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Ethiopian highland farmer with his daughters work with their potato cropsEthiopian highland farmer with his daughters work with their potato cropsEthiopian highland farmer with his daughters work with their potato crops

Fighting hunger in Ethiopia — the Irish way

Fighting hunger in Ethiopia — the Irish way
Story22 March 2023Kieran McConville

Sometimes the solutions to hunger aren’t too far from home. Here’s how the humble potato is transforming lives in the Ethiopian highlands.

Ali Assen finally cracks a smile, and it’s like the sun coming through the clouds. “Seriously?” I say, “you took six tons of potatoes out of this land?” He nods and laughs, obviously enjoying himself now. “Yes… 6,100 kilos, actually.” 

Ali is a tough-guy farmer with a lot of hard mileage on the clock, fighting the vagaries of nature 12,000 feet up here in the Ethiopian highlands. We’re standing on a rocky hillside in Dawudo, South Wollo, part of the country’s Amhara region. 

We’re surrounded by the familiar foliage of potato plants (familiar to an Irishman, anyway). But what’s unusual about this scene is that the staple crop in these parts has always been barley. The shift was an uphill battle, but the results are helping to fight hunger in Ethiopia, and have prevented humanitarian food crises in one of the poorest and most remote parts of the country. 

Ethiopian farmer with his family in the highlands of South Wollo
Ali Assen Ali, with two of his daughters, on their farm 6,350 km up in the highlands of South Wollo, Ethiopia. Ali has been participating in a Concern-sponsored scheme that encourages farmers to look at alternative crops. (Photo: Kieran McConville)

A tough start for tubers

As far as anyone can remember, barley was the norm in South Wollo. But, as Concern’s Mesafint Malak explains as he leads me on the hour-long trek into the hills of Dawudo, “Barley doesn’t really work well here. The yield is poor and it’s not very drought-resistant. Potatoes are much better.”

It’s been over a decade since one variety of potato (known locally as the “Irish potato”) was first introduced by Concern to the drought-prone northern highlands of South Wollo. “Initially, potato farming was a hard sell,” Concern’s former Country Director Eileen Morrow recalls. “Families here were used to eating barley, and they were dependent on it for their livelihoods.”

Mesafint and his team took on the challenge of persuading the barley farmers of Amhara to change their crops. By focusing on the younger generations, they were able to convince 16 young farmers to pilot potato farming on small plots of land, nearly two miles above sea level. 

Beyond small potatoes

Ali Assen was one of those 16 farmers. Up on the hillside, Ali recalls how he first planted 50 kilos of potato seeds and harvested 300 kilos of spuds. 

“All the other farmers brought in more than me. I was disappointed,” he says. But instead of giving up, he decided to step up. 

In 2014, he doubled his commitment and did better, bringing in nearly 700 kilos. By then he felt like he was getting the hang of this whole potato thing and decided to go for broke. The end result was the 6 tonnes of spuds from a seed investment of 300 kilos - a good return in anyone’s books.

Reducing hunger and poverty

While visitors can struggle to breathe in the high-altitude hills of East Africa, the Irish potatoes thrive thousands of feet above sea level and amid droughts. In 2019, Concern received confirmation of the success of these spuds in the long-term: Growing from 16 adventurous farmers, the programme has helped to reduce the hunger crisis in parts of South Wollo. A joint UN/Ethiopian government report determined that four districts in the region were no longer in “immediate need” of humanitarian assistance. 

This dramatic improvement is the first of its kind since the hunger “hotspot classification” measurement system was introduced in 2000. And with a drop in food shortages, we also see an improvement in the local economy. 

Barley in South Wollo fetches 6,400 Ethiopian Birr (€113) for every 2.5 acres. The same area’s equivalent of potatoes can sell for up to 62,000 Ethiopian Birr (€1,100), nearly 10 times the return.

"We were eating two meals a day for 6 months and going hungry for the other half of the year. Now we have three meals a day, every day of the year."

Ali Assen - Farmer, Concern Agriculture programme participant

The numbers that really matter

While the entire region is reaping the rewards, for Ali the big numbers pale in comparison to those that hit closer to home. 

“We lived in a one-room hut. Now we live in a two-floor house,” he says, gesturing to where the family hut still stands. His profits from potato sales have empowered him to buy one ox, two cows, three horses, and a herd of goats.

They’ve also helped Ali’s family - his wife and two daughters - live better and healthier lives with a more nourishing and diverse diet. “We were eating two meals a day for 6 months and going hungry for the other half of the year,” he says of their time before growing potatoes. “Now we have three meals a day, every day of the year."

By the time he’s finished telling his story, Ali has one more thing: a very big, very well-earned smile.

Ethiopian farmer Ali Assan and his family standing outside their home in South Wollo, Ethiopia
Ali says his family no longer face a “hunger gap” as a result of his successful potato farming, and they have bought livestock and built a new home with their profits. (Photo: Kieran McConville)

Hunger in Ethiopia: The facts and the future

  • Since this story was originally published on Concern US’s website, Ethiopia has become one of the countries at the epicentre of a drought in the Horn of Africa, the worst of its kind in 40 years
  • As of March 2023, the World Food Programme estimates that 20.4 million Ethiopians are hungry - more than a 150% increase in three years
  • 11.9 million of those Ethiopians are facing hunger due to the Horn of Africa drought
  • Inflation (driven in part by the conflict in Ukraine) has led to the cost of a food basket in Ethiopia rising by 66% in 2022
  • 80% of Ethiopia’s rural population depend on rain-fed agriculture, but the country is particularly vulnerable to weather-related shocks

The good news, as seen in stories like Ali’s, is that humanitarian aid works. While a significant portion of the population still remains vulnerable to climate shocks, conflict, and hunger, childhood mortality and stunting have both declined substantially over the past seven years. In 2000, the country had a 52% undernourishment rate, which by 2020 had dropped to 25%. At its lowest, in 2016, it was just 14%.  

Concern has been in Ethiopia since we responded to the country’s 1973 famine, and has seen firsthand the transformations in hunger and poverty over the last four decades. Several programmes across the country, including nutrition and livelihoods support, have helped decrease the population of Ethiopians living below the poverty line by 2.4 million in just 5 years, bringing us closer to helping the country meet its goal of having fewer than 3% of its population living below the poverty line by 2029.

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