How ancient forest gardens keep hunger at bay

Tesfa-Alem Tekle travels to meet the Ethiopian farmers whose unique agroforestry system has kept hunger at bay for millennia.

How ancient forest gardens are keeping hunger at bay

Tesfa-Alem Tekle travels to meet the Ethiopian farmers whose unique agroforestry system has kept the populous southern highlands well-fed for millennia – and has protected against the impacts of Covid-19.

As we drive along a dirt road up into the hills towards Gedeo in southern Ethiopia, the forest becomes noticeably denser and the air increasingly humid. I roll the window all the way down, close my eyes and smell the fresh, sweet air flowing in.

I am on my way to the district of Bule, home to the Gedeo people, who practice a unique form of agroforestry on their land. The United Nations reports that nearly eight million people in Ethiopia do not have adequate food. But while poverty levels are high in Gedeo, food does not run short.

To understand why this is, I’ve come to meet Aster Gemede, 32, a farmer and mother of six. She appears at the entrance to her bamboo-fenced compound, flanked by three daughters and a small barking dog. I’m welcomed in with a warm smile and one of her elder daughters starts to roast coffee beans.

‘We grow it here in our yard,’ explains Aster. ‘We plant coffee in our home gardens together with food crops like enset [sometimes known as ‘fake banana’], cabbage, potatoes, maize and carrots.’

Agroforesty has been passed down like this from generation to generation in Gedeo since Neolithic times

A tapestry of trees, shrubs and crops covers over 95 per cent of the land in Gedeo, which runs along the eastern edge of Ethiopia’s southern highlands, 370-kilometres from the capital Addis Ababa.
It’s a farming system that also supports wildlife such as the black and white Mantled Colobus monkeys, which we see en route to Aster’s farm in the tops of giant trees, leaping away noisily on our approach.

No need for aid

‘For my family, hunger has never been a concern,’ Aster says. ‘Unlike other areas, we have never been aid-dependent.’ She reports that her multi-storey garden on this steep-sloped high-altitude land provides a nutritious diet for all her children.

Data from the local agriculture bureau confirms this. Despite high levels of chronic undernourishment in southeastern Ethiopia, Bule district is classified as food sufficient. The bureau reports that Gedeo is one of the few places never to have experienced famine, even as severe hunger and drought spread to southern Ethiopia in the 1980s. When I ask how the latest shock – Covid-19 – has impacted her family, Aster’s answer is immediate: ‘Not at all’.

Aster has no formal schooling. Her parents taught her the indigenous farming system in their back yard as a young teenager: how to water seedlings in a nursery, plant trees and weed. She is now passing on the knowledge to her own children. During the last rainy season, Aster’s eldest daughter, 14-year-old Meseret Ayano, planted 11 fruit trees, which are expected to start bearing fruit in about 6 to 7 years, when Meseret might be starting her own family.

Agroforesty has been passed down like this from generation to generation in Gedeo since Neolithic times, making it one of the oldest farming systems in the world. The system endures in an area with the highest rural population density in Ethiopia (1,300 people per kilometre squared), without degrading the land, while sustaining great diversity. A study from Gedeo’s Kochore district found 165 plant species within and around home gardens.

In Gedeo culture, nature is seen as an intermediary between God (magenno) and humans and therefore demanding of respect. Under their belief system, the mass-felling or cutting of immature trees is taboo, along with the killing of birds. Certain areas of the forest are set aside as sacred (some of them shelter megalithic monuments). They act as reservoirs of biodiversity, home to large and very old species of trees that are critically endangered elsewhere.

Bountiful enset

Before I arrived, Aster and her daughters were cooking kocho, a baked flat-bread made from the fermented carbohydrate-rich stem of the enset plant. Aster tells me enset products don’t perish and can last for months or even up to 10 years if buried underground.

The drought-resistant enset crop is a major source of food in Bule and across large parts of southern Ethiopia. The tree takes four years to mature – when it yields 40 kilograms of food – so planting must be staggered.

Aster can provide for all her family’s needs on a very small landholding – less than 0.5 hectare

‘Kocho is our main meal. We’ll have it with cabbage for lunch,’ Aster says. For breakfast this morning they had bulla, a porridge made from the liquid squeezed out of enset pulp after grating and chopping the pulverized stem.

