Science in Society Archive

Greening Ethiopia for Food Security & End to Poverty

A remarkable project reversing the ecological and social damages of the past 100 years that have locked the country in poverty.
The world's largest single study of its kind now shows that composting increases yields two to three-fold and outperforms chemical fertilizers by more than 30 percent

Sue Edwards


Ethiopia is a land-locked country in the ‘Horn of Africa' to the northeast of the continent. Its topography is very diverse, encompassing mountains over 4 000 m above sea level, high plateaus, deep gorges cut by rivers and arid lowlands including the Dallol Depression, which is 110 m below sea level in the Afar [1].

The South Westerly Monsoon is one of the country's three moisture-bearing wind systems. Originating from the South Atlantic, it brings the greatest amount of moisture during the main rainy season (May/June–September/October). The small rains (February-April/May) originate from the Indian Ocean and feed the southern and eastern highland areas. The third rainfall system also originates from the Indian Ocean, and feeds the southern half of the country any time between October and January, and March to May [2]. The mean annual rainfall is highest (above 2 700 mm) in the southwestern highlands, gradually decreasing to below 100 mm in the eastern lowlands of the Afar. The mean annual temperature ranges from a high of 35 °C in the Afar to 10 °C or lower in the highlands above 2 500 m [1]. From November to January in the highlands above 1 500 m, diurnal temperatures can range between below freezing at night, with frost, to over 25 °C during the day [2].

The country faces a number of environmental challenges resulting directly or indirectly from human activities, exacerbated by rapid population growth (population in 2007 estimated at over 77 million) and the consequent increase in the exploitation of natural resources. Most serious of all is land degradation due to the removal of self-governance from local communities of smallholder farmers, starting around the second half of the nineteenth century. This undermined the traditional systems of land management, as farmers were only able to exercise some control over their land when it was growing a crop. The most visible physical impacts are the formation of gullies eating away the soil, the recovery of vegetation prevented by free-range grazing , a nd the unregulated felling of trees for firewood and other purposes.

The central control of local farming communities continued under the military government (1974-1991) and did nothing to restore the farmers' confidence in controlling their own affairs and investing in their land.

These negative trends are now being reversed through the present government's emphasis on the decentralization of power down to the wereda (district), the lowest level of official government intervention, and their constituent tabias in Tigray (kebeles in the rest of the country). Each wereda is also the seat for a member of parliament in the Federal House of Representatives – the Parliament. Elected officials of the tabia run the day-to-day affairs of the local communities.


Despite Ethiopia's status as one of the least developed countries in the world [8], traditional agricultural production is highly diverse and is the main source of food for the population. Two of the main staple crops, the cereal teff ( Eragrostis tef ) and the root crop enset ( Ensete ventricosa ), are endemic, and many of the crops known to have their centres of origin in the fertile crescent of south-west Asia, for example durum wheat ( Triticum durum ), now have their highest genetic diversity in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is one of the eight major centres for crop diversity in the world [3].

Other important crops with high genetic diversity in Ethiopia include the cereals—barley ( Hordeum vulgare ), finger millet ( Eleusine coracana ) and sorghum ( Sorghum bicolour ); pulses—faba bean ( Vicia faba ), field pea ( Pisum sativum including the endemic var. abyssinicum ), chick pea ( Cicer arietinum ) and grass pea ( Lathyrus sativus ); oil crops—linseed ( Linum sativum ), niger seed ( Guizotia abyssinca ), safflower ( Carthamus tinctorius ) and sesame ( Sesamum indicum ); and root crops—anchote ( Coccinia abyssinica ), ‘Oromo or Wollaita dinich' ( Plectranthus edulis ), and yams ( Dioscorea spp.). Over 100 plant species used as crops have been identified in Ehtiopia. [4]

Agriculture accounts for more than 75 percent of total exports, over 85 percent of employment; and about 45 percent of the GDP (gross domestic product). Coffee alone makes up more than 87 percent of the total agricultural exports. Hides and skins are the next most important export items as raw, processed or manufactured goods. [5]

The Government has stated that Ethiopia's development has to be based on its capacity to produce agricultural products to ensure food security for its population, provide the raw materials for agro-industrial development and earn foreign exchange. This is set out in “Ethiopia: Building on Progress — A Plan for Accelerated and Sustained Development to End Poverty (PASDEP) (2005/06-2009/10) [6].

