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With Fruits and Green Shoots, Tigray Swaps Image of Famine for Resilience

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Thirty-five years after haunting images of crying, skeletal Ethiopian children shocked the world, Tigray, the region that unwittingly became a poster child for famine, is taking on a new image – that of resilience.

In Ruwa Feleg, a highland community with vivid memories of the devastating 1984 famine, the 2016 drought, which experts said was the worst Ethiopia had seen in half a century, had minimal impact, local farmers said.

“A lot of the livestock was lost but there were no marked loss of (human) lives,” said Hidrom Haileselasie, 45. “It’s not comparable.”

For one, they had spare cash from selling temperate fruits and vegetables such as apples, apricots and almonds, and no longer live hand-to-mouth. Improved infrastructure meant food, whether to markets or as assistance, arrived faster.

So, despite food shortages, people did not starve to death, unlike during the 1984 “great famine” when a combination of severe drought and civil war killed up to 1 million people.

The lack of conflict and Ethiopia’s strong economic growth helped the arid and mountainous Tigray, home to nearly 6 million people, during the 2016 drought, experts and locals said.

Months of monitoring allowed aid agencies to deliver assistance quickly when things worsened, said Getachew Kalayu, head of planning and coordination with local non-profit Relief Society of Tigray (REST).

“Both the people and the government have learnt a lesson from 1984,” said Getachew, whose organization was set up in 1978 by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a former guerrilla movement turned political party.

Environmental rehabilitation work and efforts to diversify incomes were crucial, experts say.

“If you go back 30 plus years… (Tigray) was a moonscape, so denuded, with people cutting trees for charcoal and abandoning land,” said Betsy Otto, at the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) Global Water Programme.

Through painstaking work, locals moved 90 million tonnes of soil and rock by hand, built infiltration pits and embankments, and planted trees to restore landscapes, said Otto, whose organization was involved in some of the projects.

“People migrate into Tigray now, which is kind of unheard of,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

The groundwater table has risen and artesian wells that had not flowed for a long time now do, she added.

Tigray also looked to micro dams and watershed management to provide irrigation so small-scale farmers can improve crop productivity, said Fatouma Seid, representative for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Ethiopia.

All these contributed to “the communities’ capacity to withstand drought situations”, said Seid, whose organization has been helping farmers for years, including those in Ruwa Feleg.

CASH FRUITS AND FREE LABOR

The changes are palpable in Abreha we Atsbeha, a village two hours southwest of Ruwa Feleg on winding, bumpy roads.

Here the community has been working for more than a decade to build terraces on hills to retain water and prevent soil erosion. With about 1,500 locals working 20 days a year, they have so far terraced 5,200 hectares, a local official said.

“Before there were no plants. After (we built) the terraces, the land breathed new life again,” Kidane Gebreselassie, the official, said proudly, pointing at the lush, green hillsides.

A large part of this impressive feat is due to a government program requiring locals to work up to 20 days a year on rehabilitating the environment.

This happens “after the harvest and when people have spare time”, said Zenebu Tilahun Negrash, an official with Tigray’s Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Both Zenebu and Kidane are convinced such conservation work, which won a United Nations-backed award in 2017, helped the area during the 2016 drought.

People in Tigray have long memories of what it was like in 1984.

Tsega Asgedem, 63, a farmer at Ruwa Feleg, fled to Eritrea with her family and relatives, including two newborns. She ended up begging in the streets for a time to feed her children. They did not return for three years.

“It was very difficult to even bury the dead. There was nobody strong enough to do it,” remembered Tsega, who lost relatives in the famine.

Hidrom and Kes Berihu Hailu were only 10 and 9 then, but recall the hunger, the sickness, the food aid and the dead bodies lying in the streets.

So, when they learned of fruits they could grow and sell for cash, they jumped at the chance to leave the vicious cycle of subsistence farming.

“Previously… we planted cereals only for our own (animal) feed, and even then sometimes what we produce is not enough,” recounted Kes, 44, who is also a priest.

Now, Kes’ small plot of land grows only fruits. Life has improved leaps and bounds, he said, standing in front of a large, two-story stone building he had recently built with proceeds from the sale of the fruits.

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He spent more than 80,000 Ethiopian birr ($2,820), he said.

Aid agencies, particularly the FAO and World Vision, provided them with free seedlings and taught them technical skills, said Hidrom, the local pioneer who also keeps bees.

Despite struggling with getting enough water for his plants, he sees the fruits as his future.

“The land here is very small so planting cereal crops is not profitable. Highland fruits are the way to go.”

WHAT IS NEXT?

Demand for seedlings and technical knowledge is so high the government has not been able to keep up, said Zenebu, the agricultural official and leader of the team promoting highland fruits in Tigray.

