An FAO Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission visited Eritrea from 19 to 29 November to assess 1996 crop production and estimate total cereal import and food aid requirements for 1997. The mission held discussions with various Government, UN and bilateral agencies and made a number of field visits to main agricultural areas, in the provinces of Saraye, Hamasien, Senhit, Semhar, Barka and Gash-Setit, especially the regions of Omhager, Shambuko and Laley Gash.
Although there are signs that the economy of Eritrea is now recovering after several decades of armed conflict and consequent neglect, agriculture and the capacity of the country to meet food requirements through its own resources, remain weak and highly unstable. Agriculture is still based on subsistence farming, where input use and the adoption of yield enhancing technologies remain extremely low, even by standards in other sub Saharan countries in Africa. Although there are indications that significant improvements could be made to enhance domestic food production, it will require substantial investment in both physical and human resource terms. This option, therefore, can only be viewed as being viable in the medium to long term.
In the meantime, on most farms, output barely meets subsistence requirements in good years, whilst in bad years, pest infestation and drought significantly erode the capacity of the household to react to food shortages. Food security in Eritrea, therefore, remains highly precarious. At the household level, food security depends on an assortment of coping mechanisms, including food-for-work in the past and the ability to generate cash for food purchases through sale of assets principally livestock. At the national level the important determinants are the country's capacity to make commercial purchases from the world market, food aid and production trends and the availability, and access to, an exportable surplus from neighbouring countries, mainly Ethiopia. Indeed in both 1995 and 1996, the mission contends that major food related problems in Eritrea were avoided by access to such supplies, where significant imports were made through the public and private sectors and through cross border transactions. As these imports were made using the Ethiopian Birr (which still remains the official currency in use), excess pressure on foreign exchange reserves was also avoided.
The importance of food supplies from Ethiopia was clearly evident in areas visited by the mission, where a number of urban and rural markets were observed to be well stocked by imported grains from across the border. Together with market access and purchasing capacity, especially of vulnerable groups, this source of grains will continue to be an extremely important factor in determining future food security in the country. Had access to such supplies been more restricted, or depended more on limited hard currency, the consequences of shortfalls in food production in Eritrea would have been far more manifest and dramatic, especially as the volume of food aid in 1996 fell sharply, in response to donor concerns regarding the newly introduced policy of monetization of food aid.
In the 1996 crop year, although rainfall at the beginning of the season in April was favourable, encouraging an expansion in area cultivated, a subsequent drought in July/August, in many areas, severely affected crops at a critical stage in growth. Production of cereals and pulses this year is, therefore, estimated at approximately 132 000 tons, some 11 percent lower than 1995 and 29 percent lower than the average for the preceding four years. Taking into account opening stocks of 60 000 tons would give an overall availability of 192 000 tons in 1997. Against this the country requires some 395 000 tons for food alone and 481 000 tons for total utilisation, leaving an overall import requirement of over 289 000 tons. Assuming that 120 000 tons would come in the form of commercial imports (including cross border transactions) and a further 25 000 tons as pledged food assistance for monetization, the overall deficit for 1997 amounts to 144 000 tons, with which the country needs assistance.
Eritrea is a low income food deficit country, with per caput income estimated at between US$130 and US$150. At independence in 1993, the country had a depleted industrial and agricultural base, severely damaged infrastructure and extremely poor health and educational facilities, even in comparison to other developing countries. In addition to the cost of war the economy has recurrently been affected by droughts, affecting the significant contribution made by agriculture to GDP. It is all the more strained by pressures to resettle large numbers of people, who had been actively involved or displaced by the war, and to transform the economy from a centrally planned system to one which is market orientated.
Policy is now centred on the promotion of economic growth, through various market and private sector initiatives, to raise per caput income, generate employment and develop trade. In keeping with these, the objectives are to improve agricultural productivity, develop export industries and promote tourism.
As a result of these initiatives the economy has shown strong signs of recovery, with the estimated rate of growth outpacing that of population. Growth has also been supported by an increased availability of raw materials, largely financed by remittances from Eritreans abroad and by donor assistance.
Agriculture remains a vital sector in the economy, making a significant contribution to GDP, export earnings and employment. However, domestic production, even in good years, is insufficient to meet demand and the country relies considerably on food imports including aid.
