The Ethiopian Approach to Food Security
How one African country is changing how we feed the world.
Last year, a bipartisan group of 23 members of Congress, hosted by the Aspen Institute, travelled to Ethiopia to get a firsthand view of the progress the country was making in modernizing agriculture and smallholder farming. This was the largest congressional delegation to visit sub-Saharan Africa in decades—maybe ever. This trip served to brief the congressmen on how a unique Ethiopian government agency, dedicated to agricultural transformation, is emerging as a model for bureaucratic collaboration and helping to feed millions of Ethiopians.
Ethiopia is one of many African countries deeply affected by food insecurity—estimates of the portion of Ethiopia’s population without secure access to food exceeds 3 million in some seasons. That means that in a given year, almost 1 in 10 Ethiopians will struggle to have access to “sufficient, safe, and nutritious food” for themselves and for their families. Yet, in 2013, the World Food Prize—an organization that highlights individuals and groups who have increased the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world—recognized Ethiopia for demonstrating some of the greatest progress measured in the Economist magazine’s Global Food Security Index. As we look ahead at global food security planning for the next century, Ethiopia is an important example of how leaders in government and other sectors can successfully align their food systems planning.
Fighting an uphill battle against the challenges of food insecurity; climate; and systemic gaps in the quality of infrastructure, education, capital finance, and nutrition, Ethiopia has successfully brought the percentage of its population living in extreme poverty as defined by the World Bank from 55 percent in 2000 to 29.6 percent in 2011. More recently the country has reduced the number of its population below the global poverty line down from 77.6 percent in 2012 to 66 percent in 2013, with the average food supply improving by 117 kcals per day during the same period. That means enough food for another small meal for everyone in Ethiopia. And to put it in perspective, in 2007 the United States had enough food supplies to support more than 3,700 kcals per capita.
Ethiopia’s great progress is a result of the country’s strategy of ambitious policy commitments and supportive programs around agricultural development. Ethiopia has invested in the establishment of agricultural centers to train nearly 60,000 extension workers across the country, significantly increased road density to connect all administration districts with all-weather roads, and is planning to increase irrigation coverage and bring electricity to 75 percent of the population.
To address low smallholder farmer productivity, Ethiopia has also invested in agricultural research and development (particularly improved seed varieties and breeds, and farming practices), timely access to and use of high-quality inputs (such as fertilizers, seed), and expanded knowledge dissemination networks to smallholder farmers.
We had the eye-opening opportunity to explore this success while visiting Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) this fall, which works in innovative ways across sectors to increase yields, enhance market linkages, and implement safeguards for those most at risk.
Further, the ATA has matched these investments in productivity-enhancing technologies with interventions to ensure that smallholder farmers have financially remunerative markets for their production. Smallholder farmers have traditionally had limited access to markets due to the challenge of aggregating thousands of small harvests across vast geographic areas and their often low bargaining power.
To overcome this challenge, Ethiopia has focused on supporting the formation of farmers’ associations and cooperatives to operate as commercial businesses. With the creation of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange, farmers also have access to real-time price information, which lessens the traditional problem of price asymmetry.
Given the fragile nature of most rural communities emerging from traditional livelihoods, and the recurrence of droughts and more unpredictable weather patterns, Ethiopia has invested in the resiliency of its farming communities. These efforts include the Productive Safety Net Program, which contracts the unemployed for projects that will enhance the country’s infrastructure. Funded by a consortium of more than 10 governments and international agencies such as the World Bank, this program is a testament to the power of international partnership to change the facts on the ground.
It is from Ethiopia’s ground-level innovations that global leaders are identifying effective systems for scalable solutions, and then implementing them across regions through the engagement of the international community. Various countries are now adopting pieces of this model for implementation in their own nations. Tanzania is one example, and is working on implementation through its new Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT) launched in 2011.
One group coordinating this type of activity on the global level is the Aspen Institute’s Food Security Strategy Group, in which we are both honored to play a part. This group of global leaders from across sectors is tackling the challenge of scaling ground-level solutions by identifying high-potential areas for action—in particular the coordination of market-based approaches, alignment of food security with other prioritized agendas, and best practices communication. The group convened last summer in Morocco, and is preparing to continue the deliberations in Rome and China in the coming months, to develop an action plan for its members.
Looking ahead, we must understand that, for global challenges as complex as food security, there will never be a silver-bullet solution. Therefore, the value in stepping back to build a coherent, data-driven, and clear-eyed strategy, based on country-level innovations, could not be more evident. This approach is by no means easy, and building effective public-private partnerships across sectors and continents takes time. But the potential gains are impressive, and if Ethiopia is any indication, such investments will not only be critical to ensuring a globally food secure future, but also in building the effective bureaucratic infrastructure that will be indispensable in tackling a wide range of social policy challenges.