Ethiopia’s urban population is growing fast, with 20 percent of people now living in cities. Fast forward to 2050 and the United Nations Population Division estimates that this number will rise to almost 40 percent, posing a key challenge for Ethiopia’s smallholder farmers to produce enough food.
“We sell our produce to people in the cities, so we are interdependent with them,” Obese Gelgalu, a smallholder horticultural farmer in Ziway, Ethiopia, explained to CropLife International. She plays an important role in feeding the cities harvesting a variety of vegetables including cabbages, green beans, onions, and chilies. But like many other farmers, Gelgalu struggles to protect her crop from weed and pest problems, which can lead to low yields.
This is especially common in developing countries where producers often do not have access to the right crop protection tools, nor training in how to use them effectively.
To bridge the technology and knowledge gap in Ethiopia, SNV Netherlands Development Organisation has partnered with the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources and CropLife International as part of its Horti-LIFE program.
Initiated in 2016, Horti-LIFE, otherwise known as horticultural livelihoods, innovation, and food safety in Ethiopia, aims to help 30,000 smallholder farmers to grow healthy crops and improve farmers’ access to urban markets by 2019.
Farmer field schools
Central to the project are farmer field schools. Originally developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization in Southeast Asia, a small group of around 30 farmers meets regularly to study and discuss good agricultural practices.
Last year, Gelgalu took part in one of Horti-LIFE’s farmer field schools. The training she received there helped her tackle her pest and weed problem: “We are benefitting from their knowledge. We share our experience with our neighbors and give lessons to one another,” she explained. By the end of 2017, the project had already set-up 125 schools across 65 villages.
Sustainable pest management
In each school, lead farmers cultivate learning plots to grow crops under different circumstances. The student farmers are then able to study the growth of these crops and form their own observations over which techniques work best. The goal is for student farmers to directly see the benefits of applying good agricultural practices, and to apply these to their own farms.
The teachings follow an integrated pest management approach; a sustainable pest and weed control system that combines cultural, biological, and chemical measures. It encourages farmers to monitor their crops and only intervene with crop protection tools when necessary. To ensure that small-scale farmers, such as Gelgalu, know when and how to use pesticides safely, CropLife International has been training farmers and spray service providers. In the case of Horti-LIFE, when farmers do need to intervene, the schools show them the benefits of working with spray service providers.
“Now, when farmers find pests on their vegetables and need advice on spraying their crops, they call me. By eliminating pests from their farms, we are helping farmers to grow good quality produce,” said Abate Bedasso, an Ethiopian spray service provider who benefited from the Horti-LIFE program.
“With scientists predicting that crop losses to pests will continue to rise due to global warming, it is increasingly important that Africa’s farmers have a basis in good agricultural practices and integrated pest management to ensure healthy harvests and to provide for their families.”— Gloria Jaconelli, communications manager, CropLife International
Spray service providers are taught — according to integrated pest management — to identify problematic pests and diseases; which are the right products to treat these; when and how to spray; and what personal protective equipment to wear. The program follows a train-the-trainer model so that each new spray service provider can share their learnings and carry on the training with their peers.
“Because of the project we are using less pesticide than before,” Gelgalu noted. Indeed, preliminary results have shown that advice from the spray service providers has helped farmers in the Horti-LIFE project reduce pesticide applications by 26 percent.
Effective protection of the environment is another important goal of the project. “It is crucial that chemical pollution is prevented. Not only could this be a danger to our health and other aspects of the environment, but it could also affect productivity,” said Bedasso. Effective stewardship of pesticides includes safe waste disposal, and all spray service provider training programs also cover container management skills.
To date, CropLife International — through Horti-LIFE — has trained 248 spray service providers in Ethiopia.
These field schools also have social and environmental benefits on villages that can help countries work toward meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.
In Africa, many farmers still control their weeds by hand. Since taking part in farmer field schools, farmers are learning more effective ways to manage their weed problem. As well as reducing manual labor, farmers are seeing an increase in their profit. To date Horti-LIFE has helped participating farmers double their yields, thus increasing their net income by 140 percent.
This translates directly back into the family, as in these small villages life depends completely upon agriculture: “[it] is so important here,” said Abu Geda, who has been farming in Ziway for 20 years. His farm helps him provide for his wife and family of six children.
“A good harvest season makes all the difference to us,” he said. “It means we can plan for improvements in our lives, like building new homes or buying vehicles.” For other families, the benefits of a good harvest can be as simple as being able to put a meal on the table, or enabling children to go to school.
An invasive species is threatening to wipe out huge swaths of staple crops across the continent.
Overall, Horti-LIFE is directly helping Ethiopia address six of the SDGs, including no poverty and zero hunger. Looking to the future, programs such as this will be key in helping Africa’s farmers fight new challenges, including Fall armyworm.
Since Fall armyworm was first detected on the African continent in 2016, this new pest has devastated crops in at least 44 countries, with the economic impacts estimated to be in the range of $1.3 billion. In Latin America, Fall armyworm is controlled by combining an integrated pest management approach with plant biotechnology, but biotech crops are not yet available in most African countries.
With scientists predicting that crop losses to pests will continue to rise due to global warming, it is increasingly important that Africa’s farmers have a basis in good agricultural practices and integrated pest management to ensure healthy harvests and to provide for their families.