Fieldnotes from Ethiopian Highlands…

24 Sep

In April 2008, I had done a brief spell of fieldwork in the Ethiopian Highlands. Specifically, I had visited two micro water sheds of Kanat and Magera located in Amhara National Regional State of Ethiopia. These water sheds were 100 km or so away from the town of Bahir dar – the capital of Amhara State and home to Lake Tana – the source of White Nile. I wanted to understand the constraints that farmers faced vis-à-vis access to water and other agricultural inputs. Other than writing detailed field notes, I had not done anything much with that. Today, while searching for some documents, I came across my field notes and thought I will post it on my blog as a reminder of ideas I had a long time ago, but ideas I did not pursue. Perhaps, one day, I will. Here are excerpts from my field notes:

“My first impression while driving through the Ethiopian highlands was that the sloping lands were intensively cultivated, with every plot of land being ploughed and kept ready for the onset of the rains. The hill slopes looked almost completely devoid of vegetation. Is this kind of intensive, but subsistence cultivation in the highlands a response to high population density? Also, are denuded hill slopes a recent phenomenon or have the hill slopes been always denuded? It seemed to me somewhat difficult to comprehend that farmers with their subsistent mode of farming would have led to such massive deforestation. I don’t know the answers, but I am pretty sure all these must have been studied. I just need to look up.

While the rains are expected in end of May-early July, we found that every patch of arable land has been ploughed and kept ready for planting. It also turned out that farmers plough their land at least 6-8 times before the advent of rains (in India, it is usual to plough only once or twice) using wooden plough and bullocks. Availability of bullock and plough is a constraint and rental markets exist for these.  Such high frequency of ploughing, we were told, was to capture as much rainwater as possible and retain it as soil moisture. We also found that fields were strewn with rocks and boulders of various size and shape. We were told that farmers prefer their fields to be like this because this ensures rainfall is effectively captured and prevents soil leaching. Are these correct agronomic practices? Again, I don’t know.

We found that farmers grow a variety of crops such as teff, wheat, maize, barley, rye and potato. Of these, only potato receives irrigation as well as fertilizer (or manure if a farmer can’t afford fertilizer). Springs are traditional sources of irrigation in the region. We were told that the agricultural extension officials have been promoting certain varieties of high yielding potatoes and that farmers are enthusiastic about cultivating those. Potato has emerged as the single most important cash crop. Yield of potato was about 200 quintals (1 quintal = 100 kg) per hectare of land. Potatoes are usually sold to village cooperative and sometimes even to private traders. Does it mean, if a crop (potato in this case) that offers cash income to the farmers is promoted, it is likely it would be adopted along with all kinds of improved practices that go with it? The role of extension workers seems important; we were told that they distribute better seeds to the farmers on a regular basis. To me, an interesting question was: are there more crops likes these in other parts of Ethiopia which respond to market demand?

Besides absence of reliable sources of irrigation (apart from springs, which anyway dry up in the non-rainy season), the main constraint here seemed to be high fertilizer price. The cost of urea is USD 60/quintal and that of DAP is USD 80/quintal. This is 6 to 8 times more expensive than in India. There are no private dealers of fertilizers; its supply is entirely controlled by the government. Fertilizers are imported right before the cropping season and farmers buy fertilizer from the cooperatives and pay in cash. An interesting feature of the village cooperative seemed to be that all the transactions were in cash and according to most people we talked to, cooperatives were at best functioning sub-optimally and yet remained the only source of fertilizer and corrugated aluminum sheets (which are in high demand for roofing). Why are fertilizer prices so high and what can be done to make fertilizer affordable to the farmers in Ethiopia? There is an interesting paper by Duflo, Kremer and Robinson (2008) on returns to fertilizer use in Kenya and the best ways to target farmers to achieve high fertilizer use.

The average size of the farm is 0.75 ha and farm sizes ranges from 0.25 ha to 1.25 ha. Even after land re-distribution, incidence of landlessness remains high. We found widespread prevalence of sharecropping arrangements for land, labour, farm inputs and even arrangements for sharing bullock and plough. We were told that sharecropping is extremely common and almost 50-60% of the plots might be under one form of sharecropping arrangement or the other.  The most common arrangement seemed to be where the owner of the land provided the land, the bullock and the plough and half the cost of fertilizer and seed, while the sharecropper (mostly landless labourer) provided labour, and half the cost of fertilizer and seed and they shared the output equally. This means that share of land owner who provides land and that of the sharecropper, who provides labour are equal. Various permutation and combinations of arrangements exists. Cost of hiring labour was found to be in the range of 15 to 20 birr per day (USD 1.5 to 2.0) and work hours were reported to be 6 am to 5 pm. One meal and local alcoholic beverage is included. Prima facie, it seems that share of landowner and sharecropper is equal and this is quite different from India. This possibly reflects the scarcity value of land over labour in India. But this does not seem to be happening in rural Ethiopia. Is it because, labor is equally scarce?

Questions I am keen to explore are: How prevalent are sharecropping arrangements in rural Ethiopia and how does share of land, labour, water and machine change across space and time? Is it likely, that with high population growth, the share of labour will get squeezed while that of land will increase? What will happen if there are technological interventions and the size of the whole pie (agricultural surplus) increases? How will that surplus be shared?

Finally, on a rather encouraging note, we found that the government of Ethiopia has invested in a number of new agricultural extension colleges with the aim of creating some 50,000 plus agricultural extension workers by 2015. These investments were done with aid from the Chinese government.”


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