Fighting hunger in Ethiopia — the Irish way

May 19, 2016
Written by Kieran McConville
Photo by Kieran McConville

Concern’s Irish-born roving reporter Kieran McConville meets a man growing something very close to Kieran’s heart: potatoes. Find out how the humble spud is transforming lives in the Ethiopian highlands.

Dawudo, South Wollo, Ethiopia

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?” He nods and laughs, obviously enjoying himself now. “Yes… 6,100 kgs actually.” (That’s almost 7 tons.)

Ali Assen Ali, with two of his daughters, on their potato farm

Ali Assen Ali, with two of his daughters, on their farm 12,000 feet 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

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, surrounded by the familiar foliage of potato plants (familiar to an Irishman, anyway). What’s unusual about this scene is that the staple crop in these parts has always been barley — as far as anyone can remember.

“All the other farmers brought in more than me. I was disappointed,” he says.

This area is prone to climate swings, and drought is a constant enemy. With it comes hunger.

“Barley doesn’t really work well here,” Concern’s Mesafint Melak gasps, as he leads me on the hour-long trek into the thin air of the Ethiopian highlands. “The yield is poor and it’s not very drought-resistant. Potatoes are much better.”

Meet Ali and two of our most enthusiastic field workers!

Find out how Concern is working with farming communities high in the hills of northern Ethiopia, to improve nutrition and help them transform their lives.

Talking up tubers

Persuading a barley farmer — or any farmer for that matter — to change their ways can be (ahem) an uphill struggle. But that’s the challenge Mesafint and his team took on as part of a resilience-focused project run by Concern. “We started off small at first,” he explained. “It wasn’t easy.”

By focusing on the younger generations, they were able to convince 16 farmers to pilot the cultivation of “Irish” potatoes on small plots, nearly 2 miles above sea level. Among them was Ali Assen.

“We were eating two meals a day for six months and going hungry for the other half of the year.”

High on a hillside Ali recalls how he first planted 110 lbs of potato seeds and harvested 660 lbs 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 1,500 lbs. By then he felt like was getting the hang of this whole potato thing and decided to go for broke. The end result was the 6.7 tons of spuds from a 660 lbs seed investment — a darn good return in anyone’s books.

Ali and family farming

After Ali’s third year of farming, he has more than tripled his output of potatoes, producing 6.7 tons last year. Photo: Kieran McConville

Ali’s success has been replicated across the highlands of South Wollo. In 2019, a joint UN/Ethiopian government report determined that four districts in the region were no longer in “immediate need” of humanitarian assistance. That means a decrease in hunger levels and a rise in self sufficiency for farming families. This dramatic improvement is the first of its kind since the hunger “hotspot classification” measurement system was introduced in 2000.

The local economy has benefited too. Barley in the South Wollo fetches 6,400 Ethiopian Birr ($220) for every 2.5 acres. An equivalent area of potatoes can sell for up to 62,000 Ethiopian Birr ($2,150), nearly 10 times the return.

But here are the numbers that really matter…

“We were eating two meals a day for six months and going hungry for the other half of the year. Now we have three meals a day, every day of the year. We lived in a one-room hut — you can see it there. Now we live in a two-floor house. I have an ox, two cows, three horses, and a herd of goats.”

Ali also has a wife, two daughters and, by the time he’s finished telling his story, one very big, very lovely, very well-earned smile.

Ali and his family in front of their new home.

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

  • UNOCHA estimates that 8.12 million Ethiopians are hungry (as of late 2019)
  • 5.91 million Ethiopians need treatment for malnutrition
  • Over 3 million Ethiopians need agriculture support in the face of climate change and resilience
  • 80% of Ethiopia’s rural population depend on rain-fed agriculture, but the country is particularly vulnerable to weather-related shocks
  • High levels of hunger in Ethiopia can be attributed to several factors, most notably drought, regional floods, and high levels of displacement
  • Climate and conflict are both driving refugees and displacement within the country, which in turn affects food security for all

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 2017 had dropped to below 21%.

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 programs across the country, including nutrition and livelihoods support, have helped decrease the number of Ethiopians living below the poverty line by 2.4 million in just 5 years.

Yes, keep me updated about Concern's work