The northern Ethiopian region, Tigray, is plagued with inconsistent rainfall, environmental degradation, poor quality soils and other problems, making the area prone to food insecurity. But innovative programs being carried out by an aid agency and government aim to ensure that poor farmers, in particular, are able to grow enough food to eat and even sell despite the bleak conditions. Cathy Majtenyi visited Tigray recently and files this report for VOA.
Letesilase Gebrehiwot is picking hops berries on her farm in a picturesque village near the regional capital, Mekele. As she does so, she recalls what farm life was like, in the past.
She says if the rainy seasons were good, they would have good yields. But during the drought years, they had problems and had to depend on food aid and sell most of their cattle to pay for food. She says that after they sold their cattle, the family moved from town to town looking for food.
Letesilase and her family returned to the area. Three years ago, she and her neighbors began attending seminars held by the German aid agency GTZ and the government's Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Development, in which they learned how to build an enclosure called a "semi-circle terrace."
The structure consists of a stone wall, about two or three feet high, built in the shape of a big smile, with the open end facing the nearby hill. Different plants grow within the enclosure.
Letesilase built five of these on her farm, and is now growing hops, guava, pepper, cabbage, Swiss chard and tomatoes. She is able to feed herself, her husband and their five children from once-bare, dry land and has recently purchased some cattle.
The watershed management expert at GTZ's Tigray office, Gebreegziabher Lemma, explains that semi-circle terraces trap run-off water and moisture coming from the nearby hills and stop the soil from being washed away into gullies during the rainy season, where rainfalls can be erratic and very forceful.
He says crops can be grown all year around, even when conditions are very dry - provided that there is minimum rainfall during the June-to-August rainy season.
"I think the nutrition status of the farmers also improved," he said. "Before, they used only these pulses and cereals for household consumption. Now they are using vegetables in their home consumptions. That's why their children are now becoming strong for learning. They are getting also additional income from the vegetable sale and access for this education due to that additional income."
GTZ and the government are also helping to build shallow wells, tanks to trap and hold rainwater, irrigation canals and other water-harvesting technologies. Most of the 150 households participating in the joint GTZ-government semi-circle terrace pilot project are able to water their plants using water from these sources.
The semi-circle terraces, water harvesting technologies and other environmental rehabilitation and conservation initiatives being carried out by GTZ are part of the regional and federal government's wider effort to ensure food security in drought-prone Tigray.
Three years ago, the regional government launched a program called the Comprehensive Community and Household Asset Building Approach, in which 370,000 low-income rural households can choose what is known as a "household package" to improve their food situation.
Each package, which number about 60 in total, contains a combination of farming or other income-generating activities such as growing cereals, pulses, and other crops; livestock ranching; beekeeping; dairy production; or raising poultry.
A credit scheme enables farmers to take out loans with low interest and flexible re-payment schedules to support the packages they select. The government and aid agencies such as GTZ provide training, technical support and, in some cases, materials.
Berhane Hailu is deputy head of the Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Development for the Tigray regional government.
He explains why food security is such a major concern in his region and country.
"Unless our people are food secured and alleviate poverty - it's a question of survival - we cannot live as a country, as people; we cannot live peacefully," he said. "And, we have limited time for this. We cannot be relaxed. We cannot beg the international [community] every year that Ethiopia [is] affected by famine, please give us this amount of grain and so on. People will be fed up. So we have to look [for] our own solutions, and that is food security and poverty alleviation based on our own basic resources."
Berhane says three years ago his government conducted a survey that found that 80 percent of Tigray's rural households lived below the poverty line. He says that his office is conducting another survey now. He thinks there has been a significant improvement in the region's food security.
Tigray also falls under the federal government's Productive Safety Net Program. In its second year, the initiative provides low-income households with cash, food, food-for-work programs and other assistance based on the beneficiaries' circumstances.