Problems of chemical inputs

In 1995, a version of the Green Revolution, called the Sasakawa Global 2000 (SG-2000) programme [7] was introduced by the Ministry of Agriculture to boost food production through a campaign to get smallholder farmers to use chemical fertilizer along with, when possible, high yielding varieties (HYVs) and pesticides. Prior to 1995, Ethiopia had one of the lowest per capita uses of fertilizer in the world [8]. Under SG-2000, farmers were allowed to select the crops they wanted to grow with fertilizer and use the best of their own local varieties rather than buy seed of HYVs; and it is only since 2003 that more widely adapted ‘improved seeds' have been promoted and taken up by smallholder farmers. But there are also efforts to promote the conservation and enhancement of farmers' varieties (often called landraces) using organic principles [9].

From 1998, the subsidy on chemical fertilizer was withdrawn and the price had more than doubled by 2007. Access to credit for purchasing fertilizer has continued to be made available to farmers up to the present. By 2001, around 5 percent of the smallholder farmers, particularly those growing maize, had become accustomed to using fertilizer. But that year, the price dropped out of the bottom of the maize market and the farm gate price in some areas fell to the equivalent of US$ 1.50 per 100 kg [9].

In 2002, many farmers were heavily in debt and withdrew from the fertilizer schemes. Many parts of the country were also hit by a much shorter rainy season with the rains stopping early, or by drought. Consequently, yields declined, or crops failed completely and the government requested food aid for more than 14 million people, nearly a quarter of the total population [10].

Greening Ethiopia

The Environmental Policy of Ethiopia, issued in 1997, incorporated a basic principle similar to one adopted in organic agriculture [11]: “Ensure that essential ecological processes and life support systems are sustained, biological diversity is preserved and renewable natural resources are used in such a way that their regenerative and productive capabilities are maintained, and, where possible, enhanced...; where this capacity is already impaired to seek through appropriate interventions a restoration of that capabilit y.”

This enabling policy context dovetails with a unique experiment in sustainable development and ecological land management conducted with farmers in Tigray and the birth of an organic agriculture movement in the country as a whole.

In 1995, Dr Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, founder of the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD), was asked by some government officials to design a project that could help farmers trying to eke out an existence on the highly degraded land of the highlands. The aim was to help the farmers use an ecological approach with a minimum of external inputs to improve the productivity of their land and rehabilitate their environments. The project started in 1996 as a partnership with the Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Development (BoARD) of Tigray, and is still continuing to be run by the BoARD. The other partners in the project are Mekele University, the local communities and their local administration.

The project focuses on helping local communities restore local control and effective management of their natural resources through the development and enforcement of their own by-laws [12]. Measures used aim at:

  • Improving biological and physical water and soil conservation in cropland including the control and rehabilitation of gullies
  • Controlling, preferably stopping, free-range grazing to allow more grass, herbs and trees to grow
  • Restoring soil fertility by making and using compost, and helping farmers avoid debt through paying for chemical fertilizer
  • Incorporating grasses and fast growing legumes in areas treated for soil and water conservation.

The most successful measure has been the planting of the small multipurpose indigenous tree, Sesbania sesban , for animal forage and compost biomass on the bunds between fields, and in the rehabilitated gullies, along with grasses, particularly elephant grass. There has also been a rapid re-establishment of indigenous plants, particularly shrubs and trees, in the gullies and on hillsides protected from grazing animals.

Project activities in four communities were established in 1996/97 and 1997/98. Since 2000, there has been a rapid scaling up of the project so that by 2006, ISD was following up project activities in 57 local communities in 12 of the 53 weredas in Tigray. Much effort has been made to include households headed by women in the project because these are generally among the poorest of the poor in their villages [12].

Since 2000, the BoARD has been promoting the land rehabilitation ‘package'—compost, trench bunding for soil and water conservation with planting multipurpose trees and grasses—in over 90 communities within 25 weredas in the drier more degraded areas of the Region. By 2007, an estimated 25 percent of the farming population in Tigray were using this package, particularly making and using compost.

Results of the initial successes were published by the Institute of Science in Society in 2004 [13-15] ( Greening Ethiopia , The Tigray Project , and Organic Production for Ethiopia , SiS 23) . The Third Wo rld Network (TW N) published a fuller account in 2006 [12]; TWN had funded the project right from the beginning.

Since 2005, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC) has also provided funding to ISD for promoting sustainable agriculture in Tigray, Amhara and Oromiya Regions. This included publishing a poster on making compost to support the compost manual in Tigrinya (the local language of Tigray) in 2002 [16], and distributing these to all 53 weredas of Tigray. In 2007, an Amharic version of the compost manual and poster were prepared for publication as part of the UNDP-funded Land Rehabilitation Project in the Federal Environmental Protection Authority (EPA).

