The History of Agriculture in Ethiopia
Abstract and Keywords
Ethiopia’s highlands and their lowland peripheries offer a distinctive and, in many ways, ideal setting for human habitation and the evolution of agricultural ecologies. The ranges in climate variability by season and over time framed a sophisticated set of crops, agricultural practices, and local political ecologies. Chief among these was the development and use of the single-tine ox-plow (i.e., the ard or scratch plow) that integrated endemic annual crops with secondary crop introductions and, in some areas, cultivated or intercropped with perennial crops such as ensete and coffee. Animal husbandry to sustain animal traction and pastoral livelihoods in regional ecologies was essential, over time, to regional economies and their political ecologies.
Agricultural patterns existed at the heart of cultural diversities and periods of political conflict and accommodations. In some areas of the south (Sidamo), southeast (Harar highlands), and southwest (Jimma), coffee cultivation complemented annual grain cropping. Yet the plow in its current form as a dominant tool appears in rock painting dating as far back as 500 ad. That technology was both efficient and persistent.
While Ethiopia’s plow agriculture dominated the region’s political ecology over more than two millennia, in the late 20th century Ethiopia’s agrarian economy began an inexorable set of changes. New crops (such as maize), urbanization, and global migration of peoples and commodities (oil seeds, fibers, and grains) brought new seeds, inputs, and pressures to adapt to change, particularly for smallholder farmers and new enterprises. Heavy investments in dams and irrigated agriculture also foretell new agricultural landscapes of riverain areas that will need to coexist with the classic highland smallholder farms. The story of maize in Ethiopia’s agricultural history is emblematic of the struggle between pressures for change and the inertia of tradition felt by farmers. Their agrarian adaptation to new methods, new materials, and a new climate will play itself out in existing geographies and natural contours.
Ethiopia’s highlands offer a distinctive and, in many ways, ideal setting for human habitation and the historical evolution of agricultural ecologies in varied geographies. For highland people and for historical visitors to Ethiopia, the highlands’ climate, seasonal verdancy, and striking subtropical topographical variation appear in sharp contrast with the hot, semi-arid lowlands surrounding them below the eastern escarpment in the east and southeast, and along the Sudan border to the west. The Ethiopian highlands on which human interaction has taken place over both recent times and the longue durée were composed of extended plateaus broken by sheer escarpments and mountain range exceeding 13,000 feet in elevation. Average elevation in the highlands ranges from 5,900 feet to 9,800 feet. Thus, these local geographies have encouraged agricultural endemism in grain crops (teff, eleusine, oil seeds), and more ground-level bird species than arboreal types. Vegetation regimes and the appearance of highland landscapes vary by the effects of geology, hydrography, and, more profoundly, by the weight of human activity that has disturbed the vegetative cover and the soil beneath it. Grassland and pasture undisturbed by the highlanders’ plow probably historically enjoyed a net balance of seasonal soil loss with new soil formation as volcanic rocks degraded over time. Current estimates of soil loss place the removal by water and wind at 1,493 million metric tons per year—staggering rate, and probably the cumulative effect of cultivation and human management that brought land cover change, exacerbated by the natural effects of seasonal torrents on highland soils.
Interaction of the highlands’ vegetative cover with the predominant ox-plow farming system has brought significant changes. Under the influence of the plow, virtually all of the northern highlands’ dry evergreen forests and grasslands and a large part of the moist evergreen forests have changed to open farmlands and pasture that supports sustainability of the oxen population. The one-time juniperous forest areas of the central and northern highlands perhaps covered as much as 15 percent of Ethiopia, but more recently were the first lands converted to cereal agriculture. Acacia woodlands along the eastern and western escarpments have more recently succumbed to short-fallow cultivation of annual crops adapted to drier conditions—teff and sorghum—and maize where there is sufficient moisture. The interplay of moisture, soil profiles, and farmer experimentation over generations and centuries of farmer practice has resulted in Ethiopia’s highly sophisticated farming systems—systems that incorporated new crops and adapted to new economic cultures and physical conditions, such as climate variation and localized erosion.