Agricultural productivity remains extremely low, compounded by past problems of war, displacement of farmers, low investment, environmental degradation, over-grazing and recurrent droughts. In addition to these limitations, output remains highly constrained by traditional systems of subsistence farming, where little use is made of yield enhancing inputs such as improved seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. Food production is also frequently affected by pest infestation. As result, on most farms, output barely meets subsistence requirements in good years, whilst in bad, setbacks by pests and drought significantly erode household food security.
The livestock sector has also been similarly affected by past disruptions in the country. As a result livestock numbers fell dramatically, by some accounts by 70 percent between 1987 -1991. As livestock provide an extremely important household asset to counter food supply problems in adverse years, declining numbers, the prevalence of disease and a shortage of grazing have inevitably left a large section of the population, especially those in marginal areas, highly vulnerable to food shortages as their capacity to transact, and hence purchase food in markets, is highly constrained. In 1996, the situation was made worse by a combination of high grain and low livestock prices (principally sheep and goats), as farmers extensively marketed animals due partly to a perceived shortage of grazing and partly to enable purchases of grain. It is estimated that some 60 percent of the country's livestock are located in the western lowlands. The main animals are sheep and goats followed by cattle, camels, donkeys and horses. On average each household has between 3 to 5 sheep and/or goats. Apart from work oxen which normally feed on the "baitos" which are reserved areas for oxen grazing selected by village councils, most other animals are raised on a pastoralist/agro-pastoralist system of management.
There are approximately 3.2 million hectares of arable land in Eritrea, of which only a small proportion, 11 percent, is cultivated. Irrigated land is limited to some 18 000 hectares in lowland areas where irrigation is practised in small pockets along river basins or as spate irrigation in the lower embankments of the eastern, and to a lesser degree, western lowlands.
The lack of assured water supplies through a developed irrigation system means that food production is almost entirely dependent on rainfall. There are two distinct rainy seasons, October to February, (winter rains), in the eastern lowlands and June to September in the rest of the country. In normal years, rainfall varies between 400 - 600 mm per year in the highlands and between 200-300 mm per year in the lowlands. On average, rainfall patterns in the western lowlands and central highlands are broadly similar, with most of the rainfall concentrated in July and August. In keeping with the general pattern for semi-arid regions, the variation in rainfall can also be quite significant in terms of quantity, duration, interval between showers, and coverage. Indeed with respect to the last feature, areas even a few kilometres apart may have a difference in rainfall of more than 100 mm in the same time period.
The pattern of rainfall and variable altitudes allow a variety of crops to be cultivated, namely wheat and barley at higher levels and teff, sorghum and oil seeds at lower altitudes. In years of low rainfall, such as 1996, the level of precipitation can fall to as low as 200 mm in the highlands and 100 mm in the lowlands. Problems of low rainfall, compounded by high variability and poor distribution, mean that practically all important crop areas are prone to drought and extensive crop failures.
Coupled with variable rainfall, another limiting factor in Eritrea is the absence of permanent rivers or streams. Only seasonal water courses exist, which depend entirely on rainfall configuration in a given year, limiting the scope for irrigation.
In addition to small scale household agriculture, the Government also provides land concessions to investors to enable crop production over relatively large areas. Concessions vary in size depending on location and water availability (rainfed or irrigated) as well as on crops. Those near seasonal river beds (with water wells) are normally between 10 to 30 hectares and produce vegetables (onions, okra, carrots, etc.) and fruits (bananas, oranges etc.), whilst those in arid/semi-arid areas can be as large as 400 hectares and are used primarily for cereals or oil crops. The contribution of concession agriculture to the country's food economy, however, is not significant.
The Missions estimate of cereal and pulse production in 1996 is shown in tables 1 and 2.
Table 1: Cereal and Pulse production, comparison 1992-95 (average) and 1996
% Change 1996 over
|Area (ha)||Prod (tons)||Area (ha)||Prod (tons)||Area (ha)||Prod (tons)|
|Cereals||316 235||182 154||322 179||123 874||+1.9||-32.0|
|Pulses||14 170||4 791||14 127||8 477||-0.3||+77.0|
|Total||330 405||186 945||336 306||132 351||+1.8||-29.2|
Table 2: Area and Production of Cereals and Pulses by Province in 1996
|Seraye||60 110||47 077||11 631||8 141||71 741||55 218|
|Akele Guzai||35 015||13 567||541||132||35 556||13 699|
|Hamasien||34 241||9 350||1 705||185||35 946||9 535|
|Senhit||31 567||6 226||185||15||31 752||6 241|
|Sahel||12 655||1 738||65||4||12 720||1 742|
|Gash-Setit||82 527||39 073||82 527||39 073|
|Barka||58 064||2 843||58 064||2 843|
|Semhar||8 000||4 000||8 000||4 000|
|Total||322 179||123 874||14 127||8 477||336 306||132 351|
Despite an overall increase in area cultivated of both cereals and pulses, production in 1996 fell due to the reasons summarized below.