In 2006, the FAO Natural Resources Department provided funding to help collect additional yield data from plots in farmers' fields during the 2006 harvesting season, and pay for the entry and statistical analysis of the data. The final database included plot yields from 974 farmers' fields and 13 crops taken over the years 2000 to 2006 inclusive [1 7 ]. The results were presented at the FAO International Conference on “ Organic Agriculture and Food Security ” held 2-5 May 2007 in FAO, Rome [18]

This is now the single largest study of its kind in the world comparing yields from the application of compost and chemical fertilizer in farmers' fields. The results show without any doubt that compost can replace chemical fertilizers and increase yields by more than 30 percent on average.

Organic composting superior to chemical fertilizers

An important feature of the Tigray Project is that it is largely the farme rs, supported by local wereda-based experts from the BoARD, who have led the project. They choose which crops to treat with compost and which with chemical fertilizer.

The method used to collect the yield data was based on the crop sampling system developed by FAO to estimate a country's potential harvest and identify threats to local food security. Three one-metre square plots were harvested from each field to reflect the range of conditions of the crop. The harvested crop was then threshed and the grain and straw were weighed separately. For comparison, all yields have been converted into kg/ha in the following table.

The fields for taking the yield samples are selected with the farmers to represent the most widely grown crops. There are three treatments. ‘Check' means a field that has received neither compost nor chemical fertilizer, although it may have received compost in one or more previous years. ‘Compost' is for fields treated with mature compost; the rates of application range from around 5 t/ha in poorly endowed areas, such as the dry Eastern Zone of Tigray, to around 15 t/ha in the moister Southern Zone. ‘Fertilizer' is for fields treated with the chemicals DAP (diammonium phosphate) and urea. The recommended rates are 100 kg/ha of DAP and 50 kg/ha of urea.

The original data were collected by community and included 13 crops, but here they have been compiled for the four most widely grown cereals and the most important pulse: barley, wheat, maize, teff, and faba bean. The results of a one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) are given in Table 11.1, which also shows the 95 percent confidence intervals for the mean.

Table 11.1. Summary of yield data for five main crops

As can be seen, there are large differences between the means of every crop with respect to treatments. Compost gives the highest yields for all crops; typically double those of the ‘check', and better than those from chemical fertilizer by an average of 30.1 percent (from 17.8 percent for faba bean to 47.4 percent for wheat).

Pairwise comparisons (not shown) of treatments for all crops are highly significant (at the 0.1 percent level or better), except for compost versus fertilizer in faba beans, where there are too few observations for treatment with fertilizer.

Farmers experience multiple benefits from composting

Farmers who have learnt how to make and use compost based on the method recommended by ISD are not interested in continuing to use chemical fertilizer, i.e. they have willingly withdrawn from the use of chemical fertilize r.

In 1998, the grain yields of all cereals without any inputs (checks), except for maize, were below 1 t/ha: 395-920 kg/ha for barley, 465-750 kg/ha for durum wheat, and 480-790 kg/ha for teff [19]. In the 7-year data set for the four widely grown cereal crops the average check yields ranged from 1116 kg/ha for barley to 1642 kg/ha for maize.

Soon, farmers began to observe and appreciate the residual effect of compost in maintaining soil fertility for two or more years. They are thus able to rotate the application of compost on their fields and do not have to make enough to apply to all their cultivated land each year.

There were many other positive impacts of composting.

Difficult weeds, such as Ethiopian wild oats Avena vaviloviana , have been reduced, and crops show improved resistance to pests such as teff shoot fly.

Farmers who make and use compost are able to avoid the financial risk of taking chemical fertilizer on credit, and the compost is available when it is needed ; chemical fertilizer is sometimes delivered too late for the farmers to use. The most visible impact of farmers not having to take fertilizer on credit is that they often invest in improving their homes and compounds, for example, replacing thatching with more water-proof corrugated iron sheets, and/or diversifying their production base by keeping beehives.

Composted fields are able to retain more moisture than untreated fields or those treated with chemical fertilizer, so that when there are dry periods, composted crops continue to grow. This was seen dramatically in 2002 when the main rains were very poor and stopped early. Crops in composted fields were still green when those in check and especially chemically fertilized fields had withered and died.

The women say that food made from grain harvested from composted fields have better flavour and provide a more satisfying and sustaining meal for their families than grain from fields treated with chemical fertilizers.

Once farmers appreciate the improved productivity of composting, they usually start to re-establish the diversity of crops, particularly cereals and pulses familiar to them before their land became highly degraded. One farmer successfully searched far and wide for ‘Demehai', a variety of easily de-hulled barley used to make a snack of roasted grain, to reintroduce into his farm once he had become food secure through the use of compost.