Ethiopia’s highland agriculture did not evolve piecemeal, but rather as a system that has wed a primary tool (the single-tine plow), the mastery of training oxen, and a diverse repertoire of annual crops—grains, legumes, and oil seeds. This formula has proved itself a powerful and persistent environmental adaptation that spread across ethnographic boundaries to include Semitic as well as Cushitic (Oromo, Agaw, and Somali) cultures that settled onto highland and mid-altitude areas in the south, southeast, and southwest. From a millennium-long perspective, the single greatest path for the expansion of plow-based agriculture has been its adoption by Oromo speakers between the 16th and early 20th centuries. In the first instance, the Oromo—who arrived in the highlands of eastern Wallo and Tigray, northern Shawa, and as far north as the Lake Tana region—shifted within one or two generations from a pastoral economic culture to one based in annual cropped plow agriculture. To an outside observer, those cultures in their agronomic practices might have seemed homogenous. They were not.
In the densely forested areas of the Gibe River in the southwest, Oromo pastoralists who arrived in the 18th century had already established their own sophisticated ox-plow, cereal-based agriculture by the time the first European observers described that landscape in the mid-19th century. In Hararge, along the ridge of the southeastern highland plateau, pastoral Oromo shifted to agriculture more slowly, learning from Harari town dwellers and finally settling into plow agriculture in the Egyptian period (1875–1885). Plow agriculture on the Somali plateau around Hargeisa began less than a century ago under the influence of British colonial rule and regional market forces. On the northern highlands, for example, around Injebara and Gish Abbay (near the source of the Blue Nile), Agaw farmers have chosen to breed horses as the favored plow animal. Agaw just seem to like horses in their livestock mix.
By the 20th century, northern highland farmers retained the cultural identity of being the consummate people of the plow, even though the majority of modern Ethiopia’s plow agriculturalists in fact lived within the southern highland sweep from Wallaga in the west to Harar in the south. Yet, plow agriculture also existed sporadically alongside agro-pastoral economies on its drier peripheries, especially in the south and southeast.
And plow-based grain agriculture also interacted over time with mixed farm ecologies based on the cultivation of perennial crops like ensete that had existed in northern farms into the 18th century and continues to exist in southern highlands into the 21st century in places like Darasa, Hadiya, Walayta, and areas around Chebo Gurage (around the town of Wolliso in western Shawa). The ancient plant known as Ensete ventricosum (Welw.) Cheesman is still an under-publicized part of Ethiopia’s agricultural landscape. This tall plant with banana-like leaves and a stout corm is the staple food of some 20 million people, for whom it serves as a hedge against famine and a source of fiber, animal fodder, building material, medicine, and food during crisis (which archaeologist Steven Brandt calls the “tree against hunger”). Those farm households that considered ensete central to their identity also cultivated garden maize, collard greens, and other garden crops managed by women.
Reconstructing Seed History in One Case (Ethiopia), 1938–1990
As one of Nikolai Vavilov’s areas of both primary and secondary agricultural innovation in plant genetics, Ethiopia offers a good case study of the historical process of seed dispersal and development. Ethiopia’s case also effectively demonstrates the dynamics of changing of seed patterns with local agro-ecologies in historical contexts and in the rapid adaptations of the late 20th century. The best historical evidence indicates strongly that the bundle of cereal cultigens present in Ethiopia today was also present a century and a half ago. For many years, the conventional wisdom of both academics and agricultural specialists in Ethiopia has held that Ethiopia’s highland farms concentrated primarily on teff, barley, and wheat as the basis of production and local consumption. Other cereals like sorghum, millet, and maize were secondary, though they played a role in farmers’ risk aversion.
Historians of Ethiopia do not have detailed time series data for cropping patterns either for major regions or single localities. Historical records—archives, traveler accounts, and farm interviews—can, however, provide sufficient evidence to reconstruct general patterns. Localized qualitative data on crop patterns for the mid-19th century is also available,1 along with snapshot benchmark data for the year 1938, and again for the more recent period of 1963 to 1983.2 The data drawn from macro-level sources compare in a general way with localized qualitative and quantitative data that in most cases provide details that illuminate the causes and local effects of major statistical trends. At the local level, interviews with farmers, farm-life histories, and participant observation help explain the rationale for seed choices (i.e., market conditions, environment, risk aversion, etc.), and add a nuanced human dimension to long-term patterns while offering a benchmark.
