Ethiopia’s agricultural sector is making significant strides toward sustainability by embracing technology. The country is now using satellite and drones to boost food security and enhance agricultural exports. Africa’s second-most populous nation has in the past suffered significant famine but that could be over soon.
At the center of the transformation of Ethiopia’s agricultural sector is 51-year old Khalid Bomba. Bomba is a former analyst at JPMorgan Chase and a former Bill and Melinda Gate Foundation employees. Currently, he is the head of the country’s Agriculture Transformation Agency (ATA). ATA is leveraging satellite and drone technology to boost Ethiopia’s food security prospects.
According to Bomba, Ethiopia’s agricultural sector has been lagging because of the failure to adopt the technology. However, that is likely to change in the next 20 years. This is because ATA which is a problem-solving organization will identify bottlenecks in the sector and remove them.
The agricultural sector contributes to around 45% of the country’s economy. Similarly, it accounts for around 80% of Ethiopia’s employment. Unfortunately, the country like most African nations still grapples to feed its rapidly growing population estimated to be over 108 million. Also, agricultural production accounts for around three-quarters of Ethiopia’s export earnings.
Agriculture, Ethiopia’s Billion Dollar Industry
Coffee and oilseeds are Ethiopia’s two major agricultural exports. In July 2019, the country earned around $1.2 billion from these agricultural exports. Besides these crops, Ethiopia also exports vegetables and roses as well as tea and wine grapes.
Bomba believes embracing technology in Ethiopia’s agricultural sector can help boost food security. ATA is using satellites and drones to map soils and help farmers to assess conditions of larger crop fields. As a result, farmers will be able to cultivate larger fields by putting their efforts where necessary. Equally, farmers will be able to have a regular overview of the whole crop field.
Alliance for a Green Revolution Africa adviser Nega Wubeneh echoes Bomba’s sentiments about tech in agriculture. To further highlight the burden on the shoulder of Ethiopia’s agriculture sector Wubeneh said,
“The biggest challenge Ethiopia faces now is a very large and growing population, which will keep increasing the demand for food and jobs. Despite the improvements in the productivity of crops, the yields are still below global averages and agronomic potential.”
How ATA is Revolutionizing Ethiopia’s Agricultural Sector
Besides satellites and drones, the ATA is also using toll-free numbers and in-house consultancy to offer farmers help. The use of technology has revolutionized Ethiopia’s agricultural sector and even buyers are making drone-aided purchases.
For instance, a buyer can zoom on the map of Ethiopia and look for a farm by area and crop. Equally the buyer can watch a drone video of the crop to assess its state. If satisfied, the buyer can call the farmer directly to buy the produce. Interestingly small scale farmers are clustered so that they can grow the same crop and employ the same methods.
Regarding the clustering, Bomba said that it’s a way of getting a market for farmers. This is because it is easier to get a market for the crop on a 200 hectares field than a small-sized field. Other crops in large production include corn, barley, wheat, sesame, as well as fruit and horticultural crops. Bomba said the project aims at doubling the income of around 5-million farmers in the next five years.
More Farm Inputs on the Way for Ethiopian Farmers
Also, ATA aims to boost fertilizer use and enhance access to seeds. Consequently, Morocco’s OCP Group will construct a fertilizer plant in the country. The $3.7 billion fertilizer plant will open in 2023.
Fertilizer use by Ethiopian farmers is far below the recommended average per hectare. On average farmers should use 309 pounds (140kg) of fertilizer per hectare. However, according to the World Bank, Ethiopia’s agricultural sector uses a 10th of that. Farmers in neighboring Kenya use an average of 36kg per hectare. This is more than twice of what is obtainable in Ethiopia.
Bomba affirms that they seek to change the perception of people which is mainly the scar from the 1980s famine and drought. He adds that they want to replace that with the notion that Ethiopia’s agricultural sector can be sustainable and can offer food security.