Farmers also become innovative in trying out new crops and crop combinations. For example, one farmer in Adi Nifas now regularly plants vegetables, particularly tomato and chilli pepper in his teff field. These do not interfere with the tef, maturing after the grain is harvested and bringing the farmer additional income. Many other farmers have now adopted this and other innovative forms of inter-cropping.

Many farmers have also started to plant fruit trees, both around their homesteads and in rehabilitated gullies. Women farmers are particularly adept at taking care of these fruit trees, such as citron ( Citrus medica ) and papaya, and they are now also starting to grow mulberry and castor ( Ricinus communis ) to raise silkworms because there is an emerging market for the silk. ISD, with financial support from SSNC, assisted the local agricultural experts of Tahtai Maichew Wereda near Axum to e stablish a fruit tree nursery to meet the escalating demand for fruit tree seedlings from the farmers.

In Adi Nifas, where the main gullies and hillside were treated with check dams at the start of the project, the streams from the hillside used to dry up quickly in the dry season. Now these streams hold water all year round and the resulting small river has made it possible for several farmers downstream to develop irrigated vegetable production, particularly of onions, after they have harvested their grain crops. These farmers are able to regularly get two crops a year from their land and their land, which used to be considered as being among the worst in that area, is seen as totally rehabilitated and productive.

Organic agriculture for an end to poverty

The use of compost to restore soil fertility can go a long way towards combating poverty and ensuring food security for smallholder farmers who typically cultivate less than one hectare of land. Through indirect discussions, it appears that most of these farming families have at least sufficient food grains stored in their houses to feed their families for the whole year, and some have larger stores. One farmer who generally looked poorly dressed had his house threatened by a flood. He had to call his neighbours to help him and his family move their stored grain to a safe place because he had been able to accumulate enough to maintain his family for about three years!

In 2003, the administration of Tahtai Maichew Wereda, about 25 km west of Axum in northern Tigray, asked ISD, the federal Environmental Protection Authority and the BoARD of Tigray to help it expand the ‘Sustainable Agriculture/Development Project' to all tabias in the Wereda, i.e. to over 20,000 households. The project was launched in July 2004 at a workshop involving around 200 women and men farmers, the local administration, all 50 local experts and key representatives from the Regional offices in Mekelle, the Regional capital.

An emerging challenge is the involvement of the local justice system, the ‘social courts', to help uphold and enrich local by-laws to back up improvements to land and its management by the local communities.

The experience with the farmers in Tigray in producing and using compost shows that the aim for Ethiopia to have a substantial number of farmers producing organically can be realized. It also shows that the introduction of ecologically sound organic principles can have very rapid positive impacts on the productivity and well-being of smallholder farmers because they do not have to go through a conversion period of reduced yields as they go into using compost. Most farmers, particularly those in marginal areas, are not able to afford external inputs, so for them an organic production management system offers a real and affordable means to break out of poverty and delivering food security.

The organic movement is gathering momentum in Ethiopia and it is unstoppable. An Ethiopian Organic Agriculture System was approved by Parliament on 8 March 2006 [2 0 ]. The international trade in organic products is an expanding market that Ethiopia is geographically well situated to exploit, not just in the developed economies of Europe, North America and Japan, but also in the Arabian Peninsula and Near East.

Coffee was the first certified organic product exported from Ethiopia. In 1995, the world market price for coffee started to decrease dramatically and it was quickly realised that producers could improve their returns through organic production supported by fair trade. Organic fair trade coffee is increasing its market share by about threefold each year with most of it being exported to the USA. Through these quality certificates, a minimum of 20 per cent is added on top of the local price for farmers. This has changed the livelihood of the farmers and their communities: additional schools have been built as well as health centres and several clean-water delivery points. By 2007, the Oromia Coffee Union, the first and now the largest in the country, was buying coffee from 115 cooperatives. When it started, these were the first organic certified cooperatives in Africa. This Union now sells more than 4 000 tonnes of organic coffee a year obtained from 80 000 ha of organic certified land. [21]

By 2007, there were four international organic inspection and certification bodies in Ethiopia, all with local Ethiopian experts. The certified organic products being exported are all high value products: coffee, honey, sesame, pulses, teff, pineapple, bananas, linseed, spices and herbs from farmers' fields, and incense and myrrh collected from the wild [2 1 ].

