high productivity is possible via organic farming. You know how organic things are priced these days. Organic farming is all about availing appropriate technologies and knowhow to drive intended returns. Two things matter on what we do. We incorporate endogenous knowledge of the community the experiential knowledge. On top of that we have included experimental knowhow on the practices of organic farming. Nature has greater power. The gap is on how to bend that power without harming the ecosystem. We intend to utilize nature appropriately. It’s what we are proving on seven regional states in the country.

If organic farming is more fruitful as you have stated, then why was it not well adapted to a long time ago? What is the problem then? 

We need to see the fundamental issues here. If farming needs to be high yielding, the fertility and healthiness of the soil require to be well addressed. A spoonful of humus contains some five billion bacteria. When various chemicals are dumped into the soil, it may not be the case for the bacteria to remain in much quantity as it previously did. Many insects, earthworms and others decompose the soil making it more fertile. The existence of such living organisms contribute to the soil quality; to make it a living soil. When more chemicals are dumped into the soil, organisms and lively nature of the soil will be drained, and even acidity develops through the passage of time.

On average, an Ethiopian farmer is entitled to plough a hectare or so to sustain his life and that of his family. Hence, the question is not about applying chemicals for better yields. Rather, these days, the debate hangs on whether Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) shall be considered or not. Regardless of all such matters, you are vocal on organic farming methods; on how it can make a difference. Why is that? 

Basically, I don’t see it [GMO] as a threat. The big issue here is to evaluate what opportunities accrue for Ethiopia in the long run. If Ethiopian farmers are provided with proper skills and technologies, say techniques like double dig (digging twice the land-row), planting methods of the government with our insertion of intercropping systems and other technologies can bring about surplus production. How to market the surplus and how to agro-process the yields needs further considerations. The farmer can provide good quantity of produces for the industry. In our case, we have research outcomes regarding large-scale farming. We have identified constraints these farms face. To mention some, there are pushing factors between these farms and the community. The other gaps we have identified is that large-scale farms lack systems on how to incorporate local communities. Beyond that, we have developed a system called eco-social-commercial farms. This system details a sound ecological method. Say, instead of applying pesticides, there are options we advise farmers to work on. Biological techniques can be applied. Natural fertilizers are remedies for large-scale farming too. Nitrogen-fixing plants can do a better job than what the chemicals provide. Large-scale farms should train local farmers in order to give them more yields. It’s possible they can be out-growers for commercial farms. Making them shareholders can even do better to mobilize massive resources and increase the productivity significantly. Hence, we have packages to ensure a win-win scenario for both sides.

What were the basic potholes your organization’s research found out about basic challenges of farmers in Ethiopia and beyond? 

The first thing we have observed is that the vast majority of tropical Africa is virgin and more productive. The areas stretch about ten million sq. M, in size. Tropical Africa is predominantly lowland and plenty of water resources are available. However, this part of Africa is sadly affected by Tsetse disease. There is no way that farmers can benefit from animal husbandry there. Oxen traction is unlikely with such circumstances. Hence, farming practices are very limited here. As one of our targets, we have prioritized working to avert these situations. To make matters worse, everywhere Tsetse prevails, malaria is inescapable. Both threaten human conditions along with the animal resources, making farming difficult in that part of Africa. In addition to that there are insects which affect the productions of maize and corn in that particular area. Poor land management, deforestation, erosion and others also intensify land degradations. Desertification is alarming at this juncture. Farmers are marginalized in Africa when it comes to technology. These are some of the basic challenges farmers face in Africa.

Around the French embassy here in the capital, you have a hectare of land. On the land you do lots of activities like dairy farming, vegetables, beehives, poultry and biogas, to mention a few. But, do you think such results can be replicated in the real world’s cereal and grain farms? 

Based on our experiment and research, it is possible to have a two to five-fold increase in productivity of cereals and grains. In addition to the quality, the taste of those produces also turned out to be amazing. We have farmers who have avoided chemical fertilizers from their backyards after realizing the significant changes they have encountered via natural farming techniques.

So you are saying that this integrated bio-economy system you have developed can be applied on cereal crops?

It can be applied on every farming activity. By the way, integrated bio-economy system simply means an integrated green economy system. We have three things altogether as an agenda to address through the system. Social capital, economical capital and ecological capital are the centrifugal forces which are working together to ensure societal betterments without harming the environment. We have scientifically proven results published in some journals. The change in a single household will bring a change in the entire community and when community changes, it is possible to imagine what will follow.

What basic changes have you introduced so far, of course unique to what the government and others propagate on alternative energy sources like biogas, solar stoves and others.

We do long-term studies, tests and validating activities prior to disseminating what can work for farmers. Secondly, we have tested how the integrated bio-economy system can be worked out in dry lands, wetlands, lowlands and other climatic zones. We have developed training methodologies for farmers on how they can easily familiarize themselves with the system. A farmer communication program has been established in order to ease interventions. We have a demand-driven approach. Entry points are priorities for us to work with farmers. For instance, in the western part of Ethiopia, Benishangul-Gumuz Region, Tsetse was the pertinent problem which the community has been facing for long. So, for us to introduce the system, we must address that problem first.  We are unique in our approach in the sense that we train farmers on the basis of agro-ecology. We generate new technologies and ideas on our system. To do that, we have a national advisory board composed of 20 individuals experts. Foreign scientists work with us in the technical steering committee. We have published three research articles on New Scientist journal. Therefore, we focus on scientific-based works on what we try to do.

You claim that some fifty million farmers in Ethiopia can generate one trillion birr profit a year. Please do explain?

Based on our current situation and having those strong-willed farmers, with better workable system in place, and with proper input supply, it is possible to say that some fifty million farmers will pocket a minimum of 20 thousand birr net profit each. We have farmers working with us able to earn some 1.7 million birr per year. If we concentrate on those fifty million, out of the 80 million or so, and assume they can generate a minimum of 20 thousand birr net profit, then Ethiopia will amass a trillion birr revenue per year. If farmers are rightly considered, they can prove they can generate more of what we have estimated. They would have contributed more even for the development of the industry. We have the confidence for that. We have seen and proven that it could be possible.

What’s your plan to promote the production of biogas here?

We are ready to disseminate biogas technology on four to seven meters digester which will make use of plastic and fiber glass materials for they are affordable and cost effective mechanisms. What we need is to develop some models to implement. Beyond the household supply, we are working on to launch the production of industrial biogas here. We have done it in DRC on industrial basis. Vehicles run on biogas in these countries. Some electric power generation activities bore fruit out there. Currently, DRC is generating 1.5 MW electric power. Therefore, we will import that technology in Ethiopia and will see if we can generate some two MW electric power. In addition to that, valuable organic fertilizer will be produced from the by-product of the biogas.

Sourced here  http://www.thereporterethiopia.com/index.php/interview/item/2338-“small-holder-farming-can-generate-over-one-trillion-birr”


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