From the Ground Up

Ethiopia has a plan to transform agriculture

Graphic of blocks with various agricultural images - crops growing, livestock

Photos courtesy of IFPRI and CIMMYT

Ethiopia, one of Africa’s  poorest countries, is betting big on agriculture. The roots of this policy shift were sown during the 2007–2008 global food crisis, which jolted many countries into rethinking their food policies. In Ethiopia, it led then Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to launch a series of aggressive development goals—among them, to make agriculture the country’s leading industry by 2015 and to become a middle-income country by 2025.

Looking to Asia for Models

In 2009, at the prime minister’s request, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation commissioned a series of consultations to identify bottlenecks in Ethiopia’s agricultural system. In this process, IFPRI led several studies that closely examined eight subsectors within agriculture: seed systems, irrigation, soil fertility, agricultural extension programs, agricultural finance, and the value chains for livestock, pulses, and maize. After two years of working with Ethiopian researchers, international management consultants, and other CGIAR centers, IFPRI researchers produced a series of recommendations for speeding agricultural growth. Chief among these was the formation of an agency dedicated to removing the roadblocks to the transformation of Ethiopian agriculture. In December 2010, with the full support of then Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) was established with a federal regulation passed by the Ethiopian Council of Ministers.

The concept had been tried in Asia. Similar transformation units were established in Malaysia, South Korea, and Taiwan, China in the 1950s and 1960s. According to IFPRI Senior Research Fellow and Project Manager Shahid Rashid, they resulted in “incredible economic development in now-thriving Asian economies.” Taiwan’s (China) Joint Commission for Rural Reconstruction in particular was a booming success: in just 15 years, without increasing the amount of land they cultivated, the country’s farmers nearly doubled their agricultural output. Taiwan, China harnessed the profits from this agricultural growth to transform its industrial sector, eventually emerging as a developed economy.

Big-Picture Issues

"The ATA is not working on small issues. It is working on far-reaching, big-picture issues."
—Shahid Rashid, IFPRI

The ATA’s mission is simple but daunting—to transform Ethiopia’s agricultural sector into a driving force for economic growth and development. The agency combines the analytical capacity of a research organization with the political and economic power of an implementing organization. Research partners such as IFPRI provide technical assistance and project management, while the agency’s program directors and government representatives use the results to enact policies targeting agricultural bottlenecks at their source. The agency will focus on high-priority issues such as the need for intensive soil fertility treatments or for making high-quality inputs more affordable for smallholder farmers. “The ATA is not working on small issues,” Rashid explains. “It is working on far-reaching, big-picture issues.”

One such big-picture issue is soil health. IFPRI researchers have found that despite efforts to introduce modern inputs—such as fertilizers and improved seed varieties—Ethiopia’s crop yields remain low, in part because the country’s soils are depleted. To help create a strategy for improving soil fertility, the ATA launched a comprehensive soil-mapping project that will collect 16,000 soil samples across the country. When the national soil map is in place, farmers will be better able to identify the soil treatments needed to raise soil fertility and the crops that grow best in their region.

Support from the Top

Drawing heavily on other countries’ experiences, the ATA team found three common factors for success: firm government commitment, strong financial support from both the government and large-scale donors, and a coordinated series of development projects that address both micro-level economic realities and macro-level economic goals. This combination, says Leonard Oruko, an IFPRI staff serving as the director of Monitoring, Learning, and Evaluation for the ATA, provides a “unique opportunity to make agricultural transformation happen.”

While the research provides the meat of the ATA’s policies, political commitment provides the backbone. The agency’s political leadership takes the form of the powerful Transformation Council, chaired by the prime minister and bringing together other high-level officials. This structure means that research by IFPRI and its partners is presented directly to the people who can implement change. “A lot of solid research never gets attention because the key policymakers who need the information never see it,” says Rashid. “Here the government is getting the research directly and taking immediate action.” Although Meles, the driving force behind the ATA, died on August 20, 2012, Ethiopia’s current prime minister, Haile Mariam Desalegn, and the political leadership have maintained the government’s firm support for the agency.

Financial Commitment

The ATA also enjoys a strong financial commitment from both the Ethiopian government and donor agencies. Ethiopia allocates more than 10 percent of its national budget to agriculture, whereas neighboring countries allocate only about 5 percent. Major donors, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the US Agency for International Development, have provided a steady stream of funding for the agency’s ambitious agenda. “This is the big difference in Ethiopia,” says Rashid. “There’s a high level of commitment from the government as well as from donors and development partners.”

Ethiopia is still well known as the site of past famines and food shortages, but the ATA aims to leave that history behind and create an agricultural success story (see the infographic on pages 24–25 on how far Ethiopia has already come). The agricultural growth spurred by the ATA could translate into growth in other sectors and help transform Ethiopia into a developed country that can serve as a template for the region. “Investment must expand beyond agriculture to ensure well-rounded development,” says Rashid, “but a strong agricultural sector is the first step.”

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