The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Roots-Up in Ethiopia

Roots-Up in Ethiopia

In the News

April 16, 2015

In Ethiopia, smallholder farmers have been practicing subsistence farming for centuries, selling very little food. Life in the highlands is hard. Twenty-one percent of the population has no access to safe drinking water. In North Ethiopia, a 120 million tons of soil is lost every year. Agricultural losses between 2000 and 2010 top $7 billion. But now, a Gondar-based non-profit called Roots-Up is working to change all that.

Created with the aim of supporting family farming as a viable model of agriculture, Roots-Up is hoping to assist farmers reach self-reliance by training them in the areas of permaculture (soil building, intercropping, fruit tree management), eco-building, and natural ecology (biogas, solar energy). 

In fact, their current IndieGoGo fundraising project hopes to raise enough money to complete several projects, including the creation of a multifunctional greenhouse that can grow food while producing clean water that is safe for drinking. How? Inside the greenhouse, the hot air is trapped so the temperature in the greenhouse keeps rising throughout the day. When the surface temperature drops at evening, the farmer pulls out the rope to open the top of the greenhouse allowing it to cool, eventually reaching the dew point. 

Atmospheric water vapor then condenses to form small droplets on the surface of the bioplastic sheet falling into the water tank container. Its structure also serves as a rainwater collector. The amount of collected water is expected to reach 200L a day during the dry season and can reach up to 700L during the wet season. 

“Erratic rainfall and land degradation highly affect yields and put smallholder farmers at a high risk of food insecurity since crop irrigation mainly relies on rainfall. Over the last years, rainfalls in the region have fallen by 70 percent during the peak season, increasing climate-driven migrations. Every year, 300,000 Ethiopians from the Northern region leave their lands, searching for more fertile ones. At our altitude, a system to pump water from the ground would be expensive and quite inefficient. The dew-collector greenhouse is a low-tech solution that allows farmers to raise protected plants and collect clean water both for drinking and irrigation,” says Mathilde Richelet, Project Manager and co-founder of Roots-Up.

Additional solutions include returning to the cultivation of traditional, native plants. For example, in Ethiopian history, southern tribes were cultivating a perennial plant, known as Enset, which is very close to the banana tree. A Portuguese priest discovered it when he came to Ethiopia in 1640 and described it as "the tree against hunger". Enset is high in nutrition and very resistant to drought conditions. These days, Ethiopians farmers are rediscovering this native tree and Enset fields are spreading in Southern Ethiopia. Many Ethiopian experts are exploring other native plants of this kind to provide a sustainable hedge to the coming droughts and famines. 

Richelet says that Roots-Up is also working with farmers to improve the local soil, concentrating on intercropping, composting, mulching, and perennial plants planting. The whole region of Amhara is very affected by soil erosion. Yet, soil is the basis of every food system. In Ethiopia, erosion is affecting farmers' yields and nutrition, increasing the risk of food insecurity and accelerating the loss of biodiversity. A healthy soil naturally enriched with compost and covered with mulch encourages living organisms to spread and improve soil structure. A well-structured soil remains resistant, fertile and productive in the long run. It also plays a major role in carbon storage, hence the importance to use minimal tillage.

“This type of intervention is still in the minority in the rural development projects because we usually expect to have quick results. So most of the programs give synthetic fertilizers for faster plants' growth and higher yields. However, those agricultural inputs are economically and environmentally not sustainable for Ethiopian smallholders. Once the program finishes and those fertilizers loose their gratuity, farmers find themselves in an inextricable situation since their soil's fertility relies on these inputs but they cannot afford to pay for them, forcing them to go into debt,” says Richelet.

Therefore, in order to feed nine billion people in 2050 with almost 70 percent of the population living in the cities, long-term and low-tech solutions for farmers, says Richelet, are essential to reverse the trend of rural depopulation. Appropriate and inexpensive technologies such as dew harvest and soil enrichment can allow farmers to become self-sufficient in daily life and to increase their income.

“Urban agriculture will of course play a major role in food supply but will not be enough to feed everyone, especially in the African cities such as Addis Ababa where the high rate of urbanization is mainly increasing the growth of slums,” says Richelet.

Richelet says that while she believes they are doing good work, many more small-scale projects of this kind are needed to tackle poverty and food insecurity. After Roots-Up completes the construction and organization of the training workshops they have designed, their plan is to implement a sustainable business model with farming families. They will also start selling a second version of the dew collector greenhouse since many farmers are already interested. The funds collected from the sales will help develop a plantation of perennial fruit trees in the region of North Gondar. After two years, the trees will harvest enough fruits to improve farmers' nutrition and increase their income from the sales.

“We cannot impose the same solutions for all the farms. Each family has its specificities and different needs, and we will of course have to adapt to these differences. Regardless, we strongly believe that empowering smallholder farmers is the solution to respond to the challenges of today and tomorrow,” she adds.