Tigray Project - Composting in Ethiopia

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"The godfather of the Tigray Project"
Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher,

Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher,
"The godfather of the Tigray Project"

Tigray, with the state capital Mekelle town, is the Northernmost of Ethiopia’s federal states. Here something unique is said to have taken place, a project called The Tigray Project – an experiment in sustainable development and ecological land management.

It all started when some people in the region started to ask the question whether industrial agriculture could continue feeding the world for the coming 10,000 years and more.

This question emerged from a growing realisation that the green revolution might not have been so green after all. A large proportion of the world’s agricultural landscapes has become steadily degraded through the pressure of intensive, pesticide- and chemical fertiliser based monocultures that produce agricultural commodities and industrial livestock for global markets.

On the other hand, the question of whether organic agriculture can produce as much food as industrial agriculture is also legitimate. Visionary environmentalist Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, “the godfather of the Tigray Project”, says it can:

Organic farming, I am sure, will feed the world. I am also sure that unless organic farming re-expands, the human component of the world will eventually shrink. Interestingly, the Tigray project has taken place in the place where a “biblical famine” occurred only a generation ago. This is one of the poorest regions of the country with depressing figures for child mortality, education, access to healthcare and life expectancy. In the midst of all this a group of people in 1995, lead by Dr. Tewolde, started to design the unique project in order to improve the productivity of the land and rehabilitate the environments of poor farmers in marginal areas. For his work to promote sustainable agriculture, Dr. Tewolde has been awarded many prestigious prizes, like the United Nations’ Champion of the Earth Award and the Right Livelihood Award.

Eight positive outcomes reported from the Tigray Project

1. Increased yields and productivity of crops

2. Decreased vulnerability to droughts/pests

3. Decreased dependence on fossil fuel input

4. Raised water tables

5. Improved soil fertility

6. Rehabilitation of degraded land

7. Increased incomes

8. Empowerment of women

Promising for poor farmers
Today the project is run by the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD), the Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resources (BoANR), the Mekelle University, the local communities and the local administration. As Tewolde himself expresses it, the project’s intention is to “bolster rather than shunt the natural cycles that improve the functioning of the ecosystem as a whole, including those parts of it that are not cultivated”. This is because wild species in and around fields provide ecosystem services like pollination of crops, control of pests and cycling of water and nutrients. 

When people ask Tewolde if this can really be done, he simply answers: “Previous farming communities have been doing it for thousands of years. With our increased knowledge, we should do better than they had done”.

The poor farmers in the project have obtained very promising results by applying a number of sustainable farming techniques, including composting, crop diversification and rainwater harvesting. Among the positive outcomes are increased yields, raised water tables and empowerment of women (see box).

These management changes would not have been possible without reviving the local community organisation, says Sue Edwards, the current Director of the ISD in the capital city Addis Ababa:

Mama Yuannisu with her fruit garden is one of the women who have benefited from the Project. Photo: J. Lundberg

    – Removing small-holder farmers from the production system is not the way to go. If you are going to go organical small-holders are much more sophisticated than the large-scale systems.
    Sue Edwards is a taxonomic botanist, teacher and science editor by profession, and one of the key stewards of the project today.
    She often emphasises another key aspect to understand the success of the Tigray project: the role of women. The region has an unproportionally large number of women-headed families as a consequence of the many years of civil war. As women are traditionally not allowed to plough their own fields and have to wait for a male neighbour or relative to handle the plough oxen they often suffer from delayed sowing and shorter growing periods. The project has therefore worked to empower women and has in particular encouraged them to raise seedlings of long season crops (finger millet, sorghum, maize) to be planted out when the rains start, rather than sowing seeds in the field that require a longer growing season. This is also beneficial from another perspective: to meet the challenge of a steadily more unpredictable rainy season due to climate change.

Use of compost key aspect
The use of compost is, however, by many seen as the most crucial aspect behind the success of the project. The yields from compost have been shown to be comparable or higher than those from chemical fertilizers. The ISD staff have identified a number of other positive effects of using compost, including: increased biodiversity; reduced weed loads; decreased vulnerability to droughts; increased resistance to pest and lower costs for farmers than buying chemical fertilizers. Altogether, the Tigray Project clearly shows that organic farming can indeed give better yields than chemically based farming, even in a degraded mountainous environment.

The Tigray Project

Sue Edwards reports on a project that could launch Ethiopia on her way to self-sufficiency.

A complete version of this article with diagrams and table is available in the ISIS members site. Full details here

"Is there sufficient biomass in Ethiopia to make adequate quantities of compost?" This is the question most often raised whenever there is any suggestion that Ethiopia could use organic principles to increase crop yields.

In 1995, Dr Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, on behalf of the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD), was asked by some government officials to design a project that could be promoted with farmers of poor and marginal areas in order to improve the productivity of their land and rehabilitate their environments. The project started in 1996 under the supervision of the Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resources (BoANR) of Tigray. The other partners in the project are Mekele University, the local communities and their local administration.

Project activities in four communities were established in 1996/97 and 1997/98. After 2000, the project was extended to 11 other communities, with more than 634 people now participating. Much effort has been made to include households headed by women in the project because these are generally among the poorest of the poor in their villages.

