Irish potato success in drought prone Ethiopia

Irish potatoes have prevented another major humanitarian food crisis in one of the poorest and most remote parts of Ethiopia, Concern Worldwide can reveal.

A thriving vegetable

The potato, introduced by the aid agency into the country’s drought-prone northern highland regions of South Wollo in Amhara in 2007, is credited with a major drop in food shortages and improvements in the local economy.

The vegetable is thriving where other crops had failed up to 3,000 metres above sea level where visitors can struggle to breathe.

Concern recently received confirmation of this success when four districts, Dessie Zuria, Tenta, Legambo, and Delanta, which were classed as hunger hotspots, were found by a joint UN/Ethiopian government body to no longer be in immediate need of humanitarian assistance.

Their emergency response priority status dropped from one, meaning the situation is extremely urgent, to the lowest level of three, meaning they require monitoring, but no longer lack enough food for an active and healthy life.

Mehamed Ahimed Ali (15) shows some of the potatoes from his family's successful harvest thanks to Concern. Photo: Jennifer Nolan, Ethiopia, 2017.
Mehamed Ahimed Ali (15) shows some of the potatoes from his family's successful harvest thanks to Concern. Photo: Jennifer Nolan, Ethiopia, 2017.

Incredible success

This dramatic improvement in the four districts where Concern works in South Wollo, with a combined population of over 704,000 people, is the first since this hunger “hotspot classification” measurement system was introduced in 2000.

“This incredible success has broken the cycle of dependence on emergency relief and restored dignity and hope in areas that have been hit by recurrent disasters,” said Concern’s Ethiopia Country Director, Eileen Morrow.

It is very challenging to increase the yield of crops in high altitudes. Very little can thrive at 3,000 metres, but the Irish potato has proven to be a rare exception. When I first visited our projects there in 2016 during a major drought in the country, it was a real surprise to see potatoes growing so successfully at an altitude that had me struggling to breathe.

Eileen said the Irish potato was key to solving the biggest challenge faced by the highland population of Ethiopia.

They began piloting potato production for food 12 years ago with just 16 farmers in the Dessie Zuria district and have since scaled this up to more than 12,000 farmers.

“We improved the varieties of potatoes available – namely Belete, Gudeni, and Jaleni,” said Eileen.

Climate change a massive issue

They have turned out to be very resilient and productive in drought affected highland areas, while other main crop staples like barley withered. Initially, potato farming was a hard sell. Families here were used to eating barley and they were dependent on it for their livelihoods.

We decided to focus on younger generations and eventually we managed to convince 16 youths to pilot potato farming on small plots of land – and now the entire region is reaping the awards. Extremely poor people in the highlands who would normally be experiencing extreme food shortages are instead generating profits and are no longer dependent on the government social protection scheme.

Concern said barley in the region fetches 6,400 Ethiopian Birr (£172) per hectare, while a hectare of Irish potatoes can go for up to 62,000 Ethiopian Birr (£1660).

Eileen said that despite this success, many other parts of Ethiopia are still vulnerable to climate change and this year 8.86 million women, men and children are in need of a humanitarian assistance due to the effects of drought.

“Our experience in South Wollo shows that aid works and can dramatically improve people’s lives.”

The potato, of which there are over a thousand varieties, is the fourth most produced food crop on the planet after rice, wheat and maize.

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