In 1938, an Italian team from the Istituto Agricolo Coloniale in Florence compiled data on cereal production in Italian East Africa (comprising Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somaliland). These data from the following tables, when adjusted for boundary changes, provide a useful metric against which to measure macro-level changes in agricultural production.3
Table 1 Cereal Production in Ethiopia by Grain, 1938.
% of total
Table 2 Regional Distribution of Cereal Production, 1938 (in percentages).
Galla & Sidamo
Overall, these figures probably represent the cropping for cereals through most of the 19th and 20th centuries. They also indicate the wide variation in cropping (seed) choices made by farmers across local agro-ecologies. These patterns were to change—sometimes radically—in the post–World War II era and later as a part of the post 1960 “green revolution.”
The 1938 Italian survey, though helpful, does not offer specific information on the sources of seed or the process of selection. We do know that Italian colonial planners sought to address Italy’s hunger for wheat by importing seed from Italy and Kenya to promote higher yields. The Kenyan seed arrived too late for June sowing, but the fact that Italian officials expected those seeds shows the existence of seed exchanges between regions and colonial networks by the 1930s. The science of seed transfers was in its infancy. The seeds did not work. Italian “improved” seeds, called mentana and quaderna (probably soft bread wheat varieties), failed miserably when they succumbed to the wheat rust Puccinia gramminis. Italian planners quickly reverted to local seeds that Ethiopian farmers had long selected for disease resistance.4
Trends in Cereal Seed/Cropping: Ethiopia, 1963–1990
If colonial seed networks were operating by the 1950s, non-colonial settings, like Ethiopia, were also showing signs of changing seed distribution that underlay changes in cropping patterns. In 1988, Dr. Ian Watt of the Department of Geography of Addis Ababa University compiled data that traced patterns in Ethiopia’s cereal production over the previous three decades.5 These data indicate that the most significant long-term national trends had been the steady decline in barley, a highland crop, which moved from the dominant cereal nationally to third rank, and the increasing role of maize, a mid-altitude crop that had come to dominate southern Ethiopia, and in mid-altitude areas of the north. Highland Ethiopia’s own indigenous cereal, teff, had expanded its strong position and surpassed barley as the major crop in the mid-1960s, probably reflecting both urban tastes and cropping specialization in intense cereal production areas in the highlands.
Table 3 Structure of Rural Cereal Production in Ethiopia, 1961–1984.
Percentage of Total Cereal Production by Year
The overall evidence of changes in cereal cropping patterns and seed types indicates clearly that farmers’ selection of cereal seeds were relatively stable in the short term, but subject to change at a macro-level over the long term. The preliminary data allow identification of specific changes in cropping and permit the examination of possible causes. The introduction of commercial seeds played only a marginal role (e.g., Kenyan Katumane composite maize seed) in national cropping changes.
The major trend in cropping appears to be the shift to lowland and mid-altitude crops both in terms of national percentages and in specific locations. In the first instance, the expansion of cultivation to marginal lowland areas in the past one to two generations probably accounts for the stability of sorghum and the rapid expansion of maize in the national cropping mix. At the same time, maize has expanded because its agronomic characteristics (low labor, short cycle) suited the expansion of coffee cultivation, the need to double-crop on shrinking household plots, and demands for off-farm labor during the socialist period in the 1980s. The negative implications of such seed/cropping trends in Ethiopia—and probably elsewhere in Africa—are not the result of bad decisions by farmers but rather the overall economic and political conditions that threatened food security in an era of sustained drought.
