It takes a while to become accustomed to how Ethiopians communicate. After a few days I have picked up on a few things.
“It’s possible” means yes. When it comes to meetings, you can add another half an hour or so to an agreed time. Also, never refuse an offer of coffee at the risk of gravely insulting your host – like how Irish mammies feel about tea.
Getting to grips with the social etiquette was one thing. However, travelling from Addis Ababa to Gamo Gofa, in the south of the country, was a real shock to the system. And I’ll never complain about potholes in Kerry again.
I travelled overland by bus to Arba Minch with a group from Vita, Teagasc, Macra and the Agricultural Science Association. The plan was to spend two days in the south to visit projects developed by Vita, including a potato plantation launched with help from Irish agricultural organisations. The journey took 13 hours; providing plenty of time to see more of the country.
Firstly, I was surprised to see how fertile the land appeared. Although it is impossible to generalise in a country as vast as Ethiopia, from what I saw there is an abundance of arable land. The real problem is the means by which the ground is cultivated, the size of the farms (an average of 1-2 acres), and access to land. Crops are still harvested by hand while animals (mainly donkeys) till the land. The drudgery of it all is extraordinary but not far removed from our own background in Ireland. Efficiency is major problem, and grassland management is definitely not on anyone’s radar quite yet.
Young children seem to carry out a lot of the menial farm work. Many of them stay at home until the age of eight, when they are old enough to walk to the nearest school. Meanwhile women occupy themselves by fetching water and firewood, which is backbreaking work in every sense.
Living conditions are poor to say the least. Some farmers and their family share huts with their animals; devoid of electricity and running water. Latrines have only recently been installed in some areas in Gamo Gofa. Chencha, a small town in the district, is now an open-defecation free zone, making a huge difference to hygiene and health.
Simple changes in these areas can make a big impact. A new potato seed, dubbed the “Irish potato” by locals, has recently been introduced to the area by Vita with help from Teagasc and the Irish Potato Federation. Yield can increase from four tonnes per acre as opposed to 10 using the new variety, and potatoes are easy to grow, nutritious and marketable.
Surplus produce and seed are sold, with extra money going towards investment into new enterprises and education – all due to the humble spud.
The land is there. Conditions are suitable for growth. Farmers are willing. The potential is enormous.
Farmers do not want charity or hand-outs. They need knowledge, access to land and the confidence to move forward. As the Ethiopians say, it’s possible.