The incidence and distribution of rainfall in 1996 had a considerable effect on overall food production. Relatively good rainfall in late April/early May encouraged farmers to expand area planted, as a result of which some 336 000 hectares of cereals and pulses were cultivated this year, compared to 298 000 hectares in 1995 and an average of 330 000 hectares between 1992 and 1995 . However, during July and August there was a drought which affected crops at a critical stage in growth. The worst affected areas were in the northern parts of the country, including north Barka, Sahel and north Senhit. Although the provinces of Hammassien, Semhar, south-east Barka and Akel Guzai and Seraye, in the highlands, were also affected by a reduction in precipitation, localised rainfall helped reduce the extent of damage somewhat. In contrast border areas with Ethiopia, western and central Tigray, were not affected at all by reduced rainfall, illustrating again the relatively localised nature of drought.
Yields per hectare are highly variable between agroecological zones and cropping systems. Moreover, the continuous use of old local landraces and varieties, the total lack of improved seeds and limited use of inputs have together resulted in extremely low productivity, even under favourable weather conditions. Needless to say that in unfavourable years, yields, output and food security are further reduced. It is estimated that about 10 percent of farmers use inorganic fertilizers at low rates. However, farmyard manure is rarely applied on crops and is primarily used as a source of household fuel.
In 1996, productivity in cereals, of which sorghum is the most important, was affected by poor rainfall and, as a result, remained extremely low. In the worst affected provinces, Barka and Sahel, yields averaged around 150 kg/ha, whilst in relatively fertile areas such as Omhager, Goulish and Laley-Gash in Gash-Setit province they ranged between 600 and 700 kg/ha.
With respect to future potential, recent small-scale research projects indicate that it is possible to increase yields through appropriate technological packages. In Shambuko, an FAO on-farm Special Production Programme has demonstrated that sorghum production can be increased to between 2 000 and 4 000 kg/ha.
In addition to cereals and pulses, some 35 000 hectares were planted to oil crops, mainly in Gash-Setit, which produced 7 200 tons.
No data were available on other crops grown in Eritrea. Nevertheless the mission observed small patches of land cultivated with vegetables and fruits, mainly located in areas adjacent to river beds or with small scale irrigation. Most fruits and vegetables are grown under concessions.
The province of Akele Guzai is in the central highlands. It is densely populated, with fragmented landholdings ranging in size from 0.5 to 1.0 hectare. At higher elevations in the zone, monocrop barley, wheat and mixed stands of these cereals, finger millet and a variety of pulses is grown, whilst at lower levels, the dominant crops are teff and sorghum.
Next to the province of Seraye, Akele Guzai received the largest overall quantum of rainfall this year. However, although rainfall started early in May, which encouraged the planting of cereals and pulses, a subsequent decline in June affected emerging crops and overall plant growth. As a result overall production of cereals and pulses in 1996 is estimated at around 13 700 tons, some 2 percent lower than in 1995 and 26 percent lower than average in the period 1992 to 1995.
The soils of Saraye are fertile and in normal years, yields are comparatively higher than in other provinces. In the period 1992 to 1995 it is estimated that the province contributed around 32 percent of the average quantity of land cultivated per annum and 29 percent of output of cereals and pulses. In 1996, the province received the most rainfall in the country and was least affected by localized shortfalls in precipitation.
Rainfall started early, but decreased during late planting of wheat and barley, as a result of which more land was diverted to pulses such as vetch and chickpea. As a result, the area cultivated to pulses increased by almost 50 percent over the long term average. Production of cereals and pulses in 1996 is estimated at around 55 000 tons, around twice as much as in 1995 and 3 percent higher than the average for the preceding four years.
Hamasien is located in the central zone and has similar characteristics to Akele Guzai in terms of ecology, cropping system, farm size and population density. Maize, sorghum and finger millet are planted during the short rains between March and May, whilst drought tolerant cereals and pulses are grown during the main rainy season from July to September.
Rains started favourably in April-May, encouraging an expansion in area planted of cereals and pulses to some 36 000 hectares compared to less than 34 000 hectares last year. However, sharply reduced rainfall subsequently, significantly affected output. As a result, it is estimated that production fell to around 9 500 tons, compared to over 24 000 tons in 1995 and an average of around 20 000 tons in the period 1992 to 1995.
