As Printed in The Marketplace - September/October 2017
Welcome to So What?, a periodic look at MEDA’s long-term impact around the world. What really changed as a result of our development efforts? What got better for families and communities? This issue looks at the EDGET program in Ethiopia, which ran from 2010 to 2016.'
New horizons in textiles and rice
From the air, western Ethiopia is a checkerboard of agriculture, with thousands of tiny fields crowded against each other in an endless patchwork.
Some 85 percent of the population is involved in subsistence farming, mostly on plots of an acre or two (or less). The land is all government-owned, but farmers have access under a tenure system.
Rice is relatively new in Ethiopia, going back only a few decades. More Ethiopians have begun to consume it,
often grinding it as an addition to in-jera, the popular spongy pancake normally made from more expensive teff.
EDGET used strategies that have been highly effective in other countries. For example, MEDA typically works with local partners whose visibility and connections give projects a leg up in getting started and extend the vision and mission long after MEDA has left.
The project employed MEDA’s “lead farmer” approach. Farmers selected for their skill and leadership ability were given special training which they then imparted to small groups of half a dozen “follower farmers” who gathered weekly to learn improved agronomy.
In Ethiopia rice is harvested mostly by hand, the short stalks cut with a scythe and laid out in bunches, to be threshed later. Some farmers still use oxen, if they have them — spreading the bundles of stalks on the ground to be trod underfoot by the animals working in a tight circle. EDGET encouraged hand threshing, which is less damaging.
Then the kernels are scooped into bags and hauled to the village processor who, for a fee, puts it all into a dehusking machine to separate the rice from its bran. The farmers take what’s left (often as little as 70 percent of what they brought in) and consume it as food, sell it at market, or store it for future use.
Staff saw quickly that local attitudes needed to be addressed. Farmers complained that processors’ outdated and poorly maintained equipment caused excess breakage, meaning more tailings for the processor and less money for farmers.
“We give them 100 pounds and they give us back 65,” complained one farmer. “Sometimes they break the rice on purpose so they can take more bran.”
EDGET seized the opportunity to transform predatory relationships in the value chain into mutually beneficial collaborations. It arranged regularmeetings with farmers and processors to help them understand each other and see the value of working more closely together. It identified processors who seemed willing to upgrade. It researched sources in nearby countries and put together a manual detailing a variety of affordable mills, husk shellers, separators, polishers and whiteners. None of that equipment was readily available before. The manual came to be seen as the best in the country.
Another step was to devise buy/lease financing options.
Farmers made major gains in productivity as they embraced better inputs (seed, fertilizer, pest management); agronomic efficiency (field preparation, planting and weeding); and post-production handling (harvesting, threshing and drying).
An early step was to offer farmers improved seed using a voucher discount. Previously, they simply kept back a portion of each harvest to plant next year. But genetics grew tired over time and stunted productivity. New varieties resisted stresses such as moisture shortage, matured earlier, adapted better to climate change and produced stronger kernels that didn’t break as easily. Lead farmers said when they took their rice in for processing they netted out 85 percent, compared to 70 percent previously.
Half of farmers used commercial fertilizers at the outset, compared to 90 percent at the end.
Appropriate technology also helped. A low-cost rotary weeder halved labor costs.
The biggest improvement was switching to row planting from broadcasting. This used less seed and cut weeding and harvesting costs by 80 percent. MEDA’s agronomist said “row planting was perhaps the most significant intervention during the project,” increasing yields by 25 percent.
Another improvement was to introduce airtight storage bags to protect rice from insects and swings in temperature and humidity that can cause the kernels to crack. By the end of the project, more than 70 percent of farmers used these portable cocoons to preserve quality.
These efforts nearly doubled yields over the life of the project (92 percent increase).
Parboiling for profit
An EDGET intervention with dramatic impact was providing access and matching grants to acquire simple parboilers that boosted income for both rice farmers and processors.
Parboiled (or precooked) rice retains more bran (and nutrition), cooks faster and produces a harder kernel less prone to breakage. Rice sold in North America is typically parboiled.
The process lent itself well to family producers, as it could be managed by women whose household duties made them less mobile.
Farmers who ventured into parboiling gained astonishing results. A return on investment (ROI) of more than 200 percent was not uncommon. Family income increased considerably as parboiled rice commanded a premium in the market.
An extensive evaluation concluded that “parboiling is an effective innovation that adds value to the rice produced by MEDA clients, even if it is only at the early stages of its potential.”
* The project funder, Global Affairs Canada, was so satisfied with EDGET results in this and other areas that it invited MEDA to run a follow-on project with doubled budget. This project continues to strengthen the rice sector and is expanding into women’s garden vegetables and semi-precious gemstones.