|Good News from Africa - Farmers, Agricultural Research, and Food in the Pantry (IFPRI, 1998, 72 p.)|
Zegeye Watiyo was doing well as a farmer even before he took to producing seed potatoes. He had four acres of land and two dairy cows and two oxen working his fields. The agricultural potential in his part of Ethiopia - the Shashamene hinterland, about 250 kilometers south of the capital, Addis Ababa - is good.
Zegeye is fortunate in other ways, too: he attended school for 10 years and is blessed with a very small family, by local standards - just three children. And no plans for any more! At 27, he is already a respectable pillar of the community. He is now taking part in an experiment aimed at boosting agricultural output, initially in his area, with hopes of expanding the program throughout the country later on.
When test results from the laboratory are put through reality checks in the fields it is essential to have the support of intelligent, clear-sighted individuals whom other farmers look up to. Zegeye was an obvious choice.
Too few potatoes
The issue is seed potatoes, but at this point, potatoes play little part in the Ethiopian diet. That is only because so few of them are produced here. The demand for good potatoes is considerable, and a price of more than half a birr per kilo for good potatoes is not uncommon in the local market. And we are talking of the provinces here, where the monthly salary of a well-paid public servant, a watchman with many years' service under his belt, does not exceed 230 birr. (A birr equals about 15 cents.)
A good crop of potatoes can outdo almost all other crops, even grains, when it comes to calories per acre. And the per capita calorie intake in Ethiopia is not very high, even if times are relatively good. Every family could do with a bit more food in the pantry, and the population rate continues to grow. So good seed potatoes are something they cannot have too many of. Over the years, the local potato varieties - introduced in the 1880s - have been stricken by disease and degenerated drastically. Farmers have been in the habit of setting aside the substandard tubers for use as seed potatoes, with poorer and poorer results. Viruses and mold make for a crop that is even more feeble, and stockpiled potatoes are attacked by insects.
A slow start
In the late 1970s the Ministry of Agriculture and CIP, the International Potato Center, located in Peru (the home of the potato) began a collaboration in which CIP supplied a number of newly-developed varieties for testing. Any warrantable test will take six or seven years to complete and the first two varieties, selected from among a great many samples, were introduced in 1986 and 1987, respectively. While these showed promise at the research stations, potato blight nabbed them in the fields and that was the end of that trial.
Researchers distributed the next batch of new varieties to the test farmers in 1991 and, since then, a total of five new strains have been singled out as suitable for different soils and different climates in Ethiopia. An interesting selection of varieties, as it turns out, giving a yield up to three times greater than local varieties under identical growing conditions.
Which brings us back to Zegeye. In 1995 the Ministry of Agriculture initiated a special program for the improvement of potato production. Shashamene was chosen as a test area, with CIP and two large private organizations, Japan's Sasakawa and Global 2000 from the United States, collaborating on the project. CIP agreed to provide new, improved varieties and advice, Sasakawa/Global 2000 would inject some capital into the venture, and the Ministry of Agriculture would select and organize the farmers.
Zegeye was one of 12 well-educated farmers from his area who, in 1996, attended a two-day course held at a research station 350 kilometers to the north. As early as July, with the long rainy season well under way, the 12 selected farmers planted the new strain of potato. They were to give over at least two-thirds of an acre to it, which may seem like a big risk for a farmer with only 3 or 4 acres, but past experience with the Ministry's advisers was positive, and so the farmers trusted them.
Never seen the likes of it
Neighboring farmers inspected the test fields closely. Why did the potatoes have to be laid in rows? And was it really necessary to earth up twice, and so high up round the plant?
The guinea-pig farmers did not really have the time to worry about such questions, because they had enough to do just remembering all the new things they had been taught. The soil also had to be treated with fertilizer, not, as was usually the case, spread by hand across the field, but sprinkled in small quantities around each plant.
Preparations for the harvest kept them especially busy, as did building storehouses for the seed potatoes: little wood-frame huts with corrugated-iron roofs and walls of dark, fine-meshed netting. Inside the huts were large shelving units with plenty of space between each slatted wooden shelf and the one above. This kind of storehouse provides protection from the sun and blocks out a lot of light, and with only three or four layers of potatoes on each shelf the ventilation is excellent. Such conditions are ideal for the development of shoots for next season.
The harvest in November was a strange affair and once again all eyes were on Zegeye and his fellow test farmers when they went out to cut off the potato shaws just before harvesting. The potatoes were left in the earth for a couple of weeks to inure the skin against bruising and insects. They had never seen anything like it in those parts. But the potatoes were wonderful, and there were lots of them.