Senhit lies in the northern midlands of the central highlands and is similar in topography and characteristics to the provinces of Hamasien and Akele Guzai. In common with other provinces, favourable rains were received in the early part of the season in May/June though a sharp decline in July and August severely affected crops. Overall production in 1996 is estimated at around 6 200 tons, over 25 percent lower than last year and almost 50 percent lower than the average for the preceding four years.
The main crops cultivated in Barka are sorghum, pearl millet, sesame and ground nuts. The province was one of the worst affected by reduced rainfall this year. No rains were received in the early part of the season, only arriving late in August. Even at this juncture little precipitation was received, as a result of which crops wilted and were severely stunted. Overall yields were extremely low, and the province is estimated to have produced approximately 2 800 tons of cereals and pulses, compared to 17 000 tons last year and an average of over 18 000 tons in the period 1992 to 1995, a relative decline of some 84 percent.
Like Barka, Sahel was significantly affected by reduced rainfall in 1996. Although some rains were received in June, distribution was highly irregular and localised, in addition to which, drought conditions prevailed in July. Crops, therefore, were severely affected and production is estimated to have fallen to around 1 700 tons, some 25 percent of production last year and 68 percent lower than average for the preceding four years.
Gash Setit is located in the western lowlands and next to Seraye is agriculturally most important to Eritrea. In contrast to the highland areas, population density is low and average farm size much larger; at around 3 hectares per household. The main crops cultivated are sorghum, pearl millet and sesame.
Although the province was not as badly affected by reduced rainfall as Barka and Sahel, rainfall during the critical months of June, July and August averaged 77 mm, the lowest in the last five years and some 33 percent lower than the average for these months in the period 1992 to 1995. As a result production of cereals declined to 39 000 tons, some 8 percent lower than 1995 and 20 percent lower than the average in the last four years.
Table 3 summarizes cereal and pulse production by province in 1996, compared to the average for the period 1992 to 1995.
Table 3: Cereal and Pulse Production in 1996, compared to average 1992-95
|Average 1992-1995||1996||% change 1996 over average|
|Area (ha)||Prod (tons)||Area (ha)||Prod (tons)||Area (ha)||Prod (tons)|
|Cereals||36 587||17 548||35 015||13 567||-4.3||-22.7|
|Pulses||4 307||1 049||541||132||-87.4||-87.4|
|Total||40 894||18 597||35 556||13 699||-13.1||-26.3|
|Cereals||39 347||18 207||58 064||2 843||+47.6||-84.4|
|Total||39 347||18 207||58 064||2 843||+47.6||-84.4|
|Cereals||54 003||48 907||82 527||39 073||+52.8||-20.1|
|Total||54 003||48 907||82 527||39 073||+52.8||-20.1|
|Cereals||31 862||18 910||34 241||9 350||+7.5||-50.5|
|Pulses||1 928||841||1 705||185||-11.6||-78.0|
|Total||33 790||19 751||35 946||9 535||+6.4||-51.7|
|Cereals||15 214||5 450||12 655||1 738||-16.8||-68.1|
|Total||15 299||5 461||12 720||1 742||-16.8||-68.1|
|Cereals||10 098||10 262||8 000||4 000||-20.7||-61.0|
|Total||10 098||10 262||8 000||4 000||-20.7||-61.0|
|Cereals||30 954||12 313||31 567||6 226||+2.0||-49.3|
|Total||30 954||12 313||31 752||6 241||+2.0||-49.3|
|Cereals||98 170||50 557||60 110||47 077||-38.8||-6.9|
|Pulses||7 850||2 890||11 631||8 141||+48.2||+181.7|
|Total||106 020||53 447||71 741||55 218||-32.3||+3.3|
|Cereals||316 235||182 154||322 179||123 874||+1.9||-32.0|
|Pulses||14 170||4 791||14 127||8 477||-0.3||+77.0|
|Total||330 405||186 945||336 306||132 351||+1.8||-29.2|
Given limitations of domestic production, food security in Eritrea remains highly precarious and largely dependent on exogenous factors. At the household level this depends on an assortment of coping mechanisms, including food-for-work in the past and the ability of the household to generate cash for food purchases through sale of assets, principally livestock. At the national level the important determinants are the country's capacity to make commercial purchases from world markets, food aid and production trends and the availability of an exportable surplus from neighbouring countries, mainly Ethiopia. Indeed in both 1995 and 1996, the mission estimates that major food related problems in the country were avoided by access to such supplies, where significant purchases were made through the public and private sectors, in addition to a considerable volume of smaller cross border transactions. As these imports were made using the Ethiopian Birr, which still remains the official currency in use, excess pressure on foreign exchange reserves was also avoided.