Maize’s Ethiopia Story
Until the 1980s, maize was a minor field crop in Ethiopia and appeared on farms mostly as a garden vegetable consumed green in the “hungry season” (August/September). For this purpose, farmers chose from among an array of early maturing local maize types, the best known of which they called Mareysa, Harer, and Kafa—names that suggest a southern location of seed dispersal for this New World crop. Some of these types probably arrived in Ethiopia via the Nile Valley in the 19th century. Others may have come from U.S. agriculture aid programs of the early 1950s, or have descended from the original imports brought from the New World (via India) by Arab and Banyan (Indian) merchants plying the Red Sea trade in the 16th century. As a house garden crop, these early types of maize assumed their true role as a vegetable and not a grain. Planted with the first rains, these early maturing types tasseled in late June or early July and offered green ears in August and September, welcome snacks for farmers awaiting November/December cereal harvests, or as a complement to ensete or annual sorghum harvests and storage.
In the early 1980s, however, political changes initiated a transformation in Ethiopia’s agrarian economy and agro-ecological balance. Under the socialist military government known as the Derg, grain marketing policy, forced labor, insecurity over land holdings, and government food security programs brought both political disaffection and changes in Ethiopia’s national cropping patterns. Ethiopia’s socialist government saw maize as a high-yielding field crop to replace labor-intensive teff and poor-yielding sorghum. As in the Soviet Union, Ethiopia’s socialist planners saw maize as the ultimate product of an industrialized, scientific agriculture. For their part, farmers saw maize as a low-labor, quicker-maturing crop that provided food in insecure times when the socialist state sought to direct their labor to public works projects or to fix the prices for their other farm produce via state marketing control boards. By the mid-1980s (unbeknownst to most observers), maize had unceremoniously surpassed teff and barley as the major crop produced in Ethiopia (see above). Maize directly superseded sorghum on low- to mid-altitude fields, replaced coffee in some areas of the south, complemented fields of chat in the southeast, and was the primary focus of state farms in the southern and western parts of the country.6 Monoculture maize production lent itself to large farm size, improved inputs, and the mechanization of cultivation/processing. These programs that evolved during the 1980s used primarily open-pollenated maize varieties such as Alemaya Composite and A-511 that farmers could replant from their own fields rather than higher yielding hybrids that were long-maturing and required new seed to be purchased every year. By the mid-1980s, improved open-pollenated maize had also entered Ethiopia’s northern agrarian economy as a major field crop.
In 1995 (after the 1991 fall of the Derg), the Ministry of Agriculture and the non-governmental organization Sasakawa/Global 2000 continued their infatuation with improved types of maize and began a demonstration package program to expand the use of inorganic fertilizers (urea and DAP), improved maize seeds, and agronomic techniques such as early row planting and intense early weeding in high-potential areas to improve national food production. By 1998, maize had reached 32.6 percent of the country’s cereals production, higher than all other grains. Between 1993 and 1998, maize’s area of cultivation increased 79 percent (from 1.99 million acres to 3.58 million acres). In the northwest Amhara region, the adoption rate was higher even than the national rate.
Nationally, the primary thrust on maize variety had been on composites (or open-pollinated varieties), with only a few “hard core” areas aggressively adopting hybrids. Better-watered areas of the northwest and southern highlands were the primary zones to adopt a hybrid variety, BH660. The agronomic personality of this variety—long maturity, high yield, high stover (stalk) yield, and late tasseling—made it wildly popular with farmers but also made it a central feature of the historical conjuncture in Ethiopia.
The expansion of maize within Ethiopia’s farming systems over the final decade and a half of the 20th century has in many areas constituted an agro-ecological sea change in terms of labor calendars, links to national markets, and requirements for inputs (i.e., new seed, fertilizer, and storage). High yields and a new national market link brought new wealth and increasing incentives for farmers to plant more maize on as much land as possible. The result was a bold new landscape that changed the countryside and created new cropland for maize that came right to the doorstep of farm dwellings.
