Science in Society Archive

Greening Ethiopia for Self-Sufficiency

Famines and Ethiopia and other African countries have become irrevocably linked in the public mind since Bob Geldof’s Live Aid Concert in the 1980s. In 2002, we carried the first and only report (Science in Society #16) on how Ethiopia is determined to feed herself. In this present exclusive mini-series, we update the entire story of the remarkable successes achieved in reviving the traditional farming practice of pit composting that has now convinced Ethiopia to adopt organic agriculture for the entire country.

Organic Production for Ethiopia
The Tigray Project
Greening Ethiopia

Greening Ethiopia

Sue Edwards reports on the challenges and opportunities facing Ethiopia as steps are taken to reverse the ecological and social damages that have locked the country in poverty.


Ethiopia is a land-locked country in the ‘Horn of Africa’ to the northeast of Africa. Its topography is very diverse, encompassing mountains over 4000 m above sea level, high plateaus, deep gorges cut by rivers and arid lowlands including the Afar Depression 110 m below sea level.

The South Westerly 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 wet season (June–August). The mean annual rainfall is highest (above 2 700 mm) in the southwestern highlands, gradually decreasing to below 200 mm in the southeastern lowlands, and to100 mm or less in the northeastern lowlands. The mean temperature ranges from a high of 45°C (April–September) in the Afar Depression to 0°C or lower at night in the highlands (November-February).

Ethiopia’s population was 53.48 million in 1994, of which 86.3 percent was rural. It grew at the rate of 2.9 percent per annum between 1984 and 1994; by 2003, it was estimated to have exceeded 67 million and could reach 94.5 million by 2015. The population has an average age of just 21.8 years, with 44% under 15 years and the group 15 to 25 years making up more than 20%. School enrolment has increased, but the literacy rate remains about 35%. There is a high dependency ratio and although official unemployment is around 3%, it exceeds 30% in the urban youth, while under-employment is widespread in the rural population.

The country currently faces a number of environmental challenges resulting directly or indirectly from human activities, exacerbated by rapid population growth and the consequent increase in the exploitation of natural resources. The challenges range from land degradation to environmental pollution, due to the misguided application of chemicals in agriculture, for domestic purposes or for the manufacture of industrial products. Ethiopia has accumulated one of the largest stockpiles of obsolete pesticides in the continent, estimated to be around 3000 tonnes in 2003. The misuse of natural resources includes burning dung as fuel, instead of using it as a soil conditioner. Losses to crop production from burning dung and soil erosion are estimated at over 600,000 tonnes annually, or twice the average yearly requests for food aid.


Ethiopia is one of the least developed countries in the world, and its economy rests mainly on agriculture. It 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.

Several seasonal and perennial crops are grown. The main ones are cereals (tef, barley, maize, wheat, sorghum, oats and finger millet), root crops (enset, Irish, sweet and indigenous potatoes, taro, yams), pulses (horse bean, fenugreek, field pea, haricot bean, chickpea, grass pea and lentil), oil crops (niger seed, linseed, safflower, rapeseed, groundnut, safflower and sesame), vegetables (cabbage, tomato, hot peppers, pumpkin, onions and garlic) and many herbs and spices. The major cash and industrial crops are coffee, tea, citrus, papaya, banana, avocado, mango, oil seeds, pulses, cotton, sisal, tobacco, fruits, vegetables, spices, sugar cane and chat (also called mira).

Agriculture is one of the key sectors in which to devote efforts in accelerating socio-economic development and reducing poverty.

Problems of chemical inputs

The Sasakawa Global 2000 (SG-2000) programme was started by the Ministry of Agriculture in 1995 to boost food crop production through a focused campaign to get farmers to use chemical fertilizer along with high yielding varieties (HYVs) and pesticides. However, it promoted only the adoption of fertilizer through credit schemes and subsidized prices. Prior to 1995, Ethiopia had one of the lowest per capita uses of fertilizer in the world. Under SG-2000, farmers were allowed to select and use the best of their own local varieties rather than buy seed of HYVs. Very little use of pesticides has developed except for dealing with migratory pests, particularly armyworm, and local swarms such as Pachnoda beetles on sorghum and the endemic Wello Bush Cricket on cereals.

Since 1998, the subsidy on fertilizer has been withdrawn while the price of fertilizer has risen. Despite that, by 2001, around 5% of the smallholder farmers of the country, 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 of maize.

In 2002, many farmers were heavily in debt and withdrew from the fertilizer schemes. Many parts of the country were also hit by drought with the result that 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.

Expanding horticultural production is making increasing use of chemical inputs, often with little or no understanding of either how to handle those chemicals safely, or how to use them correctly. For example, a survey by the local Safe Environment Association and PAN-UK (Pesticides Action Network, UK) found malathion being sprayed on the leaves of the local stimulant, chat (Catha edulis), in order to make them shiny and more attractive to purchasers. Another group of farmers had been using DDT to control insect pests on chat until they associated increasing stomach problems with the use of the chemical.

The use of agrochemicals in smallholder agriculture is rapidly increasing; and this is in addition to the substantial amounts already deployed on the few large-scale farms, particularly cotton farms. The misuse of pesticides and fertilizers is damaging human health and polluting the surrounding environment.

Greening Ethiopia

In 2002, the Ethiopian government issued a new policy guideline on Rural Development and set up a supra-ministry to coordinate activities. The Rural Development policy guideline regards environmental rehabilitation as an essential factor in increasing productivity.

The Environmental Policy of Ethiopia has incorporated a basic principle similar to one adopted in organic agriculture: "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 capability."

Key elements of the policy cover soil husbandry and sustainable agriculture, and can support the development of more specific policy and regulations for organic agriculture. These include promoting the use of appropriate organic matter and nutrient management for improving soil structure, nutrient status and microbiology; maintaining traditional integration of crop and animal husbandry in the highlands, and enhancing the role of pastoralists in the lowlands; promoting water conservation; focusing agricultural research and extension on farming and land use systems as a whole, with attention to peculiarities of local conditions; promoting agroforestry/farm forestry; ensuring that potential costs of soil degradation through erosion, chemical degradation and pollution are taken into account; shifting the emphasis in crop breeding to composites and multi-lines to increase adaptability to environmental changes and to better resist pests and diseases; using biological and cultural methods, resistant or tolerant varieties or breeds, and integrated pest and disease management in preference to chemical controls; and applying the precautionary principle in making decisions.

This enabling policy context dovetails with a unique experiment in sustainable development and ecological land management conducted with farmers in Tigray (see following article).

Article first published 23/06/04


  1. Walta Information Center, 2004. Symposium Proceedings: Population and Development in Ethiopia: Now and in the Future, Addis Ababa, 17 June 2003.

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