Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest countries and known for the fragility of its food supply system. A poorly developed agricultural infrastructure, being reliant on very small farms, and a highly unreliable climate combine to keep it needing outside help.

The International Grains Council (IGC), in its most recent Grain Market Report, put Ethiopia’s total grains production in 2010 at 10.9 million tonnes, compared with 10.6 million tonnes in 2009.

Wheat production is an estimated 2.3 million tonnes, up from 2.2 million. Maize (corn) production is put at 4 million tonnes, down from 4.4 million. Barley production is 1.5 million tonnes, up from 1.3 million. The sorghum crop is 2.6 million tonnes, compared with the previous year’s 2.1 million.

According to the IGC, Ethiopia will import 500,000 tonnes of grain in 2010-11, compared with 1 million the year before. Most of it — 400,000 tonnes — is wheat, down from 900,000 last year.

According to the FAO/WFP Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission to Ethiopia, which issued a report earlier this year, the eastern African nation is ranked 171st of 177 countries in the human development index. Its adjusted GDP per capita is $779, compared to an average of almost $2,000 for sub-Saharan countries.

However, reductions in poverty levels have been seen in rural areas as a result of government spending of some 13% of GDP on measures to help the poor. Rising food prices and the inability of the manufacturing sector to employ an increasing population have meant that there has not been the same improvement in urban poverty.


Ethiopia has a milling industry with a total capacity of around 7,300 tonnes per day, Solomon Belachew, a representative in Ethiopia of milling equipment manufacturer Buhler AG, told World Grain. All the mills are privately owned. The few which were owned by the government were privatized recently, he said.

He said there are 10 industrial mills with capacity ranging from 100 to 150 tonnes per 24 hours, two industrial mills with a capacity range of 240 to 350 tonnes per 24 hours, and four industrial mills with a capacity range of 60 to 80 tonnes per 24 hours.

"On a smaller scale, there are 184 small Chinese- and Turkish-made container mills in the range of 20 to 80 tonnes a day capacity, which, with 60% efficiency, make approximately 5,500 tonnes a day milling capacity," he said. "Theses small mills are distributed all over the country, in and around Addis Ababa. The industrial mills are mainly located in and around Addis and Nazreth area."

He added that "80 to 85 percent of grain (medium hard and soft wheat) is from local supply and the remaining balance is from donation or imported wheat for food security by the government."

The industry does get direct help. "There is no subsidy at all on wheat, and only recently a 15% VAT on flour was waved, which eased supply to the industry," he said.


"Ethiopia has huge potential for growing wheat and oilseed since it has suitable soil, climate and large irrigable area," said Belachew. "Large-scale agricultural production has not grown as expected compared to the availability of the land for grain production, but it is moving toward it."

The country needs to tackle low yields. "Until now, production per hectare for grain was as low as 1.8 to 2.5 tonnes a hectare on average. But now, with the government encouraging to go to largescale farming, the introduction of selected seed and an increase in supply of agricultural inputs, it is planned to boost the yield to 4 to 5 tonnes a hectare," he explained.

"The reason for the low yield is the majority of farming is on small plots — 1 to 2 hectares — that consumes only time and energy of the farmers. Now agricultural productivity, even on small plots, is addressed to be supported by the government."

Under the Agricultural Development Led Industrialization (ADLI) program, the government has adopted a policy designed to achieve more intensive farming. The 2006-10 Plan for Accelerated and Sustained Development to End Poverty (PASDEP) shifted strategy toward a more market-oriented agriculture.

Citing figures from Ethiopia’s Central Statistics Agency CSA, the FAO/WFP assessment put the total area of agricultural land at 12.4 million hectares, "producing mainly cereals and pulses, but also considerable quantities of oilseeds such as sesame, root crops such as cassava, Solanum potato and sweet potato, stem crops such as enset and many fruit crops, including bananas, mangoes, citrus and others."

It explained that "Ethiopia is overwhelmingly dependent on annual rainfall, which is normally considered as occurring in two distinct rainy seasons, the belg and the meher seasons."

"By convention, all crops harvested by Aug. 31 are regarded as ‘belg’ crops, while crops harvested from Sept. 1 to March 31 are regarded as ‘meher’ crops," it said. "Traditionally, the belg production supplies about 8% of annual national crop production."


The FAO/WFP described the population of Ethiopia as "one of the least urbanized in Africa, with an estimated 80 percent of the people dependent on agriculture and pastoralism for their livelihood."

"Agriculture is still highly labor intensive, with plowing being done using the traditional maresha plow, normally drawn by two oxen," it said. "Land is plowed repeatedly, especially for the ultra-small seeded teff crop which needs a very fine seed bed. By reducing soil to such fineness, the risk of erosion is increased, especially on slopes, where many farms are situated." Teff is an annual grass grown for food in Ethiopia.

The report recommends the adoption of Conservation Agriculture, currently at an early stage. "As it typically prevents over 90% of soil erosion when properly implemented, its introduction and demonstration is very desirable," it said.

One example of over-cropping to meet immediate needs has been with enset, the "false banana" which is important in districts to the south of Addis Ababa.

"With poor harvests in these areas in recent years, over-harvesting of enset has taken place as people strove to meet their food needs," it said.

It also expresses concern over the availability and affordability of the right inputs, something highlighted as one of the agricultural industry’s big problems by Belachew, who pointed out that increasing international prices have put a strain on the country’s meagre foreign income.

"The usage of improved seeds is one of the most efficient ways of raising crop production. But in Ethiopia, less than 10 percent of farmers use improved seeds," the FAO/WFP report said.

"This is partly a supply problem due to the inability of the various suppliers (the Ethiopian Seed Enterprise and other suppliers including international firms such as Pioneer Seed Company and cooperative seed producers) to meet the demand."

"Also, as farmers have little working capital and uncertain access to credit, they often cannot afford the cost of improved seed and the fertilizer it requires to achieve its maximum genetic potential and yield," it said. "Hence, most farmers use second- or later-generation seed, thereby reducing harvest potential."


Ethiopia has one of the largest livestock industries in Africa with, according to CSA figures cited by FAO/WFP, more than 49 million cattle, 47 million small ruminants, 7.6 million equines, 760 000 camels and 42 million chickens. Livestock ownership contributes to the livelihood of over an estimated 80% of the rural population. However, the FAO/WFP highlights competition for land. "The human population is growing at an estimated 2 million per annum and needing more farm land each year," it said. "Much of the available land is coming from areas that were hitherto used for livestock grazing. This is reducing the amount of grazing land every year, but especially so in a year such as 2009, when rainfall and, hence, natural pasture availability is highly constrained."

Chris Lyddon is World Grain’s European editor. He may be contacted at