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Ethiopia's poor turn to potatoes in quest for food security

 Freshly dug up potato plant Ethiopia (Wageningen UR)
October 23, 2013
Dessie Zuria is one of the most critically food insecure woredas (districts) in Ethiopia. About 90% of the population is dependent on rain-fed agriculture in the area, where drought is a perennial problem. The high altitude (upwards of 2,400m) restricts the crops that can be grown, and farmers have been reduced to growing a single staple – barley.

The majority of the area's craggy, mountainous terrain is not suitable for agriculture, and soil degradation has reduced the productivity of much of the remaining land. Unsurprising, the local population is highly susceptible to water shortages, and the rate of chronic malnutrition – a staggeringly high 54% – is 10% above the national average.

However, the humble potato – previously unknown in this region of Ethiopia – is helping to transform the lives of thousands of the poorest farmers.

Related Research by Wageningen UR: Potato prospects for Ethiopia: on the road to value addition

"I was dependent on barley, which is highly vulnerable to the shortage of rain, and my income was very, very minimal,"explained Seid Muhie, 30, a farmer from Dessie Zuria's Gelsha kebele parish. "I was ready to sell my land, settle in a nearby town and become a day labourer. But after growing potatoes, I changed my plans."

Muhie was only able to grow 75kg of barley a year on his 1.5 hectare (4.05 acre) plot of land, earning just 450 birr ($24). He found it difficult to support his family. But four years ago, with the help of the NGO Concern Worldwide, he started planting potatoes.

"The harvest was very good. I produced 40 50kg sacks of potatoes from the same plot of land, and I sold them for 170 birr each sack. I was surprised by the income that I could get from the potatoes,"Seid said.

In 2007, Concern started a potato pilot project with just 16 households. The yields from that first season were high, and soon the charity was inundated with requests for seed potatoes. So far 10,000 farmers in Dessie Zuria have benefitted from the project, and the woreda administration has rolled the programme out to a further 7,000 smallholders.
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