From seed to market, transforming agriculture in Ethiopia

Hurgessa Gutema owns a small farm in Wolisso in central Ethiopia. With help from a local farming co-operative, his crop yield is rising year after year.

“Thanks to better seeds and fertilizer from the farmers union, we harvest up to 20 quintals for every half-hectare,” he said. “We used to get only three or four.”

Ethiopia is in the midst of important agricultural shifts that are changing the way smallholder farmers do business. A new organization – the Agricultural Transformation Agency – is bringing in modern planting practices, improving marketing techniques, and revolutionizing the approach of Ethiopia’s 12.8 million smallholder farmers.


  • Over 5 million farmers have easier access to improved seed varieties and national productivity has increased by 44%
  • A new planting practice introduced by the Agricultural Transformation Agency began with 2 farmers and has since grown to 1.3 million
  • With support from UNDP and a range of partners, the agency began work in 2011 with the aim of handing over the project to the Government within 15 years.

Soil fertility mapping of the whole country is underway with support from UNDP to support seed variety improvements and rationalize chemical fertilizer application to boost yields.

“We’re working to make sure farmers’ associations around the country function as commercial businesses, rather than just social organizations,” said Khalid Bomba, head of the new agency. “Ultimately they have to be financially viable.”

Local farmers associations provide better seeds, fertilizer and training. They also help broker crucial links for small farmers to get their goods to markets.

The Agricultural Transformation Agency also looks at the big picture to ensure food security for the long term. “We have to look at the system in a holistic way and work to strengthen our partners in the agricultural sector,” Bomba said.

With support from UNDP and a range of partners, the agency began work in 2011 with the aim of handing over the project to the Government within 15 years.

“It’s early days. Transformation won’t come quickly,” said Haddis Tadesse, Country Director of the Gates Foundation, a supporter of the Agency. “Despite this, early indicators show very positive, and in some cases very impressive, results.”

The impact of new planting practices for Tef, used to make injera, a soft bread and staple Ethiopian food, is a case in point.

“We introduced a new way of planting Tef that reduces the seeding rate and introduces new varieties,” Bomba said. “This boosted yields by a minimum of 30 percent, and in some cases over 100 percent.” 1.3 million Tef farmers adopted the technology and national productivity has increased by 44%.  

Working well together

The Agency supports coordination efforts led by the Ministry of Agriculture by helping connect donor Governments interested in working in specific regions, or businesses seeking to invest in the agricultural system.

Supporters include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, the Nike and Rockefeller Foundations, USAID, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, the Synergos Institute, the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research, Feed the Future, UNDP and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Effective host Government—led coordination like this is a core principle of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation that helps Governments, businesses and organisations work better together to end poverty.

Phenomenal gains

With average annual growth rates of 10 percent and poverty rates down from 40 percent to 29 percent in seven years, Ethiopia has no shortage of interested investors.

“Many private sector partners, both domestic and international see the opportunities to create value here in Ethiopia,” Bomba said.

Eugene Owusu, UNDP’s Resident Representative in Ethiopia, believes the work of the ATA and the Ministry of Agriculture will play key roles in Ethiopia’s long-term development strategy.

“Ethiopia is aiming for agriculture-led industrial transformation,” he said. “Now we’re exporting raw materials, but the intention is to invest in establishing the industrial infrastructure to produce finished products that will add value for export.”

And as for Hurgessa in Wolisso, he’s saving for the future.“My plan is to change from farmer to merchant,” he says. “I’ll supply a whole range of grains to market.”

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