About 33,000 people were producing fruits between June and the end of December, and they hope to raise the number to 96,000 by June 2020, to boost farmer incomes as well as nutrition, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In the decade between 2006/2007 and 2016/2017, Ethiopia’s economy soared, but the country remains one of the region’s poorest, with nearly one in four living below the national poverty line, according to the World Bank.

More than four out of five Ethiopians also rely on agriculture and livestock for work and income in Africa’s second-most populous nation after Nigeria.

This makes them particularly vulnerable to weather-related disasters, many of which are becoming more frequent. Even Tigray’s restored landscape may only be able to help so much, experts said.

“Thirty, 40 years ago, there used to be rain end of May up till end of October. Now the rain comes in middle of June if you are lucky and stops first week of September,” Ehiopian aid worker Getachew said.

“So, investment in environment and water security are critical,” he said.

Farmers say they do not fear working hard, but rather the unpredictable weather and a repeat of the 1984.

“This is peace value. It allows us to secure an existence,” said Hidrom, pointing to a basket of freshly harvested almonds in his hands. -Reuters

-Thin Lei Win @thinink; Laurie Goering and Elias Gebreselassie

Agriculture

South Africa Farmers Seek $220 Million in Drought Aid

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South Africa’s agricultural industry body AgriSA will approach banks, agribusiness and government to raise 3 billion rand ($220 million) to help farmers hit by severe drought, its executive director said.

Farmers have faced dry conditions over most of the nation for the last year, even as they are still recovering from a disastrous El Nino-induced drought in 2015.

“We have basically reached a point now where we don’t have any more fat in the system. There is no buffer any more in the agricultural sector,” AgriSA boss Omri van Zyl told reporters.

READ MORE | Zimbabwe Seeks Wiser Ways to Use Water Amid Erratic Rains

Van Zyl said the group will also speak to the government’s National Disaster Management agency to get access to the contingency reserves.

“We see this drought again as a national emergency because it is going to have an impact directly on consumer prices, it is going to have an impact on food affordability and it has an impact on the farmers on the land,” said van Zyl.

A survey of producers showed that 31,000 jobs and 7 billion rand ($510 million) in potential revenue were lost since January last year because of drought, AgriSA said.

White maize prices are just off a near two-year peak last week.

“The farmers didn’t get enough (income) to recuperate in 2016 so the grain sector is in a lot worse financial situation than it was. Our ability to absorb this current drought is under pressure,” Jannie de Villiers, head of producers body Grain SA, also told reporters at the briefing.

READ MORE | Putting land To Good Use: Food Security In Our Backyards

In early estimates for the 2018/2019 season, farmers have planted around 95 percent of the country’s yellow maize, which is mainly used in animal feed, and between 70 to 80 percent of the white maize, pushing prices higher.

The white maize futures contract due in March traded up 2.76 percent to 3,088 rand on Friday, just under a near two-year high of 3,255 rand reached last week.

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South Africa’s official Crop Estimates Committee, which in October estimated farmers would plant 2.448 million hectares of maize in the 2018/2019 season, is expected to release the preliminary area planted estimates on Jan. 29. -Reuters

-Tanisha Heiberg

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Zimbabwe Seeks Wiser Ways to Use Water Amid Erratic Rains

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Bensen Muzamba knows the cost of water only too well. He runs a maize farm outside Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, but because of poor rains at the start of the season, he was forced to purchase water to irrigate his crop – something he can ill afford.

As with many farmers across the country, he relies on rainfall – and struggles if it does not come when expected.

“It’s tough when you have to buy water … and sellers demand foreign currency,” Muzamba told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, inspecting maize plants on his land about 15 km (9 miles) from Harare.

As Zimbabwe struggles with the fallout from a slow start to the rainy season, bulk suppliers that deliver water in tankers have increased their prices, citing the high cost of extracting groundwater.

And with dam levels down – though recent rains have helped – cities like Bulawayo have been exploring ways to curb water consumption in homes.

Meanwhile, violent clashes have erupted over shortages of fuel and a government-imposed fuel price hike, while U.S. dollars, one of Zimbabwe’s main currencies, are hard to come by.

Groundwater is essential to ensure farmers can grow enough food crops. But some borehole owners in Harare have been selling 1,000 liters of water for about $30, twice the going rate in October.

The Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA), a government agency, charges $10 for 1,000 liters from state-owned dams – but even that is expensive for farmers used to free rain.

Washington Zhakata, director of the climate change department at the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Resettlement, said declining rainfall in the past couple of decades had caused Zimbabwe’s groundwater levels to fall and shortened the time periods in which water is available.

This, he said, had affected farming nationwide.

“The distribution of rainfall across the country has been uneven, coupled with extended dryness,” Zhakata said by email, linking the shifts to global warming.

Average temperatures around the world have already risen about 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial times, and southern Africa is expected to see drier conditions as warming continues.

