Martne Harja had prepared her three-quarter hectare piece of land at Galcha Seke village in Wolayita zone of Ethiopia’s Southern Region for the planting season, but her seven children found themselves without food after the rains failed.
“I did not have any other option but to eat the 25kg of haricot bean seed that I had saved from last year,” she said. “I readied my land to plant when the rain came again [but] I knew I would not be able to get any seeds.”
It was the first time in her life that she had eaten her seeds without planting them. Martne is, however, not alone. According to aid workers, many Ethiopian farmers resorted to eating their seeds after unprecedented heavy rains followed by drought last season.
At least 4.6 million people, according to the government and aid agencies, are in need of help across the country – although the number may change following recent assessments. Many of these people rely on humanitarian assistance from the government through the Safety Nets Programme, the UN and other non-governmental agencies, such as Concern Worldwide.
“We have to talk about recovery,” said Concern Ethiopia Country Director Aine Fay. “Without a harvest there is no chance of families being able to feed themselves.”
Martne’s is one of the 24 families picked as the poorest by Concern to receive 12.5kg of haricot bean seed in Galcha Seke. “We made the decision to distribute seeds to the most vulnerable farmers in the area where we are working,” Aine said.
The selection was done following a nutrition survey that demonstrated the need to intervene because the failed harvest and low livestock prices had pushed the farmers to a situation where they could not even sell their wealth to buy food.
Zema Tera, another farmer in the area, said he used to farm throughout the year to care for his family of 10. This year, he was bedridden for three months and when he recovered, he could no longer manage to fend for the family.
“I would not afford buying any seed now; it is 8 birr for one kg, which is unbearable for me to think about,” he told IRIN in Galche Seke. “If it was not for this seed Concern is giving me now, heaven knows how me and my family could survive.”
Concern is an Irish organisation that has worked in five areas of Ethiopia since 1984, mainly on emergency and development programmes. In the Southern Region, it is supporting the health ministry’s nutritional programmes as well as distributing supplementary food.
Apart from purchasing and distributing seeds, the NGO also provides sweet potato cuttings to local farmers. Across the country, it is assisting 52,250 children, pregnant women and lactating mothers across Ethiopia, including thousands in the six districts of the Southern Region; Damot Woyde, Duguna Fango, Offa, Shashego and Soro.
Zema was positive that more rain would fall and was planning to harvest food in the coming few months “I am hoping to produce four quintals of grain by the end of October,” he said. “I am expecting to feed my family till the coming harvest season – that is February/April 2009. I will make sure that I will also save some seed for the year to come.”
The area has, in the last two months, been pounded by rain and is one of those where aid agencies believe the situation is improving. Already some farmers have started harvesting green maize, teff and beans. Water is also more available.
Many of those who are yet to harvest have, however, been forced to resort to extreme coping mechanisms, including surviving on ‘kocho’, a dough-like food stuff made from the stems and root of the false banana called ‘enset’ that is widely grown in Ethiopia.
The government has admitted food is short, but insists the situation is not out of control. Currently, it is delivering large amounts of food into the Southern Region.
Experts say rising global food and fuel prices, climate change and rapid population growth are some of the reasons that Ethiopia is experiencing serious food shortages.
According to the Famine Early Warning System Network, these factors are compounded by existing levels of extreme food insecurity.