A modest human miracle, how Ethiopia has managed to turn from famine to fertility


BEDESSA, a dusty highland settlement south of Addis Ababa, is an unlikely place to feature in rock music history. But it was here Bono came over a decade ago to witness the ravages of famine in Ethiopia. More than a million people died then, but the village has been immortalised as the place "where the streets have no name".

Today, Bedessa is the scene of a modest miracle of human recovery. Where once famine raged, food is now available. For eight months of the year, the earth gives up a harvest sufficient to feed the population. For the other four months, in the dry season, farmers have learned new ways of raising money to buy the food they cannot produce.

The Irish aid agency Concern used to run feeding stations here during the lean months, but the success of its agriculture and conservation schemes has rendered these unnecessary.

"We've introduced new crops to bring greater variety," explains Mr Michael Assefa, Concern's project manager for natural resources. "And we've tried to conserve the soil by stopping it leaching away into the rivers when the rains come.

One farmer shows me the thick, stubbly vetiver grass he planted on his sloping farm. The grass holds firm during the downpours, preventing any run off of soil or minerals. The result in less than two years is a naturally created terracing, system that has doubled his maize yields. The chopped grass is recycled for use in thatching.

Concern has developed three nurseries producing more than 500,000 papaya, eucalyptus, pepper, coffee, tea and other seedlings for use by local farmers. Now the farmers have been encouraged to take over this business themselves, with the creation of 24 family nurseries supplying the needs of their neighbours. The agency supplies the watering cans and rakes.

"In the last rainy season, I made 40 birr [£4] from selling seedlings.

My wife made the same from selling papayas in the market, and 400 birr from selling sugar cane, one farmer told me.

To stimulate the local cash economy, and give women an independent source of income, Concern has also set up small scale savings and credit schemes.

In the village of Arsiwoide, for example, we came across a group of 20 women holding their weekly repayment meeting under the shade of an acacia tree. Loans range from £5 to £50 and are repaid over a year. The women arrange themselves into small groups, which bear collective responsibility for debts, so if one defaults the others have to cover for her.

"We wanted to go to the market to make some money but we had none to start with," says Aster, who bought a donkey and some coffee with her £30 loan. The coffee is earning a 70 per cent mark up in the market, so she is happy. "I can feed my children breakfast and dinner when other farmers are struggling," she told me.

Other women say they bought goats or heifers, or are trading in butter or borde, the local beer.

Throughout Ethiopia, Bedessa's achievement has been matched by countless small communities, unheeded by rock stars or the media who flocked here during the famine in 1984. As a result, the government says the country is virtually self sufficient in food. Ethiopia has even announced plans to export grain this year to Kenya, its far richer and more fertile neighbour to the south.

The government has played its part. The interests of farmers, accounting for 85 per cent of the population, are now at the heart of development strategy. Under the previous Mengistu regime, farm prices were held artificially low. Corrupt middlemen could cream off a handsome cut, but farmers had no incentive to increase production. Output slumped as fields lay fallow.

The present regime has tried to eliminate bureaucracy and abolish artificial price controls. The results have been dramatic. Once the state coffee marketing board was abolished, for example, prices quickly trebled.

However, it is too soon to be certain that Ethiopia has turned the corner. Only this month, the government was forced to declare a state of emergency in the southern province of Somali, where the rains failed completely last September. In Bedessa, the rains are late too, leading to new fears of food shortages and cattle deaths. Everywhere, the soil has been turned, but no seeds can be planted until it rains.

Yet even these problems cannot take away from the achievement of Ethiopian farmers, aided by an astute government and non governmental organisations which have learned from the failure of previous interventions. Their approach to development, rooted in local self help and the avoidance of expensive "high tech" solutions, may yet provide a model for the rest of Africa to follow.