It was wet and gray the day last year that Zenaye Assefa showed us her cabbage patch next to her small house in the village of Tuka in southern Ethiopia. The rain had come too late for her other crops—corn and teff, a grain that’s a staple of the Ethiopian diet. Of all the things she told us about that day—her eight children, how she copes during times of drought—it was the garden she seemed most anxious for us to see. It was her patch of security.
Tuka and the tiny villages that dot the rolling landscape beyond it are the kind of hard-to-reach places that development dollars don’t usually find, places that could benefit from well-considered boosts to local agricultural practices. That’s the message in a new report Oxfam published this week. It calls on governments to make a serious investment in poor farmers to help them combat the effects of climate change and the gyration in food prices that are plunging millions more people into poverty.
Many of the fields around Tuka are rain-fed and when the rains don’t come, people go hungry. Last summer, some families in the area told us they were eating just one meal a day. Assefa’s family was better off than others. She had income from other sources—she sold wood and charcoal—to help put food on the table.
For most of the food crops grown in Ethiopia, farmers depend on Mother Nature to bring them rain. Only about 3 percent of the food crops are produced with the help of irrigation—a troubling statistic in a country plagued by droughts that in some regions are occurring with increasing frequency. But despite the dozen large river basins that stretch across Ethiopia, irrigation isn’t going to be possible everywhere.
There have to be other solutions that poor farmers can find to bolster their harvests—and not just in Ethiopia, but across Africa. The consequences of climate change are making this an imperative. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that as soon as 2020, climate change could reduce yields from rain-fed crops in parts of Africa by 50 percent, putting millions more people at risk of hunger.
Last summer, Zenaye Assefa seemed grateful that her cabbage patch was thriving. But how much better would it have been for her—and countless poor farmers nearby—if their corn had grown tall and their teff strong? That answer’s easy. The harder question is when will donors and governments finally realize that one of the best ways to combat poverty is to invest in agriculture, and make it a top priority?