Since 2002, the BoANR has been promoting the compost-making ‘package’- trench bunding and planting multipurpose trees, particularly Sesbania - in over 90 communities within 25 Woredas (administrative districts) in the more marginal areas of the Region.

In November 2001, ISD had some preliminary yield data showing the positive effects of using compost (first reported in SiS 16).

More data on yields were collected in 2002, and these were equally impressive. Compost generally gave the highest yields, often out-performing chemical fertilizers, in a variety of crops and over the entire range of ecosystems from the moister areas in Southern Tigray with fertile alluvial soil, to the deforested Central Zone with moderate rainfall, and the arid Eastern Zone with poor, thin sandy soil (see below).

As each community grows a different mix of crops types and varieties, only the data that could be compared are presented. It should be noted that 2002 was a drought year, and many crops failed altogether. For example, only Adi Gua’edad and Adibo Mossa had successful harvests of faba bean; field pea only in Adibo Mossa; and finger millet only in Guroro and Adi Nifas. In years with better rainfall, most communities would grow at least one pulse crop.

Comparing yields

An important feature of the Tigray Project is that it is to a large extent led by the farmers. They choose which crops to treat with compost and which with chemical fertilizer. Sampling was done with the farmers. Fields were designated/chosen with the farmers and 3 one-meter square plots were cut and threshed, and the straw and grain weighed separately with the farmers.

Each figure presented in the table is the average from several fields of the same crop variety in the same area given the same treatment. ‘Check’ means the field received no treatment in 2002, although it may have received compost in one or more previous years. ‘Compost’ is for fields treated with mature compost. The rates of application range from around 50 q/ha (1 quintal = 100 kg, hence 50 q can be represented as 5000 kg) in poorly endowed areas, such as the dry Eastern Zone of the Region (Zeban Sas and Gu’emse), to around 150 q/ha in the moister Southern Zone (Adibo Mossa). ‘Chemical fertilizer’ is for fields treated with DAP (diammonium phosphate) and urea. The recommended rates are 100 kg/ha of DAP, and 50 kg/ha of urea.

The original data were collected site by site, but here they have been compiled by crop: figures 1-4 for maize, tef, wheat and barley, respectively. Table 1 gives the yields for faba bean, field pea and finger millet for 2002 with yields for 1998/99 for the Southern Zone included for comparison.

Figure 1. Maize yields in 5 sites

Figure 2. Tef yields in 8 sites.

Figure 3. Wheat yields in 6 sites.

Figure 4. Barley yields in 6 sites.

Table 1: Yields (q/ha) for faba bean, field pea and finger millet in 4 sites; 
1998 compared with 2002.

The farmers’ experience

As the data show, yield increases whenever compost is applied. The yields from compost are comparable, and higher than those from chemical fertilizer. Farmers who have learnt how to make and use compost effectively are not interested in continuing to use chemical fertilizer, i.e. they have willingly withdrawn the use of chemical fertilizer without any loss in production. Some farmers are even making their own observations on comparing compost with animal dung and/or chemical fertilizer.

It is interesting that the yields of the check and composted crops (maize, wheat, barley, field pea and faba bean) in Adibo Mossa in the Southern Zone show little difference. The farmers here apply about 150 q/ha of compost to their fields, the highest rate of any of the sites. It is possible that the soil is sufficiently rehabilitated (since 1998) to give good yields without compost being applied every year.

Farmers, development agents, and ISD staff have identified the following as the positive effects of using compost:

  • Yields as good and often better than those from using chemical fertilizer
  • Maintaining or increasing agro-biodiversity
  • Reduced weed loads in composted fields
  • Increased moisture retention capacity of soil
  • Plants grown with compost more resistant to pest and disease than crops treated with chemical fertilizer.
  • Compost has a residual effect on soils; farmers do not need to apply compost each year
  • Farmers have been able to get out of debt from buying chemical fertilizer
  • Foods made from composted grain have a better flavour than foods made from crops treated with chemical fertilizer

Some farmers diversified their production once the quality of their land improved. For example, one farmer in Adi Nifas now regularly plants vegetables, particularly tomato and chilli pepper in his tef field. These do not interfere with the tef, maturing after the grain is harvested and bringing the farmer additional income.

In Adi Nifas, where the main gullies and hillside were treated with check dams at the start of the project, the stream from the hillside now holds water all year round, and several farmers downstream have developed irrigated vegetable production after they harvested their grain crops. They are able to regularly get two crops a year.

Many farmers have also started to plant fruit trees, both around their homesteads and in rehabilitated gullies.

Note: The data from the Tigray project were collected by Arefaine Asmelash and Hailu Araya, and analysed and compiled by Hailu Araya, Sustainable Community Development Team Leader in ISD.

Click on Links Below!
Ecology, Culture & Composting project in Ethiopia

The Tigray Experience & the power of composting & soil development

Healing the Earth an Ethiopian Success Story

Farmers Stop Using Fertilizers & Still Get Good Yield!

Reversing Land Degradation

Culture as an Expression of Ecological Diversity

From Famine to Bread Basket!

"Our pathway must be up through the soil,
up through swamps,
up through forests,
up through streams and rocks,
up through commerce, education, and religion!
In my opinion, we cannot begin at the top to build a house.  
If we try to do this, we shall reap in the end the fruits of our folly".

Booker T. Washington

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