Seed distributions offer new hope to drought-affected farmers in Ethiopia

Seed distributions offer new hope to drought-affected farmers in Ethiopia


In Dessie Zuria, Amhara Region, dozens of farming households assemble on a dusty Tuesday morning in the local square. Camels and donkeys are parked alongside a bajaj and an open-backed van. Today, most of the farmers queued to meet with regional officials are male. They represent their wives and children, families hardest hit by an El Niño-induced drought which ravaged most of Ethiopia for more than 18 months. Sprinkled in are small groups of women, mostly widows, many of whom have single-handedly supported their families through what many have deemed the worst drought in half a century. There are no reports of hunger-related deaths as a result of the crisis. This is cause to celebrate given the wide-scale decline in food security caused by a drought so severe most Ethiopians have never witnessed anything like it.

Fatuma Yimam, a 38-year-old mother of five, trekked three kilometers with a rented camel this Tuesday morning. Together with nearly 100 other farmers in the drought-affected district of Dessie Zuria, it is her turn to collect what she hopes will be a chance at a new start. Fatuma will receive two bags of improved wheat seed for her half hectare farm in the folds of Dessie’s mountainside. In the wake of the El Niño-induced drought crisis, Fatuma and thousands of other farmers have benefitted from a nation-wide seed distribution campaign initiated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The Organization and partners embarked on the campaign in order to restore the depleted supplies of farmers and agropastoralists deeply affected by the drought. Close to 2 million Ethiopian households have had their livelihoods uprooted by this crisis.

The wheat farmer packs her bags onto the waiting camel, some of her neighbours ask for help with their own bags of seed and she obliges with a smile. Her camel is overloaded now but will not have to trek too far with the additional weight. “Before the drought, I was in a position to help my neighbours,” Fatuma says. Highlighting the devastating impact of the drought crisis on her community, she makes it clear that no one– regardless of skill or productivity– was spared. “In previous years we could escape a drought by ploughing early, back then only the ‘lazy’ farmers were affected”. Her dry use of ‘senef’, Amharic for ‘lazy’ leaves some of her neighbours grinning. “But this year, both the strong and lazy farmers were affected,” she says. “I lost cows during the drought, I have no other choice but to be here today. However, my religion teaches me that it is better to give than to receive.”

Fatuma hopes that the seed she will receive will turn a new page in her family’s story in 2016. Having used this improved variety in the past, she is excited and testifies that it grows much faster than other locally available options. “If I get a good crop from this, I will try to recover what I have lost…when I fully recover I will not turn my face to this center again”.

Leading to two failed seasons, the El Niño-induced drought caused serious crop failure and seed insecurity for Ethiopia’s farming households, many of which face recurrent drought. In order to promote the success of 2016’s critical meher season – from which more than 85 percent of Ethiopia’s food supply comes– FAO has secured improved crop seed varieties for drought-affected farmers and agropastoralists. So far, the Organization has procured more than USD 3.2 million worth of seed from local seed enterprises, improving individual household’s chances at a profitable meher.  Farmers who have had their seed supplies of maize, wheat, sorghum, teff, tomato, sweet potato and other crops wiped out during the drought are benefitting from normal to above normal meher season rains in 2016. The Organization’s seed distributions have taken place in drought-affected regions such as Amhara, Afar, Oromia, Tigray, Somali and SNNP. More than 2 million kilograms of seed have been distributed so far, with 2.5 million kilograms of crops, vegetables and potato cuttings, –mostly late season crops – expected to be delivered between August to September 2016.

While the El Niño phenomenon is now in decline, the impact of the crisis still lingers. Animal body conditions have recovered somewhat but the strength of oxen – critical to on farm labour in rural Ethiopia – has reportedly deteriorated, affecting the productivity of land preparation. Furthermore, meteorological experts predict that a La Niña episode – usually accompanied by heavy rains and flooding– will occur as early as August in highland areas. So far, belg or spring season rains have caused wide-scale flooding of pasture and crop lands, a La Niña episode would compound these detrimental effects on crop and livestock production even more.

FAO is appealing for roughly USD 10 million to meet the needs of over 2 million farmers and pastoralists in the second half of 2016. Timely and coordinated support is critical in order to assist vulnerable families to enhance their food security and restore their livelihoods in the wake of this crisis.