More than breaking even
But from then on nothing was free. The seed potatoes had been given to the test farmers as a loan, the agreement being that they would hand back precisely the same number of potatoes as they had been given. Granted, they had built the storehouses themselves, but they had borrowed the money for the building materials: 2,000 birr, which is not exactly peanuts. One third of this had to be paid back after the first harvest. The fertilizer had also been purchased with money borrowed from the Ministry, and now the time had come to settle up. Even so, they made a profit. Their neighbors were all but queueing up to buy the new seed potatoes - at a price per kilo that was almost twice as high as that for household potatoes.
The yield was, as promised, more than three times that of the previous season. While the new varieties are intrinsically better, much of the credit for the good harvest is due to sounder advice: more space given to each plant; precise doses of fertilizer; two, and preferably three, earthing-ups in order to smother weeds and prevent insect attacks at the base of the stalk, the most vulnerable point.
And what about problems? Zegeye cannot really think of any. The new plants are not subject to potato blight - you only have to compare an ordinary field with a test field to see that. Nor have they seen anything of the accursed potato tuber moth, which works its way into the stalk and from there into the potatoes, leaving them more or less hollow, if given enough time after the harvest. For this they have to thank the thorough earthing-up process and one round of spraying with insecticide. But only one round, and only at the right time.
The farmers are taught the spraying technique on their training course, and they spray under supervision, using Ministry of Agriculture equipment. Everyone knows it is not the healthiest activity, but the only protection they can afford is a large bandana to cover the mouth. A suit of protective clothing and gloves costs at least 500 birr and would only be used twice a year. Other farmers lose a lot to the potato moth - either that or they spray on and off throughout the season. This is both expensive and bad for the environment.
From strength to strength
By February 1997, the seed potatoes were ready and were duly distributed to 12 new farmers, making a total, according to the official record, of 24 participants in the scheme. But another dozen farmers had latched on to the idea, bought the new seed potatoes, and fitted out storerooms for them. By June all 36 could feast their eyes on beautiful green potato patches, nearly ready for harvesting.
Both experienced farmers and new hands spent one day midway through the season on a joint training course. This time a number of high-ranking experts were also in attendance: now the researchers were going to learn from all the good advice the experienced test farmers could pass on to the first-timers and the specialists. One point that came up was that they would have to have new storehouses to hold the household potatoes, because at the rate things were going, there would be a whole lot of them. As things stand now, the potatoes are kept stacked up in a corner of the farmyard, where they slowly molder away. The pioneering farmers are growing seed potatoes for agriculture, while the conventional farmers are producing potatoes for the housewife.
Like most farmers, Zegeye is cagey when it comes to quoting exact figures on income and profit. But he is happy to show us the plot of land he has purchased in Shashamene town, so that he and his family can be better placed once all three children start school and - who knows - perhaps even go on to high school. There is always the possibility that they will not want to go into farming. A newly-built house - a little on the modest side, perhaps - already occupies the site. Zegeye explains that he is planning to build a larger one soon.
For Zegeye and his colleagues this scheme has been an unparalleled success. In November 1997 another 12 potato growers joined their ranks; in 1998, two batches of 12 and so on. And it is all virtually free: the loans for the storehouses are recycled, and the seed potatoes paid back. The experienced farmers teach the new hands, thus keeping the costs of the training courses within the vigilant Ministry's budget.
However, the real success cannot be measured until the figures start to speak for themselves. Ethiopia produces a mere 350,000 tons of potatoes per year, and this amounts to no more than an average consumption of 6.5 kilos per person. Uganda, which also spreads across the equatorial uplands of East Africa, supplies 17.7 kilos per head.
But, efficient as they are, the people of Shashamene do not have to go it alone. The potato research center in Peru has been monitoring the experiment closely and is all set to move on to the next stage. New varieties are continually being developed, including strains capable of coping with other hazards and guaranteeing the revitalization that prevents inbreeding.
All in all, the project has cost approximately $30,000. This does not include all the time and effort that have gone into developing those good, high-yielding, hardy potato varieties - work running into hundreds of thousands of dollars, and all carried out by CIP and local researchers. The international community has been contributing to the cost of developing potatoes for Third World countries since 1971. Clearly this is an investment that is already paying dividends not only in Ethiopia, but in many other parts of the world as well.