The importance of food supplies from Ethiopia was clearly evident in areas visited by the mission, where a number of urban and rural markets were observed to be well stocked by Ethiopian grains. Together with market access and purchasing capacity, especially of vulnerable groups, this source of grains will continue to be an extremely important factor in determining food security in the country. Had access to such supplies been more restricted, or depended more on limited hard currency, the consequences of shortages in food production in Eritrea would have been far more manifest and dramatic, especially as the volume of food aid in 1996 fell sharply, in response to donor concerns regarding the newly introduced policy of monetization of food aid.
In an effort to reduce individual and household dependence on food aid, the Government introduced a policy of food aid monetization in January 1996. Under this policy any food aid to the country will be sold in domestic markets and the funds generated will be used to finance relief, rehabilitation and development projects. Consequently, food-for-work programmes, which were the main channel for food aid in the past, have been abolished and food entitlements in such rehabilitation and development projects will be entirely replaced by cash payments. Only one of the major donors has agreed to the monetization of food assistance so far, whilst others have stopped deliveries and are unlikely to resume unless agreement is reached on major areas of policy. These concerns include price setting, whether border prices or subsidised; the extent of involvement of the private sector, which the Government is keen to promote; and the management and use of counter-part funds from sales.
The cereal balance sheet for 1997, is shown in table 4
Table 4 - Eritrea Cereal balance sheet for 1997 (000 tons)
|- Opening stocks1||60|
|- Food use||395|
|- Seed and post harvest losses||26|
|- Closing stocks||60|
|- Commercial Imports||120|
|- Pledged food assistance2||25|
|- Programme food assistance||144|
The food balance sheet (cereals and pulses) for the 1996/97 marketing year shown in Table 4, is based on the following estimates and assumptions:
i) A mid-year population of 2.82 million people in 1997, allowing for growth and limited number of spontaneous returnees. With regard to population, it is important to recognise that existing statistics for the country are highly unreliable and a reasonable picture can only be ascertained for the urban population, as problems related to movement of people, due to war and drought, mean that estimates are of limited use in rural areas. In addition to the indigenous population, it is estimated that some 200 000 - 300 000 displaced Eritreans still live in Sudan. Depending on source, population estimates range from 2.5 to over 3 million people. Taking into consideration these limitations, therefore, the mission used a figure of 2.82 million, allowing for a broadly accepted growth rate of 3 percent and a limited number of spontaneous returnees.
ii) An average per caput consumption requirement of 140 kg of cereals and pulses per annum. The consumption of cereals and pulses would be supplemented by consumption of oilseed crops.
iii) In view of traditional systems of threshing, cleaning, handling, transporting and storing, post harvest losses were estimated at 10 percent of production or 13 200 tons.
iv) The present seeding rates are: wheat 125 kg/ha, sorghum 12-18 kg/ha, barley 100 kg/ha, teff 25 kg/ha, pearl millet 12-18 kg/ha, vetch 60-80 kg/ha, finger millet 12-18 kg/ha and chickpea 60-80 kg/ha. Assuming that the same amount of land is planted, under the same crops, in 1997 as in 1996, the seed requirements would be 12 000 tons for cereals and 1 120 tons for pulses, giving a total of 13 120 tons.
v) Total commercial imports are projected at 120 000 tons in 1997, based on estimates of trade in 1996. Some 60 000 tons is expected from large number of small traders importing grain from Ethiopia, with remaining amounts coming from imports through the flour mills, Government corporations and in the form of informal cross border transactions.
vi) Opening stocks of 60 000 tons in January 1997, largely comprised of a consignment of food aid for monetization, expected for delivery in December 1996 plus estimated stocks with the grain board, flour mills, small traders and the Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission (ERREC). No net build up of stocks is assumed in 1997.
1996 was generally free of migratory pests that can periodically affect production. However, localised outbreaks of stem borer were observed in sorghum in both the lowlands and highlands.
Table 4, therefore, indicates that Eritrea will have an import requirement of some 289 000 tons in 1997 to meet utilization. Taking into account commercial imports and pledged food assistance for monetization, this leaves the country with an overall food deficit of 144 000 tons for which it would need assistance in 1997.
Return to menu