Terms of Change in Maize’s Agro-Ecology
While the new maize package program proved controversial in some areas of Ethiopia, farmers in Gojjam accepted the program readily because it offered preferred access to credit, fit their new market orientation, and seemed to deliver substantially improved yields over traditional crops. The significant changes of the 1980s at the national level in grain production trends, farm policy, and local politics had particularly deep effects in Burie district. They signaled in many ways a dramatic new agrarian geography and life, and agro-ecology of disease. The first feature of this change was a dramatic expansion of scale brought on by new road networks linking the district to national grain markets and sources of agricultural inputs (especially fertilizer and improved seeds). A major part of that road expansion was the completion of rural roads and key bridges as new avenues for north–south commerce. A second feature was a concentrated effort by the then military socialist government to introduce agricultural development via producer cooperatives, large-scale state farms, and the introduction of fertilizer, new crop varieties (especially maize), and village settlement schemes. Several of these efforts that met massive opposition nationally actually achieved some acceptance in other regions. The military government collapsed in 1991, but after a few years’ hiatus the new government began its own efforts at an Ethiopian Green Revolution via what they termed a “minimum package program” that encouraged farmers to adopt new seeds (predominately maize), use a regime of chemical fertilizer to create homogeneity in soil fertility, and use new techniques to increase yield on small farms.
Farmers in core ox-plow areas in the post-1995 period responded to this new opportunity with alacrity, dramatically increasing their use of credit and new inputs. The transition from a mixed cereal crop agricultural system to one dominated by hybrid maize had begun in the post-revolutionary period of the 1980s with the establishment of state farms, tractor mechanization facilities (that mainly failed), and producer coo peratives for the production of improved maize using both mechanization and fertilizer. Then followed the collapse of the Derg’s socialist programs in the late 1980s and the ascension of the post-Derg government nationally after 1991. Formally launched in 1995, this national program took a strong hold among smallholder farms, often transforming districts renowned for teff and finger millet to into areas increasingly dominated by the cultivation of improved maize grown as a field crop. Moreover, unlike most parts of Ethiopia that accepted open pollenated maize seed, the new long maturing hybrid maize BH660. This maize variety was a hybrid and produced prodigious yields of up to 6–8 metric tons per hectare when combined with well-drained red clay, mixed soils, and consistent months of rains in the cropping season that stretched from sowing in late April/May until harvest in November or December.
The final ingredient of this agro-ecological change was the global and regional climate fluctuation that had produced drought in many areas of Ethiopia, but that had also provided some highland and mid-altitude areas with several years of abundant and consistent rains, raising on-farm production and encouraging farmers to accept offers of credit for agricultural seeds and DAP/urea fertilizer. Ironically, however, the consistency of climate over the 1996 to 1998 period no doubt encouraged farmers to choose the high-yielding but long-maturing BH660.
Maize’s proliferation in the years after the 1995 introduction of the hybrid maize package was remarkable, more than doubling the area devoted to maize in some smallholder farms and raising the percentage of the total area devoted to maize from 21 to 36 percent of farm production. Figures in many areas mirror national trends toward maize’s domination of cereal production and document its local manifestation in formed mixed crop areas.
Mid-altitude farmers’ heavy concentration in maize cultivation brought with it a significant change in the area’s pattern of human settlement, indicative of the newly emerging agro-ecology of maize modernism. In those localities most intensely invested in maize, farmers had altered their patterns of labor, fuel supply, livestock forage, and domestic space. Unlike former dispersed homestead sites where fenced garden space separated house from field crops, farmers now gathered homesteads within small nucleated villages/towns of corrugated iron roofs and rectangular houses. Those settlements include grain storage buildings, tea houses, and shops: all signs of the increasing income base of rural dwellers. Most remarkably, the houses in these villages have no defined gwaro (garden space), with maize cultivation running up against the walls of the houses themselves.
The physical appearance of these new villages in maize locales gives a spatial expression to a deeper shift in material culture. Farmers in the area insisted with enthusiasm that maize touches all aspects of their lives, and for both genders. Maize stalks provide cooking fuel, green leaves are livestock fodder, young ears offer snack food, and women now mix maize flour in injera (Ethiopia’s distinctive teff pancake) and in wheat bread. Shelled cobs appear around household in myriad uses. Instead of the ubiquitous stacks of teff straw as dry season livestock fodder, virtually all houses in these areas sport a lean-to stacked neatly with dried maize stalks preserved for fuel. Teff straw is now less a farm byproduct than a commodity purchased from the market with profits from bulk maize sales, an interesting measure of agricultural development.