There is also an expanding awareness of the importance of producing healthy fruits and vegetables for the educated middle-class and expatriate market in Addis Ababa. For example, Genesis Farm, started in 2001, now produces high quality organically grown vegetables on an area of 40 ha. The vegetable farm has 302 permanent workers and 52 daily labourers. The farm also has a dairy herd of 110 cows and 50 000 chickens, not totally organic by European standards, but much healthier than most other animal production enterprises of a similar size in Ethiopia. There is a high demand for the products of the farm , which supplies hotels and supermarkets in Addis Ababa, as well as having its own shop on the farm. What is very interesting to note is that the prices of the products in the shop on the farm are generally the same or even somewhat cheaper than their equivalents from non-organic production units around Addis Ababa.

The future looks bright for organic Ethiopia. The rest of the world should take heart and take heed.

Sue Edwards is director of the Institute of Sustainable Development in Addis Ababa, and has been involved in the Tigray Project from its inception

Article first published 18/02/08


  1. Ethiopian Mapping Authority. National Atlas of Ethiopia . Ethiopian Mapping Authority, Addis Ababa, 1988.
  2. Gemechu D. Aspects of Climate and Water Budget in Ethiopia , Addis Abeba University Press, 1977.
  3. Engels JMM, Hawkes JG and Melaku W eds. Plant Genetic Resources of Ethiopia . Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 1991.
  4. Edwards S. Crops with wild relatives found in Ethiopia. In: Engels JMM, Hawkes JG and Melaku W eds. Plant Genetic Resources of Ethiopia . Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 1991.
  5. EPA. The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia - State of Environment Report for Ethiopia . August, 2003. Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), Addis Ababa, 2003.
  6. Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (MoFED). Ethiopia: Building on Progress. A Plan for Accelerated and Sustained Development to End Poverty (PASDEP) (2005/06-2009/10), Volume I: Main Text. MoFED, Addis Ababa, 2006.
  7. Sasakawa-Global 2000 Programme,
  8. Asfaw A. The Current Depressed Cereal Prices - Reasons, Impacts and its Policy Implications on Future Sustainable Agricultural Development (The Case of Maize Belt Areas, Western Ethiopia), unpublished paper, June 2001.
  9. Tsegaye B. Incentives for On-farm Conservation in a Center of Diversity: A Case Study of durum wheat ( Triticum turgidum L.) Landraces from East Shewa, Central Ethiopia, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Philosophiae Doctor Thesis, 2005.
  10. Asfaw A Chronic food insecurity rather than availability is becoming the main issue in Ethiopia. Draft report prepared for USAID in Addis Ababa, 2002.
  11. Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. EC/1997 GC. Environmental Policy of Ethiopia . Environmental Protection Authority with Ministry of Economic Development and Cooperation (MEDAC), Addis Ababa, 1989.
  12. Araya H and Edwards S. The Tigray Experience: a success story in sustainable agriculture. Environment & Development Series 4. TWN (Third World Network), Penang, 2006, Available at
  13. Edwards S. Greening Ethiopia. Science in Society 23 , 4-5, 2004.
  14. Edwards S. The Tigray Project. Science in Society 23 , 6-7, 2004.
  15. Edwards S. Organic production for Ethiopia. Science in Society 23 , 8, 2004.
  16. Asmelash A.. Dekuaie tefetro: intayn bkhmeyn (Making compost: what it is, and how is it made). In Tigrinya. Tigray Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Institute for Sustainable Development, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2002.
  17. The yield data from farmers' fields was collected by development agents and local experts supervised and compiled by Arefayne Asmelash and Hailu Araya Project Officer and Sustainable Community Development Team Leader in ISD.
  18. Edwards S, Asmelash A, Araya H and Berhan Gebre Egziabher T (2007). The impact of compost use on crop yields in Tigray, Ethiopia, 2000-2006 inclusive. Paper prepared for the FAO International Conference on Organic Agriculture and Food Security, 3-5 May 2007 in FAO, Italy. Available through the FAO web site
  19. Annex in Edwards S. Natural Fertilizer . Institute for Sustainable Development, Addis Ababa, 2003.
  20. Proclamation No. 488/2006. Ethiopian Organic Agriculture System Proclamation, dated 8 March 2006, Addis Ababa , Negarit Gazeta 12 th year, No. 21. Federal Negarit Gazeta of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, 2006.
  21. Rieks H and Edwards S eds. Organic Chain Development in Ethiopia: Participatory Networking Workshop, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 24-25 May 2007. Agro-Eco, the Netherlands and Institute for Sustainable Development, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2007. Also available through

Article first published 18/02/08

Got something to say about this page? Comment

Comment on this article

Comments may be published. All comments are moderated. Name and email details are required.

Email address:
Your comments:
Anti spam question:
How many legs on a spider?