Very old forest gardens are stopping hunger in Ethiopia

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Very old forest gardens are stopping hunger in Ethiopia


In Ethiopia’s green southern highlands they have a very good agroforestry farming system. It uses trees, shrubs, and crops together. OLIVIER BOURGUET/ALAMY

Tesfa-Alem Tekle travels to meet the Ethiopian farmers. Their agroforestry system has fed the people of the southern highlands for thousands of years. And it has protected against Covid-19.

We drive along a dirt road up into the hills towards Gedeo in southern Ethiopia. The forest is now thicker and the air is more humid. I open the window, close my eyes, and smell the fresh, sweet air.

I am going to the district of Bule, the home of the Gedeo people. They have their own agroforestry on their land. The United Nations says that nearly eight million people in Ethiopia do not have enough food. There is a lot of poverty in Gedeo, but they always have enough food. To understand this, I’ve come to meet Aster Gemede, 32 years old, a farmer, and a mother of six children. She comes to the door of her compound, with three daughters and a small dog. She welcomes me with a warm smile and one of her elder daughters starts to roast coffee beans.

‘We grow it here in our yard,’ says Aster. ‘We plant coffee in our home gardens with food like enset (they sometimes call it ‘fake banana’), cabbage, potatoes, maize, and carrots.’

Trees, shrubs, and crops cover over 95 per cent of the land in Gedeo. It runs along the eastern edge of Ethiopia’s southern highlands, 370-kilometres from the capital Addis Ababa.

Its farming system supports wildlife such as the black and white Mantled Colobus monkeys. We see them on the way to Aster’s farm in the tops of tall trees.


No need for aid

‘For my family, hunger is never a problem,’ Aster says. ‘We are different from other areas, we never needed aid.’ She says that her garden gives all her children a very good diet.

Data from the local agriculture office shows this is true. There is a lot of serious undernourishment in southeastern Ethiopia. But the data says Bule district has enough food. The office says that Gedeo never had famine. It is one of the few places not to have famine. But serious hunger and drought spread to southern Ethiopia in the 1980s. I asked about Covid-19 and if it has affected her family, Aster says, ‘Not at all’.

Aster has no education. Her parents taught her the traditional farming system in their back yard as a young teenager: how to water seeds in a nursery, plant trees, and weed. She is now teaching her own children. During the last rainy season, Aster’s eldest daughter, 14-year-old Meseret Ayano, planted 11 fruit trees. They will start giving fruit in about 6 to 7 years. Then Meseret might start her own family.

They have passed agroforestry from generation to generation in Gedeo since Neolithic times. It is one of the oldest farming systems in the world. The system continues in an area with the highest rural population density in Ethiopia, 1,300 people per square kilometre. It doesn’t degrade the land and sustains great diversity. A study from Gedeo’s Kochore district found 165 plant species in and around home gardens. In Gedeo culture, they see nature as a link between God (magenno) and humans and so it needs respect. They believe that cutting down young trees and killing birds is wrong. Some areas of the forest are sacred and some have megalithic monuments. They are homes to biodiversity. There are large and very old species of trees that are seriously in danger in other places.

Enset, an excellent plant


Women in Bule collect produce from their home gardens. This gives food, animal food, firewood, medicines, and wood. TESFA-ALEM TEKLE/

Before I arrived, Aster and her daughters cooked kocho. It is a baked flat-bread made from the enset plant. Aster tells me enset products can last for months or even up to 10 years underground.

The enset is a big source of food in Bule and across large parts of southern Ethiopia. The tree takes four years to mature. Then it gives 40 kilograms of food. So they plant them not at the same time but now and then.

‘Kocho is our main meal. We have it with cabbage for lunch,’ Aster says. For breakfast this morning they had bulla, a porridge made from the liquid from enset after grating and chopping the stem.

‘It’s hard work,’ says Aster, ‘but it brings many benefits to our family.’ They also eat chickens, for their meat and eggs, and Aster’s mango and apple trees. Farms at lower altitudes also grow avocados, bananas, and pineapples. The home garden also gives them fuel, animal food, wood and keeps the fertility of the soil.

They sell any extra food, fuel, or wood for cash. Women in Bule play an important role in managing home garden agroforestry and they sell their produce. ‘Every two weeks I go to a nearby market to sell our home garden products such as coffee and fruits,’ says Aster. She also sells enset fibre to factories for industrial use.

Aster can meet all her family’s needs on very small land – less than 0.5 hectare (a little over half a football pitch). The secret is that each plant supports the other. So, for example, the baker tree (millettia ferruginea) is good for improving soil fertility They grow it next to enset and coffee plants for its shade. The baker tree loses its small leaves just as coffee fruits appear, to help them ripen. Aster’s daughter, Meseret, has now roasted the coffee beans and serves us the aromatic organic coffee, with fresh flatbread made from enset.

The problems of a cash crop

The next day I travel to Wondo Genet, in the neighbouring area of Sidama. There farmers have stopped agroforestry and grow khat, a mild stimulant. People in East Africa chew it.

In Mola Wondumu’s house, they are not happy. For the last 16 years, the 58-year-old farmer tells me, his family has depended only on khat. It was a good cash crop. Yearly incomes for some farmers increased by more than 400%. But in 2020 a new pest ruined the plants. ‘My income is now half,’ he says. ‘I’m not getting enough to feed my family and pay my children’s school fees.’

At the same time the cost of food has increased. ‘Since Covid-19, food prices have gone up in the markets and we can’t afford to buy our main food,’ he says. He says that many families in Wondo Genet have to buy agroforestry produce as it is cheaper.

‘The pest problem in Wondo Genet area is becoming a big problem for khat farmers,’ says Beyene Teklu, assistant professor at the nearby Hawassa University. ‘At the moment it is very difficult to name the type of pest – is it fungal, bacterial, or viral?’

Beyene’s team will soon begin research into the pest but it is unlikely they will publish their findings until later in 2021. And at the same time Mola’s family might go hungry.

Many Ethiopian farmers have changed to ‘monocropping’ (growing one crop year after year on the same land). In Gedeo, they are starting to grow more khat and coffee and not enset and coffee. This leaves people in danger.

It is difficult now for agroforestry to grow enough for the increasing population. In Gedeo the population has increased from 800,0000 ten years ago to about1.5 million today. As they divide farms for their children, there is less and less land.

To the rescue?


Farmers in neighbouring Sidama have cleared the forest to plant khat, a good cash crop. But a pest and Covid-19 means they may not have enough food. TESFA-ALEM TEKLE /

Ethiopia’s agroforestry specialists say help is needed so they do not lose the very old agroforestry system.

Tesfaye Abebe is professor of Agroforestry and Production Ecology at Hawassa University. Professor Tesfaye believes one solution is for government programmes to help farmers plant higher-value coffee. They grow it in the southern highlands and it is 30 per cent of national output. They can sell speciality coffee for hundreds of dollars per kilogram in the capital.

Many ideas include bringing modern science to support Gedeo’s farmers. There are ideas to introduce higher yielding crops, new fruit and vegetable varieties, and training for farmers.

‘If we work together, I’m sure we can improve the livelihoods of local communities,’ says Teshome Tesema, an adviser at the Ethiopian Environment and Forest Research Institute. One hopeful development is the Ethiopian government taking the first step towards getting UNESCO to recognise Gedeo as a World Heritage Site.

With the possible future environmental problems, Teshome believes improved agroforestry may be the best future hope for millions of farmers across Ethiopia. ‘It will be a long process but we can do it,’ he says.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)