In the Amhara region as a whole, the rate of adoption of improved maize increased from 16 percent of all farmers in 1995 to 43 percent in 1998. A 1998 survey of the entire Amhara region indicated that 80 percent of the farmers sampled had adopted improved maize, with BH660 as the most popular variety overall, and a virtually exclusive choice in Burie. In that same 1998 survey, farmers identified their top four reasons for choosing improved maize as:
• high yield;
• tolerance to lodging (stalk collapse);
• better germination; and
• quality and higher yield of its leaves and stalks for fodder.
A number of overlapping phenomena reflected or perhaps stimulated these changes in agriculture and rural landscapes. These included urban growth in major cities, but also—and just as importantly—in the regional towns that became market centers and hosts for growth in service sector jobs. Agricultural change was part and parcel of Ethiopia’s overall economic growth, even as that growth fueled changes in rural lives, leaving some of its rural population behind. How much the movement of new agriculture percolates down to rural landscapes and populations remains to be seen.
Discussion of the Literature and Primary Sources
Classic studies of Ethiopian agriculture stem from several generations of studies of formal agricultural development and land tenure (see Hoben, Stahl, Crummey, and Simoons in “Further Reading”) for the “Abyssinian” highlands where the plow agriculture culture has dominated. It is not surprising that the other major global perception of Ethiopia is based on a stereotypic statement of a national cuisine expressed in major cities around the world. The Ethiopian cuisine projected to diaspora and international diners is a product of the grain/livestock/legume diet of injera, meat stews, and fasting foods that has captured popular food cultures. This projection of the national diet is an attractive concoction of the northern highland diet “invented” by a diaspora and by informal material expressions of a national Ethiopian consensus on idealized food culture.
A counterargument has emerged in anthropological literature that describes complementary cultures around perennial crops, such as maize porridge, ensete bread (qocho), and modern foods such as pasta, wheat bread, and fruits that are products of agriculture and its material culture of food (see McCann, Stirring the Pot; and Peveri, “Ghosts of Hunger” in “Further Reading”).
The alternative narrative about Ethiopia and its agriculture has contradicted the positive story of Ethiopia’s resilient plow agriculture that has sustained the region over millennia. That alternative story is the more recent, and recurrent, story of Ethiopia as an icon for global hunger and the collapse of sustainability. That theme appears in the literature of development (e.g., Stahl, Hoben, and Dessalegn), and in pleas for international aid for food transfers and agricultural aid, including new seed varieties and chemicals.
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(1.) The most thorough survey of crops drawn from travel accounts is Donald Crummey, “Ethiopian Plow Agriculture in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 16 (1983): 1–24.
(2.) Methods for collecting production data have changed over time. Figures from the 1960s are the “best estimates” of local and foreign experts while data from the years 1974 to 1979 were based on small-scale surveys. Since 1979, the sample size has doubled and the data is therefore probably the most accurate. Thus, while absolute figures may be problematic, trends would appear to be accurately indicated. See Ian Watt, “Regional Patterns of Cereal Production and Consumption,” in The Ecology of Health and Disease in Ethiopia, eds. Zein Ahmed Zein and Helmut Kloos (Addis Ababa: Ministry of Health, 1988), 95–96.
(3.) Regions in Italian East Africa were based roughly on the principle of consolidating pre-colonial provinces. The figures here are relative since Italian colonial authorities in 1938 reported rounding of the statistics. Raffaele Cierri and Enrico Bortolozzi, La produzione cerealicola dell’Africa Orientale Italiana nel 1938 (Florence: Istituto Agronomico Coloniale 1939).
(4.) Haile Mariam Larebo, The Building of an Empire: Italian Land Policy in Ethiopia, 1935–1941 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 124–126.
(5.) Ian Watt, “Regional Patterns of Cereal Production and Consumption,” in The Ecology of Health and Disease in Ethiopia, eds. A. A. Zein and H. Kloos (Addis Ababa: Ministry of Health, 1988), 121.
(6.) Watt, “Regional Patterns.”