Sobona Mtisi, an independent researcher on water and climate change in Zimbabwe, said rainfall had been low but the nation had enough groundwater stocks to meet rising demand.

Still, Zimbabwe would benefit from better methods for managing its groundwater, he added.

“(It) needs to be managed sustainably through an effective and evidence-based groundwater policy,” said the UK-based Mtisi.

Despite rains having picked up this month, forecasters’ concerns persist that an El Nino weather pattern could result in below-average rainfall this season, said Tamburiro Pasipangodya of the Zimbabwe Meteorological Services Department.

Up to early January, most parts of the country had received less than 75 percent of the long-term average rainfall, and a smaller amount than in the past three seasons, she noted.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network said seasonal rainfall was set to continue across southern Africa this week, bringing some relief from dryness, including to parts of Zimbabwe.

TURNING OFF THE TAP

As rains become more erratic, Zimbabwe is looking to irrigation to cushion its food supplies against drought.

In announcing the 2019 budget in November, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube allocated nearly $1 billion to the agriculture ministry to fund irrigation and borehole rehabilitation, among other measures to improve water sources for farmers.

And in a bid to deal with the long-term effects of patchy rainfall, the southwestern city of Bulawayo is proposing technological interventions to cut water consumption.

In the last week of December, water levels in Bulawayo’s dams dropped to 60 percent, from 65 percent in early November, ZINWA said.

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The city has long turned to groundwater for relief during dry spells, but a recent council report said the municipality had failed to maintain its boreholes, compromising future water availability.

This month, the Bulawayo authorities said they were looking at installing water flow regulators in homes.

According to the city’s director of engineering services, Simela Dube, the devices would be part of water management efforts allowing consumers and the municipality to save water.

The regulators would restrict consumption to pre-determined levels decided by households, depending on how much water they need, he told council chambers.

Residents would be able to use between 1 and 5 cubic meters of water per day, compared with now when can turn on their taps at will even if they cannot pay their water bill.

However, there are concerns the new proposal will meet resistance from customers who have previously rejected pre-paid water meters, said city councillor Sikhulilekile Moyo, calling for more consultation.

Jacob Mafela of the Bulawayo Residents Association told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that schemes to save water were generally welcome.

“We support all initiatives which at the end of the day benefit residents,” he said. “It is historically known that the city faces water challenges, but we need consensus.”

Meanwhile, as El Nino-linked rainfall uncertainty continues, farmers like Muzamba – most of whom lack insurance against crop failures – are despairing of help.

“We will keep asking government for assistance – though we know the money is not there,” he said.

  • Marko Phiri

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Ugandan Firm Uses Blockchain To Trace Coffee From Farms To Stores

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An Ugandan company has started using blockchain, the technology behind virtual currency Bitcoin, to certify shipments of coffee to try to meet growing demand from consumers for more information about where products have come from.

Carico Café Connoisseur said the move could help to boost farmers’ incomes, as consumers are usually prepared to pay more for goods that can been traced back to their origins.

Blockchain works by providing a shared record of data held by a network of individual computers rather than a single party. Its supporters say this makes it hard to tamper with, and so a secure way to track goods along the supply chain

Carico Café Connoisseur CEO Mwambu Wanendeya told Reuters a blockchain-certified shipment of one of its coffee products, Bugisu Blue, arrived in South Africa last month. He declined to give the size of the shipment, but said it was several tonnes.

Uganda is Africa’s largest coffee exporter followed by Ethiopia, according to the International Coffee Organisation, and has some of the world’s highest quality beans. It predominantly cultivates the robusta variety, but also has extensive fields of arabica trees.

Limited domestic processing capacity means the country exports nearly all of its beans in raw form.

The blockchain certification means consumers can trace the coffee’s journey by using their smartphones to scan the product’s QR codes or via the certification site provenance.org.

Every step of the beans’ journey – from when farmers drop them off at collection centers to warehousing, inspection by regulators and shipping – is recorded.

“The idea is to give the consumer an appreciation of what happens on the journey and also to ensure that there’s more linkages with the farmer,” Wanendeya said.

“Traceability is important because people are increasingly concerned that … farmers get rewarded for their work.”

The process will provide consumers with information such as the type of coffee bean, the year it was harvested, and where it was grown.

Founded in 2016, Carico Café is working with two farmer cooperatives with hundreds of members. Wanendeya predicted the innovation could boost farmers’ incomes by 10 percent.

“Consumers are willing to pay more if they can know where exactly the coffee is coming from,” he said.

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Uganda is keen to increase coffee exports from the current level of around 4 million 60-kilogramme bags per year.

However, a seedlings distribution program it hoped would boost production has yielded modest results, in part because of a decline in interest in coffee among farmers due to often low and unstable prices. -Reuters

– Elias Biryabarema

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