Ways out of the poverty trap

For breakfast roasted grains of maize, at midday a bowl of maize porridge and in the evening a piece of corn bread: a good day for the five children of farmer Nasser Tadese. Often the older children go to school without breakfast and receive only two meals a day: that’s the daily routine in Boretscha in south-western Ethiopia.

In the soot-blackened round hut, mother Nuria Kadir (32) kindles the open fire and says: "What kind of life is this? I have a husband and land, but I still can’t provide enough food for my children." The pungent smoke from the fire fills the room. Muslima, the youngest daughter aged one-and-a-half, sits next to her mother and coughs. "What distresses me most is that I am unable to feed my children properly," says Nuria. At night the siblings huddle close together on the floor: the girl Murshe (14), boys Abadir (9), Mohammed (7) and Yussuf (5). The family has only one woollen blanket and a mattress, roughly sewn together from plastic sacks and filled with grass. The parents sleep on it together with nestling Muslima. A few farming implements are leant against the wall. The family’s remaining belongings fit into a small chest.

Ploughing as in primeval times

Anyone who has seen the jungle in Boretscha – living proof of luxuriant natural growth – will ask himself: How is it possible that there is so much poverty here? Ethiopia’s farmers grow the same products and plough their land just like their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. A self-made plough is tied to a yoke and pulled by two oxen. But the plough is unable to turn the soil: a simple forged iron blade, reminiscent of the tip of a spear, merely scratches the surface. The farmers must plough their fields in many days of hard work until the subsoil is loose enough for sowing the seed.

Often the farmers only have one ox. Then they have to get together with their neighbour, who also owns only one ox, to share their draught animals. But farmers who have no ox at all – like Nasser Tadese – must depend on the goodwill of the neighbours. For a payment Nasser Tadese can borrow two oxen from them, but not until they themselves are finished with ploughing. Then it is often too late and the harvest yield is poor. Because he has hardly any money and time to plough, the farmer can only farm a small portion of his land.

An annual wage for an ox

An ox costs 2,000 Birr, or about € 118: an unimaginable amount for Nasser Tadese, approximately equivalent to his annual wage as a day labourer. Sometimes he finds work in house building. He helps to finish the exterior of huts with clay and cow dung. None of his wages can be saved: they are needed immediately for cooking oil, clothes and school materials for the children. The farmer must even buy in cereals.

His family is sitting in the poverty trap. But how can they escape it? "Our only hope is Menschen für Menschen," says the farmer’s wife Nuria. With a small loan from Karlheinz Böhm’s Ethiopia Aid she can buy an ox, she thinks. And Nuria now practices birth control. Every three months she receives an injection from the health specialists of Ethiopia Aid to prevent a further pregnancy. "Another child would only be another problem," says the farmer’s wife. They have also applied for a place in a vegetable farming course which is due to begin soon, her husband adds, hoping to have access to seeds and seedlings. 

Under the guidance of Menschen für Menschen, his neighbours have already begun to grow vegetables. No ox is needed for that. The family is the best example: poverty is not only attributable to a lack of resources, but also to a lack of knowledge. Up until now farmers in Boretscha have only grown onions – all other types of vegetable were unknown to them.

Farmer becomes a role model

Menschen für Menschen attaches great importance to improving farming skills and introducing new crops – for example in Boretscha various types of cabbage, carrots and beetroot. In many areas its employees must overcome the scepticism of the rural population. Farmers often have a conservative attitude, for obvious reasons: in order to survive they must avoid risks. If an expert tells a farmer he should grow a new vegetable on his land, he is often reluctant because he is unfamiliar with the plant and unable to assess the opportunities and risks involved.

To nevertheless encourage the spread of better farming methods, Menschen für Menschen is supporting more efficient and adventurous farmers. When other farmers in the village see the success of these so-called model farmers it is incentive enough to adapt their own production methods.

One of the model farmers is Wondemu Shewangesau, aged 52. He lives in the Asagirt project area, where the living conditions are sometimes harsher than in Boretscha. Due to overpopulation many country people are obliged to cultivate the last available areas on sloping ground. Some fields are so steep that the farmers must secure themselves with a rope to stop them from slipping. After only a few years the soil has been badly eroded, revealing the bare rock. The farmers then have no other choice but to move to the city, where they make a meagre living as day labourers.

But on the farm of Wondemu Shewangesau the visitor gains a very different impression: a picture of happiness. Cheerful, healthy children are jumping around, causing the clucking hens to hurriedly flee. The ground is covered with freshly cut grass to stop the dust being blown about. Many hundredweights of teff, Ethiopia’s traditional grass-like cereal, is stored in bulging silos made of woven willow and coated with mud. The silos are not standing on the bare ground, as with other farmers, but on high stilts to protect them from vermin. The stilts have funnel-shape metal pieces nailed to them to prevent mice and rats from crawling up them – an innovation the farmer learnt in a course of training at Menschen für Menschen.

Fist-size potatoes

The farmer has his own tree nursery with eucalyptus and indigenous species grown from seeds he received from Ethiopia Aid. He sells the saplings for planting next to houses as a source of timber and firewood, but also to provide shade for vegetable gardens and protect from erosion by stabilising the soil on steep slopes, to prevent even more humus being washed away.

Wondemu earns good money with the saplings. But his biggest source of income is in the new building in the yard. Here the shelves are laden with many hundredweights of potatoes, most of them the size of a fist. The seedlings were supplied by Ethiopia Aid. In the latest harvest the model farmer was able to dig up 1.2 tonnes of the tubers, while the neighbours continue to grow teff, which with its tiny seed produces a relatively small yield per hectare. But Wondemu sells a hundredweight of potatoes for 300 Birr at the local markets, the average monthly income of a worker. His entire harvest is worth three-and-a-half oxen – a fortune!

Success is infectious

That certainly set his neighbours thinking. "I am very happy that I took the step," says the model farmer. As a result of his success, many other farmers are now asking Menschen für Menschen for potato seedlings and instruction on how to grow them. "The potatoes don’t benefit just me, but the whole village!" exclaims Wondemu.

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Farmer in Boretscha