FAO's Special Programme for Food Security works to double farmers' yields in Eritrea
His beat up hat hangs over his brow, the holes in his earlobes distended from years of wearing silver earrings. He is stooped but wiry, his wartime recycled rubber sandals positioned neatly next to his feet, his vest worn and torn but clean. At 75, Mesmer Zergabere has seen much of his country's history pass before his eyes.
For 30 years, from 1961 onwards, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) waged a guerrilla war for independence against Ethiopia's powerful military regime. Independence was gained in 1991, but the war almost destroyed the country. Fields were strewn with landmines, the economy was ruined, the infrastructure dismembered. This part of the central Eritrean highlands was hit particularly hard because it was so close to Asmara, the capital.
Mesmer Zergabere has not forgotten the war, but today he is more concerned with building the peace. With his three tiny plots of dry stony land - totalling a single hectare - no one would be blamed for thinking him well off, at least in these rugged parts. Still, his wealth is only an illusion.
"It isn't enough to feed me and my wife," he said. "My land only gives me food for six months. I have to work in the nursery to earn money for the rest." Mesmer works 11 hours each day, and walks six kilometres to work and back.
In a good year, one of his small plots might yield a quintal of wheat. But last season, for the first time, the same plot yielded nearly three quintals. Under a new farming scheme, he had used fertilizer to prepare his field and planted boohai, a higher-yielding variety of wheat.
Along with 140 other farmers in the Geremi-Karneshim region, Mesmer was helped by FAO's Special Programme for Food Security, an international initiative that aims to boost the production of staple crops in countries where there is a prospect of high returns. The programme uses simple on-farm demonstrations to teach husbandry and farming techniques, and develops new ways of doing things by working hand in hand with farmers.
"By using improved seeds, moderate levels of fertilizer and proper crop management such as timely planting and weeding, there is a good possibility of doubling yields," said Dr Mandadi Reddy, FAO's technical advisor to the Eritrean Ministry of Agriculture. Doubling yields is a welcome prospect in a food-deficit country that usually only meets 40 percent of its food needs from local production.
The FAO Special Programme was launched worldwide in 1994 to bring food security to countries that cannot yet feed themselves. What makes it stand out is that instead of merely handing out food supplies to hungry farmers, it helps create the conditions they need to feed themselves. This in turn promotes self-reliance, reduces pressure on natural resources, and helps stimulate national economies. But the programme in Eritrea is still new and much remains to be ironed out.
First, Eritrea faces a number of physical constraints. Its land has been severely degraded, the region is prone to drought, and locusts periodically plague harvests.
"Last year the rains came too late, and production here could only feed people for two or three months," said Teodros Keleta, the local coordinator for the agriculture ministry. "People had to work to make up the difference." That is easier said than done in a country where work is scarce, especially for the very old and the very young.
Because of the shortage of rainfall, much energy goes into making terraces to catch every drop of water. Also, the hunt is on to find early maturing and drought-resistant crop varieties.
"The crop varieties we are trying come straight from Ethiopia, new and untested. But enough is known for us to go ahead, and the situation is urgent enough to warrant taking a risk," said FAO's Reddy.
There are also institutional constraints, since Eritrea has no established research, extension or rural credit systems.
The year the Eritrean programme was launched, 1995, was a difficult one for the country. Drought struck, locusts infested farmland, and FAO's intervention came a little late.
The first phase of the Special Programme, which will last another year or two, will work to compensate for these constraints, sort out any major outstanding problems, and help put in place the technology needed to push the programme forward. A later expansion phase will deal more specifically with food access and storage, the building of infrastructure, and improving the local skills needed in order to make the programme work.
Despite the many challenges still to be met, Mesmer Zergabete would have it no other way.
"Before the programme, I could barely fill one saket with wheat after harvest. This year I filled two completely," he said. A saket is a local net used to transport crop residue on the back of donkeys. "I get more wheat, and what I get is higher. Without this help, my yield would drop, and the seed would not be as good," he said. "I would have to migrate to another area of the country. My wife and I would go hungry."
29 July 1997