Toby visits Ethiopia as patron of the Send a Cow charity, and learns crucial lessons about third-world crop growing
ETHIOPIA isn’t what I expected. But then, before flying, my only research was recalling the Band Aid video from the 1980s – and while there are acacia-tree dotted deserts, they only cover a fifth of the country.
I’m in the Central Plateau, a vast area bigger than France and 2,000m (6,562ft) above sea level, travelling south along the Rift Valley. The soil is fertile, paprikared and volcanic. Combined with the moisture of the three-month rainy season, it produces lush, leafy growth and the potential to grow a wide range of crops.
Traditionally, farmers have raised taro, maize and sweet potatoes but the small, half-hectare scale of plots means these low-value crops are insufficient to feed families year-round. Added to this, war, famine and disease all mean that growing skills have been lost. This is where the work of Send a Cow comes in – a charity for which I’m proud to be a patron and why I’m bouncing along dirt tracks in a 4X4, meeting smallholders and their families.
By switching to what the Ethiopians charmingly call ‘Irish potatoes’, beetroot, cabbage and carrots – vegetables that are nutritious and that people want to buy – their lives have been transformed. Families are fed, and there’s surplus to sell at the market, and time and again the farmers have told me they use the cash to send their children to school. It really is that simple and that inspirational.
The lessons aren’t one way, either. Compost-making is something that experienced Ethiopian growers have turned into a fine art (see below). The magic is all in the stacking and creating the heap in one go so the different layers react with one another. Add the Ethiopian sunshine, and crumbly compost can be ready in as little as 21 days!
Ethiopian farmers cope well with extreme weather and techniques such as interplanting perennial veg with other leaves. Using leafy mulches will work for us, too – especially as our climate changes and gets less predictable. More on that next week…
“Families are fed, and there’s surplus to sell at the market”
Cultivating new potatoes (or ‘Irish potatoes’, as they are known locally), lives have been transformed Potato fields being tended by Ethiopian farmers Fertile, volcanic Ethiopian soil