‘It’s tiresome work,’ acknowledges Aster, ‘but it brings many benefits to our family.’ Their diet is further supplemented by chickens, raised for their meat and eggs, and Aster’s mango and apple trees. Farms at lower altitudes also grow avocados, bananas and pineapples. The home garden also provides fuel, fodder for livestock, timber and maintains the fertility of the soil.

Any surplus is sold on for cash. Women in Bule play a critical role in managing home garden agroforestry and are in charge of selling their produce, unlike in other areas where cash crops are dominant. ‘Every two weeks I go to a nearby market to sell our home garden products such as coffee and fruits,’ reports Aster. She also sells enset fibre, locally known as kancha, which is traded on to factories for industrial use.

Aster can provide for all her family’s needs on a very small landholding – less than 0.5 hectare (slightly over half a football pitch). The secret to such high productivity is that each plant supports the other. So, for example, the baker tree (millettia ferruginea), which is prized for improving soil fertility, is grown next to enset and coffee plants for its shade. The baker sheds its small leaves just as coffee fruits appear, to aid their ripening.

In the middle of our discussion, Aster’s daughter, Meseret, who has been roasting coffee beans serves up the aromatic organic coffee, accompanied by fresh flatbread made from enset.

Cash crop vulnerability

The next day I travel to Wondo Genet, an area in the neighbouring area of Sidama where farmers have abandoned agroforestry in favour of khat, a mild stimulant which is chewed throughout East Africa.

In Mola Wondumu’s house, the mood is sombre. For the last 16 years, the 58-year-old farmer tells me, his family has been solely dependent on khat. It was a lucrative cash crop – some farmers had seen their yearly incomes more than quadruple – until this year, when an unknown pest ravaged the plants. ‘My income has halved,’ he says. ‘I’m not getting enough to feed my family and pay my children’s school fees.’

His loss coincides with an increase in the cost of food. ‘Since the Covid-19 pandemic, food prices have gone up in the markets to the point where we can’t afford to buy the main staples,’ he says, adding that several households in Wondo Genet have had to buy agroforestry produce as a cheaper alternative.

‘The pest invasion you observed in Wondo Genet area is becoming a major problem for khat farmers,’ confirms Beyene Teklu, assistant professor at the nearby Hawassa University. ‘At the moment it is very difficult to name the type of disease or pest whether fungal, bacterial or viral).’

Beyene’s team is due to begin research into the pest but is unlikely to publish their findings until later in 2021. Meanwhile, Mola’s family risk going hungry.

Many Ethiopian smallholders have moved towards market-orientated ‘monocropping’ (growing a single crop year after year on the same land). In Gedeo, khat and coffee monocultures are starting to expand at the expense of intercropping of enset and coffee, leaving people exposed to shocks.

The agroforestry system, productive as it is, struggles to keep pace with population growth. ‘The population size is beyond the carrying capacity of the system, creating an imbalance,’ explains Tesfaye Abebe, professor of Agroforestry and Production Ecology at Hawassa University. ‘The burden leads to the degradation of forest species, which are the backbone of the system.’ Gedeo has seen its inhabitants increase from 800,0000 a decade ago to an estimated 1.5 million today. As farms get subdivided between heirs, there is less and less land available.

To the rescue?

Ethiopia’s agroforestry specialists say intervention is needed to stop ancient farming practices being lost.

Professor Tesfaye believes one solution would be government agricultural extension programmes to help farmers plant higher-value coffee – which is grown throughout the southern highlands and accounts for 30 per cent of national output. Speciality coffee can fetch hundreds of dollars per kilogram in the capital.

Many proposals hinge around bringing modern science to support Gedeo’s farmers. ‘There is an on-going effort by agricultural and forestry research and development institutions to compliment indigenous knowledge,’ says Teshome Tesema, an adviser at the Ethiopian Environment and Forest Research Institute. Ideas include the introduction of higher yielding crops, new fruit and vegetable varieties and training for farmers.

‘If we work together, I’m optimistic we can improve the livelihoods of local communities,’ he says. One hopeful development is the Ethiopian government taking the first step towards getting Gedeo recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, by submitting it to the ‘Tentative List’ in January 2020.

Given the unpredictable environmental shocks that may lie ahead, Teshome believes improved agroforestry schemes may be the best future hope for millions of smallholder farmers across Ethiopia. ‘It will be a long process but it is achievable,’ he says.

Tesfa-Alem Tekle is an Ethiopian journalist and environmental writer based in Addis Ababa.

This work was funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the European Development Journalism Grants programme, a fund supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.