Ethiopia’s prince of potatoes

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.

— REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK —
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.

“Barley doesn’t really work well here,” Concern’s Mesafint Melak huffed and puffed as he led me on the hour-long trek into these hills. “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.

A tough start for tubers

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

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

Up on the hillside Ali Assen 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

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

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