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Meet the Team Re-Imagining Food Security in Ethiopia

In conversation with Dr Tomaso Ceccarelli and Dr Elias Eyasu Fantahun — winners of the 2019 Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security.

The innovation co-led by Dr Tomaso Ceccarelli of Wageningen Environmental Research and Dr Elias Eyasu Fantahun of Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia will transform productivity and drastically improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in food-insecure areas across the country. I spoke with them to learn more.

In a nutshell, what is the innovation?

Innovation Mapping for Food Security, or IM4FS, is a landscape mapping approach that will combine data and information from local stakeholders to recommend ‘best-fit’ combinations of crops, farming practices and conditions. Farmers can then implement these changes, with support from local planners or extension workers, to help them reach their full yield potential and boost food security in the region.

IM4FS builds on the strength of the CASCAPE project — which combines data, GIS mapping and stakeholder engagement for improved agricultural productivity. IM4FS takes all of this but enhances it with a scenario-planning functionality vital for addressing food-insecure areas. This brings a more dynamic and interactive tool to provide simulations and aid stakeholder engagement.

Does anything like IM4FS already exist?

We believe that both CASCAPE and IM4FS are unique. If you consider the existing approaches to land evaluation, they do not typically introduce stakeholder engagement at various stages to inform and validate the proposed actions. This information gathered from farmers, extension workers and other local experts — on current conditions, challenges and expectations — is combined with social, economic and environmental data and fed into the GIS-based tool to produce the ‘recommendation maps.’

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The mapping model is also unique because it is dynamic. Through the IM4FS user interface, the best-fit recommendations can respond to the specific information or questions fed into it, making it a valuable scenario-planning tool for these stakeholders. They can simulate which interventions should be done in which regions, and how — for instance, where the most suitable areas and conditions exist in the country to introduce malt barley and the necessary fertilizer or infrastructure requirements.

Image credit: Olam

Plugging Ethiopia’s ‘yield gap’ is the rationale behind this agricultural innovation — can you tell us more?

Ethiopia has the potential to be self-sufficient, but because of various constraints —especially poor farming practices, low-quality seeds, pest and disease, and inefficiencies — productivity is poor and the country relies heavily on food imports. This is absurd when you think the country is the second-largest in Africa for arable land and has the potential to be self-sufficient.

What is promising is the Ethiopian government’s target to double productivity, but its policies apply to the whole country. The huge diversity — climate, geological and social — means that change needs to happen at the regional level. For example, a farming practice that works for one farmer may not work for another; and a certain crop variety that’s suited to a particular location won’t grow in different soil conditions elsewhere. This is where we come in — with a solution involving local stakeholders to shape specific agricultural innovations for a given area.

What does this mean for the smallholders who need to implement these new crop varieties and practices?

Improving food security means making sure it’s available at household level. We are targeting this innovation in areas where millions of farmers rely on food hand-outs, but with the right agricultural interventions, could be self-sufficient.

Since we began the CASCAPE programme in 2016, this evidence-based approach to applying best-fit combinations of crop and farming practices has tripled wheat yields and doubled yields of teff and faba bean. For faba bean — an important and often only protein source for these farmers — the increase is mainly because we’ve been able to identify the need for and introduce more disease-resistant varieties.

For the 200,000 farmers currently involved in the programme, these increases mean they can now grow sufficient food to feed their families and earn a living.

Image credit: Olam

How do you feel about winning the Prize?

This is the result of many years of hard work, and it gives us a great morale boost to continue working with farmers who are struggling and help them reach their potential.

It is really motivating to work with local researchers and other parties to develop smart solutions to tackle something as devastating as hunger. Now we have the opportunity, thanks to the Olam Prize, to strengthen this link between researchers and regional planners, so we can reach many more farmers with this mapping in other food-insecure regions of the country.

What are your plans for the funding?

IM4FS will take these “best-fit practices” and scale them up in food-insecure areas, making them work for many more farmers.

We’ll use the Prize to roll-out the mapping at a regional level, hosting stakeholder workshops and in-situ data collection by extension workers and other local staff. This will help strengthen engagement between our researchers, planners and farmers. It will also fund the development of the GIS-based tool behind IM4FS, to make it more dynamic so it can generate quantitative information — like specific limitations (poor soil quality, access to inputs); the required measures to overcome these (fertilizers, rural infrastructure); and expected volumes, once the correct interventions are applied.

With this functionality, our aim is for regional stakeholders — government institutions, local planners — to use IM4FS for scenario planning, to scale up agricultural innovations across the country to solve food insecurity and improve livelihoods.