Training agricultural experts in Eritrea is key to country's development


In a series of features focusing on FAO projects in Africa, Leyla Alyanak reports on how improving human resources is critical to strengthening rural extension and research capacity in Eritrea

Training agricultural experts in Eritrea is key to country's development

When Seyoum Mesfin was born, his destiny seemed set. Like his father, he would farm the rocky, mountainous soils of central Eritrea, coaxing a living off an inhospitable land. But his father died when he was only two and family ties are strong in this part of the world. His uncle sent for him, put him through school, and Seyoum eventually found himself on a scholarship to what was then the USSR. In Moscow he became an active student supporter of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), the group fighting for independence from Ethiopia.

On the road to agricultural recovery in Eritrea: farmers load up marrows for transport to market
So with his M.Sc. in agriculture fresh under his arm, he headed home to take his place at the battle front. But the EPLF believed in matching tasks to skills, so instead of giving him a gun they gave him a farm. Seyoum began producing food for the war effort. "I was not putting my life on hold," he said, "I knew that one day we would be independent, and I would have a chance to help rebuild my country."

Seyoum was one of the lucky ones. Not only did he finish his training, but he gained valuable experience in his own field. Today he is an expert with the Ministry of Agriculture. Many others were not so fortunate. To them, the war meant an end to life as they knew it.

"I was one of those," said Tekleab Meghena, who heads the Ministry's research and extension service. "Like thousands of others, I had to stop studying. Now that the war is over, our most pressing problem here is the lack of well-trained people. Even those who stayed during the war suffered. Few degrees were granted, and no skills training was given. We became a generally forgotten and neglected country." The results of this neglect are visible, and Eritreans are the first to say that lack of skills and training is one of their greatest stumbling blocks to development.

The war not only interrupted studies, but it displaced farmers, reduced access to farming inputs such as seeds and fertilizers, and destroyed support services, including rural extension. Crop production fell by half and livestock production by a third. But Eritrea remains a nation of smallholder farmers in which 80 percent of the population relies on agriculture for survival. It is a food-deficit country and more than half its population depends on food aid. In addition to the war, Eritrea's recurrent droughts make subsistence farming a challenge even in peacetime.

Yet to meet these challenges, Eritrea's entire research capacity consists of one Ph.D., eight M.Sc. graduates, eight veterinarians, and 20 people with a Bachelor of Science degree. "In any other country you would have ten times as many people engaged in research," said Dr Mandadi Reddy, FAO's technical advisor to the ministry. "The capacity here is so low that without training, no activity will fulfil its terms of reference."

But building capacity and skills takes time and money, so FAO is providing US$5 million in Italian government funds over three years to help the ministry strengthen its rural and extension division and its research capacity.

"Improving our human resources is even more important than food security or food aid," said Tekleab. "Without skills, we will never achieve food security." The project's aim is to send ten people each year on short-term training missions, which may last up to several months, and ten others on long-term training for at least a year. It also provides equipment, supplies and funds.

The project targets Eritrea's agricultural techniques. Production and research extension teams are working closely with farmers to select and test crop and livestock varieties, cultural practices, and natural resource management approaches that will boost agricultural production. Its focus is to overcome some of the constraints facing agriculture here. In addition to the lack of human resources, there are few crop varieties that are resistant to drought, pests and disease, not enough knowledge about natural resource management practices, and a lack of improved livestock breeds. Also, much of the land is degraded because of poor practices and growing population pressure.

The country's overriding development goal is to create a modern, technologically advanced and internationally competitive economy within two decades. Agriculture is central to this plan.

The FAO project is designed to build local capacity and help make people and institutions self-reliant. Eritreans like to lean on outside help as little as possible. They won their war virtually single-handedly against a far mightier military machine backed alternately by the United States or the Soviet Union.

Building capacity and skills takes time and entails some sacrifices. At least a quarter of the ministry's management staff is undergoing some sort of training at any given time, which sharply reduces human resources available for the ministry's day-to-day work. To most the sacrifice is worth it.

"It will make some of us specialists, and will reduce our need for expatriates," said Seyoum, the former EPLF agricultural expert. "A generation has passed, in a sense a lost generation, which cannot fulfil its promise. That will be the role of the next generation."

And that generation is already on its way, a little older than the average student perhaps, but with the drive and dedication born from surviving a war. They are now looking at ways to survive the peace.

30 April 1997

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