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17 - 24 January 2007 
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Eritrea Starves of Farm Technology

In Eritrea, the average growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from agriculture over the past decade has been less than 3 per cent while its average growth in food grain production during the same period being lower. For the Eritrean economy to reach a higher growth trajectory of 5 to 6 per cent, agriculture has to become a more "rewarding" sector. Liberalization and reforms will make this happen.

The share of agricultural trade in Eritrea’s GDP has fallen from 22 per cent to 16 per cent. Although some impact as a result of reforms by FAO and other partners have been noted, unless there is a broad socioeconomic consensus — involving Zobas, sub-zoba level governments and farmers' associations — the reform agenda cannot succeed. Whatever the Government has done so far in revitalizing agriculture is not adequate. There is need to focus on agricultural marketing and contract farming to help boost investment and productivity. The need for rural warehouses has to be emphasized.

Eritrea’s agricultural sector is exactly where industry found itself in 1991. It calls for a comprehensive, yet practical agenda. This agenda must focus on three core issues — technology, credit, and marketing. Industry and a section of farmers feel technology and marketing should come from the private sector, which must be encouraged to not only invest, but also participate in the agricultural revolution.

Considering the sensitivity of land ownership issues, `contract farming' as done in Canada is a viable alternative to develop the sector. In such an approach, the land rights of small farmers can be protected by law. The contract can then focus on technology, seeds or other inputs, quality control, productivity and marketing. While the contracting firm is assured of quality and production, farmers are assured the best technology and reasonable price. In a season or two after the trials, they may be in a position to bargain for a better deal.

Another reason for advocacy of private sector entry into the agriculture sector is to create sustainable rural infrastructure. From the procurement centre to the warehouses, the produce remains largely at the mercy of the weather. The problems of moisture content, decay, and poor quality of seeds continue to plague the farmers. The inadequate storage network also hits the procurement of Sorghum, wheat, Taff or other produce. At the heart of these problems lies the cost of production. The cost of food grains have increased sharply for the last few years.

Although lack of access to finance and limited finance remain the core issue for most of the farmers in rural Eritrea, the advent of Saving and Micro Credit Program (SMCP) has minimized the problem to some extent. Many farmers however do not know how to use SMCP finance. The continuing cycle of droughts and famines make them unable to pay back their loans. Commercial banks that have been consequently asked to step into the market give only 6 per cent of the credit to agriculture in the country. This vicious cycle forces the farmers into the clutches of moneylenders who advance funds at high interest rates. There is a need to set up Regional Rural and cooperative banks that can improve the financial capacity of the farmers.

Farm scientists have called for an end to the "excessive dependence" on food grains such as sorghum Taff and wheat. There has to be a movement towards pulses, oilseeds, horticulture, and floriculture. Simultaneously, the soil needs to be nourished with the right balance of crops. Farmers should be trained not only on the right use of fertilizers and pesticides, but also embracing new technologies that guarantee food sufficiency. Only then can they genuinely prosper and achieve food security.

“Due to sufficient rainfall in 2006, the Central region (which is the smallest in Eritrea) recorded a harvest of about 400,000 quintals of crop,” says Mr. Haile Gide, Head of the region’s branch of Ministry of Agriculture.

Mr. Haile says that 20 per cent of the region’s land is planted with short rain season crops like sorghum and maize. Meanwhile, only 4,000 hectares of the land was tilled by tractors. Despite planting in 25,000 hectares of the total 27,000 hectares of the region’s arable land, the production is not yet compatible with the number of people residing in the region.  “Therefore, even this year the region will need an additional amount of grain supply,” adds Mr. Haile.

By Dr. Ravinder Rena
Eritrean Institute of Technology

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