300,000 Ethiopian Farmers Can’t All Be Wrong

I almost choked on my cheerios the other morning when I ran into  this amazing story in The Guardian:

Ethiopia’s farmers are flocking to a hotline that provides free agricultural advice about planting crops, using fertiliser and preparing land as part of a government initiative to turn subsistence farmers into surplus sellers.

The automated hotline has received nearly 1.5m calls from more than 300,000 farmers since it launched 12 weeks ago, according to Khalid Bomba, CEO of the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), an internationally backed government initiative. The 90 lines are now taking an average of 35,000 calls a day.

This is huge. One thing you very quickly learn when you look at hunger in Africa is that farming is a knowledge industry, and lack of access to proper advice is a major stumbling block for small farmers as they try to break out of the poverty cycle.

“Extension services” – state bureaucracies set up to provide this kind of advice are often cumbersome, corrupt, unresponsive, or all three. In plenty of cases, they do little more than distribute patronage ahead of elections. Extension pilots do succeed now and again, but scale-up is elusive.

And so, shockingly, very basic knowledge on how to plant (“sow seed in rows, regularly spaced” say) fails to reach the ground. The upshot is real hunger.

Finding an implementable, efficient, cost-effective, scalable solution to the problem of how to get good advice to poor farmers is one very big step on the road to guaranteeing food security in Africa. Ethiopia may be on the cusp of achieving this.

Is the wider sector listening?

5 thoughts on “300,000 Ethiopian Farmers Can’t All Be Wrong”

  1. Perhaps… ATA look like an interesting initiative with serious high-level political governance (both a plus and a risk). So I shan’t dismiss their efforts in promoting technologies and supporting systems. Agricultural R&D has had major support in Ethiopia for 15-20 years now, and major reorganisation to extension over the same period. So these issues have been taken seriously by many for some time.

    This makes the uptake of the telephone line interesting, and puzzling. It’s not like Extension hasn’t had support in Ethiopia, with many thousands of Development Agents living in rural areas. the ones I have worked with have mostly been very impressive, and serious, though under-resourced. As the ATA site makes no mention of this hotline, I can’t really say what advice is being offered, or how it differs from the standard extension ‘packages’ (variety + inputs + management recommendations), how varied it is (E.G., different crops, market contexts), OR how much it accounts for localised environmental variation.

    Now, Ethiopian extension has been criticised in the past for v weak links to research. Maybe the ATA project is providing more sharply-honed information, or higher quality advice than provided by the modestly-educated Development Agents. It may be that the information is different, or has links to real-time information, like prices or crop disease early-warning. But, frankly, if it is mainly about basic agronomic practices, I wonder if something else is going on, as a) row seeding, fertiliser spot dosing, etc have been core extension messages since the early 90s, and b) there are many possible reasons for non-adoption, despite knowing about the methods (labour constraints, lack of specialised sowing tools, perceptions of risk).

    I totally agree that information is fundamental challenge (see McGuire & Sperling, Glob. Env. Change 2013), and welcome anything here that would support innovation. But I would like to know a lot more before deciding if this ATA programme provides useful lessons for other places.

    1. Well, seems to me that the popularity of the hotline itself reveals latent unserved demand, no? Or is it that the previous availability of good advice creates demand for still more advice?

  2. Were they contacted by cell phone and responded or saw other adverts and responded. A subset of farmers want to move ahead on new products and skills. It is getting the information to them that has always been the problem.

  3. Apologies for the ignorant question (and perhaps you’ve reviewed this in another blog post) — but I’ve always been curious about and wanted to know the answer to this question. Why does the issue of agriculture (esp. in Africa) have more to do with the ‘knowledge industry’ as you say than anything else. How could a continent that has centuries’ worth of familiarity with its own land – as hunter gatherers, farmers, cultivators, otherwise – not know the basics of planting and spacing seeds? How did that knowledge just become.. lost? What went wrong?

    1. I think it’s about population. In 1950, there were 230 million people in Africa, in 1990 there were 630 million. today there’s almost 1.1 billion. Agroecologic strategies that worked for 230 million people won’t work for 1.1 billion. People get pushed onto more and more marginal land, people lose access to water resources, land gets degraded and dessertified.

      Used to be, in Uganda, a family would sow one crop for a few seasons and then when yields started to decline because soil nutrients had all been taken out they would just start farming another piece of land nearby. You can’t do that anymore: Uganda’s full, all the land is spoken for.

      Africa’s halfway through demographic transition. The Africa that comes out the other end won’t look anything like the Africa that went in (anymore than the Europe of today looks like the Europe of 1800)

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