The disaster that wasn’t

Building resilience to famine in Ethiopia

If you don’t remember the 2016 famine in Ethiopia you shouldn’t be too surprised, because it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen despite the fact that 2016 was the worst drought in Ethiopia for the last 50 years, eclipsing the infamous drought of 1984. It also didn’t happen despite the fact that Ethiopia’s population doubled since 1984, from 50 million people to 100 million. If you look back at news reports on the region from the beginning of 2016, many predicted that famine was inevitable by summer. But it didn’t happen.

It’s not that food wasn’t a problem. It was. Ethiopia tried to address the problem by itself initially, but quickly realized that current food supplies wouldn’t suffice. The government requested a substantial amount of foreign aid, much of which was supplied, and then did a good job of getting the food distributed to needed locations, mainly the rural countryside where sustenance farming is still the primary way of life.

But the real story was how 30 years of proactive policies and development interventions created a stronger, more effective market climate that helped people survive what could have been a disaster.
Livestock graze alongside a drying riverbed. (Photo by David Graham/iDE/2011)

Drought happens

Ethiopia is a land-locked country in the Horn of Africa in close proximity to the equator. While average precipitation across the country is 47-inches per year, drought occurs regularly because of the natural El Nino weather pattern that causes rainfall to vary wildly from year-to-year, including some locations receiving as little as 20% of the normal annual precipitation. 2016 proved to be a particularly difficult year for most regions of the country, with the worst drought recorded in the last 50 years.

The drought that occurred in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s prompted a global response that culminated in both the “We Are the World” media event and accompanying Live Aid concerts. The approximately $200 million raised, however, did little to prevent 900,000 deaths from the resulting famine. Money never got to the people it was intended to help, and instead was used to buy weapons the government needed in their fight against insurgents. While the root cause of the famine may have been the drought, misplaced charity and bad government policies drove the famine into becoming a disaster that became news across the globe.

An economic miracle?

An Ethiopian government change in 1991 has led to two decades of stability without instances of the racial or sectarian conflicts that continue to plague its neighbors, Somalia to the southeast and Sudan to the west. Ethiopia has become an economic powerhouse, recording double digit growth for the last decade. The government says that it is on track to meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and will obtain middle-income country status by 2025.

Even so, underlying conditions that could lead to future famines continue to grow, conditions totally unrelated to conflict. A constantly expanding population puts a strain on an already stressed food supply system. Three-percent population growth in sub-Saharan Africa outpaces the rest of the world (e.g., 1-percent in the EU, North America, and Asia). Agriculture must dramatically increase to keep up with this demand, but production rates are a third of Western farms (e.g., 2,325 kg cereal production per hectare as compared to 7,637 kg in the US). And the predicted effects of El Nino, as well as the unpredictable effects of climate change, means that future drought conditions will be more severe and last longer.

A bustling Meki Market in the Oromia Region of Ethiopia. (Photo by David Graham/iDE/2011)

A business solution to famine

It may seem obvious, but the solution to drought is to make water available. Unfortunately, the majority of Ethiopian agriculture follows traditional practices that rely on rainfall alone, limiting harvests and income. But another benefit of three decades of stable government has also enabled international development groups to address this issue. For example, iDE, an international non-profit that focuses on creating business opportunities to address poverty, has been working in Ethiopia since 2007 to bring key technologies like inexpensive pumps, drip irrigation, and modern farm rotation techniques to grow crops in the dry season and replenish degraded soil.

To spread these technologies, iDE trains a network of local micro-entrepreneurs based on their Farm Business Advisor model. These Advisors come from farming families, so they have a background in agriculture, but lack access to enough of their own land to be full-time farmers themselves. After receiving technical training from iDE on how to promote and sell resource-smart technologies, they travel from rural farm to rural farm, convincing farmers to invest and grow dry season vegetables by using a realistic cost-benefit analysis based on the farmer’s own field to calculate the cost of implementing the technology versus the profit to be made. iDE’s Advisors are helping their clients, themselves, and their country prepare for the next famine.

With training from iDE, Teshale Bonsa, a metal-worker in Tulu Bolo, learned to make low-cost water pumps that farmers in Ethiopia can afford. The pumps allow farmers to access groundwater for irrigating their fields. (Photo courtesy of iDE/2015)

iDE’s return on investment for donations supporting the creation and support of Advisors and other programs in agriculture in Ethiopia is $14.90 of increased income for clients for every $1.00 spent of donor funds. This number is based on direct annual returns as measured by their measurement and evaluation team and does not include income generated from the ongoing activities following the conclusion of their market intervention activities.

Resilience begins in the field

If Ethiopia is going to be ready for the next disastrous drought, sustenance-level farms must diversify their production. They can do this by learning how to grow crops not only during the rainy season (their traditional method) but also during the dry months. This will provide an increase in income, not in one large sum, but spread throughout the year. These farmers also need assistance in connecting to markets that enable them to buy seed for new crops and sell their new production. In particular, assisting those farmers living far from roads and market infrastructures who’ve never had the opportunity before to realize the power of technology and business to increase their production is vitally important.

The Ethiopian Famine of 2016 didn’t happen for a number of reasons. Nearly three decades of peace, a forward-looking government, a new food distribution system, and new agricultural practices. But it’s going to take a lot more progress to avoid famine caused by the inevitable droughts to come in 2020, 2025 and beyond.

Glen Engel-Cox is a contract writer with iDE. He is also the author of a novel, Darwin’s Daughter, and a collection of non-fiction on reading, First Impressions.