APRA at the EEA Conference: Analysing the Importance of Rice to the Ethiopian Economy

APRA engagement at the 17th Ethiopian Economics Association (EEA) Conference on the Ethiopian Economy

The Ethiopia Team of the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) Programme of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC) participated in the 17th International Conference of the Ethiopian Economics Association (EEA) on the Ethiopian Economy. The conference was held from July 18 to 20, 2019 at the EEA’s Multi-Purpose Building Conference Hall in Addis Ababa. The conference was attended by senior government officials and more than 1,000 members of the EEA, as well as representatives of numerous international research and development organisations. There were five plenary sessions and multiple panel sessions, covering 56 presentations.

The second day plenary session was devoted to APRA research in Ethiopia with the title, The Importance of Rice, its Commercialisation and Future Perspectives. The plenary was organised into three presentations, which was followed by a lively panel discussion with active engagement of participants. This blog aims to highlight some of the key messages of the three presentations and summary of issues discussed during the panel discussion.

The three presentations were: (i) The Importance of the Rice Sector in Ethiopia: Commercialisation, Emerging Challenges and Opportunities; (ii) Trends and Prospects of Rice Commercialisation and the Changing Labour Market: The Case of the Fogera Plain in Ethiopia; and (iii), Rice Commercialisation and Agrarian Change in the Fogera Plain of Ethiopia.

The first presentation was made by John Thompson and the key messages were:

  • Ethiopia is endowed with huge potential for rice production – both rain-fed and irrigated conditions.
  • However, demand for rice is growing rapidly and outstripping domestic supply forcing the country to import.
  • Farmers can respond to these market opportunities – i.e. to ”step up” and ”step out” – with the right investments and technical support though the rate of increase in domestic production is lower by far than imports.
  • Thus, Ethiopia will have to continue to rely on imported rice to fill the “gap” for the near future – which currently costs the economy roughly US$ 200 million per year.
  • There is an urgent need to strengthen R&D capacity to transform the rice value chain – improving productivity, access to finance and inputs, and processing to produce quality rice in greater quantities
  • Building partnerships with other rice producing countries Africa and Asia – South-South exchanges – and key international organisations can accelerate this process.
  • The pursuit of rice self-sufficiency should be viewed as part of a larger goal of achieving food and nutrition security through a diversified and integrated food and agricultural strategy.

The second presentation on rice commercialisation and the changing labour market in the Fogera Plain was made by Agajie Tesfaye, who argued that:

  • Expansion of rice production and the growth of the labour market in Fogera are interdependent.
  • The increased commercialisation of rice has contributed to the emergence of dynamic labour market in creating job opportunities and increasing livelihood security in the area, particularly for unemployed and under-employed youth plus resource-poor households.
  • The availability of abundant agricultural labour has also allowed rice farmers to intensify their production and expand their operations, as most tasks – planting, weeding, harvesting, threshing – are still done by hand. It has also allowed them to diversify their production into pulses and horticultural crops for market, thus improving their incomes.
  • The rice commercialisation and the labour market are expected to co-exist in the short run. However, it is anticipated that the labour availability will decline over the next two decades as labourers opt for urban/industrial employment.
  • This calls for investments in the development of labour-saving technologies to compensate the shortage and/or increased labour cost.
  • Significant research and extension efforts will be required to identify, test and support the use of appropriate rice mechanisation technology and services.
  • Technical training and advisory support will also need to be provided to youth groups or other private actors to enable them to provide rice mechanisation services to local farmers for planting, weeding, harvesting and threshing.

The third presentation was made by Dawit Alemu who made the following observations:

  • Five main agrarian changes in Fogera linked with rice commercialisation were identified by APRA researchers: (i) dynamics in farming systems; (ii) land tenure changes; (iii) the emergence of labour market facilitating job opportunities; (iv) dynamism in rural–urban linkages and the emergence of a growing rice processing industry; and, (v) changes in consumption patterns and dietary diversity.
  • For Ethiopia, rice is not only about food security but also import substitution and economic opportunities (from “hanging-in” to “stepping-up” and “stepping-out”).
  • The observed agrarian changes were not induced by external interventions from public programmes or outside actors, but mainly driven by farmer-led innovations.
  • Key challenges were: (i) increased rice mono-cropping – affecting soil fertility and its management; (ii) higher pressure on the livestock sector given the expansion of rice production into former grazing lands; and, (iii) the inefficiency of the processing technology limiting the competitiveness of domestic rice to imports.
  • Thus, it will be important to: (i) ensure the sustainable production system including shift from extensive to intensive livestock production; (ii) integration of rice with livestock production, particularly in the former grazing areas; and, (iii) the scaling out of rice production to other potential areas of the country.

The key questions raised by conference participants during the panel discussion were:

  • The decline in the importance of the livestock sector – especially the Fogera cattle breed, due to competition with rice production – is an important challenge. This implies the need for a shift from extensive livestock production system to a more intensive one (e.g. zero grazing). What is required to shift to intensive livestock production?
  • What are the impacts of increased rice consumption and the change of farming systems on the nutritional status of the farming communities?
  • Promotion of commercial rice farming in Ethiopia has been there since the colonial era but all these initiatives were not successful. What are the main reasons behind these past failures and what lessons can be learnt from these?
  • What are the critical factors behind the successful expansion of rice on the Fogera Plain, which has transformed the area from a food insecure region into one with relatively high levels of production, increasingly secure livelihoods and a vibrant local economy?
  • Although Ethiopia has a national rice research and development strategy, what are the key activities on the ground that are being promoted, especially in the area of extension and technical support and increasing investment?
  • How is the seasonality of labour linked with the increased labour market in the Fogera Plain?
  • How can the poor quality of domestic rice be improved to ensure its competitiveness with imported rice?

The Q&A session ended with a clear agreement that rice is an understudied, but an increasingly important staple crop and strategic commodity for Ethiopia. Participants expressed their support for the increasing investments that the government and its national and international partners are planning in rice research and development. Participants then expressed encouragement that the APRA team to continue their research into the changing dynamics, challenges and opportunities facing the rice sector in the country.

Written by: Dawit Alemu, John Thompson and Agajie Tesfaye

Photo credit: John Thompson