May 1, 2011 – Here I am, sitting in the shade of a tree on my farm in village Punjkosi, Punjab. Our crop is being harvested by an entrepreneur farmer, who owns and operates a combine harvester. Amidst all this activity, my mind travels to young Apthamu in Ethiopia, from where I have just returned. The contrasts between my world and Apthamu’s are striking; the similarities are even more amazing.

Farmers have all but lost hope in India amidst grave uncertainties about what the future has in store for them. On the one hand, water is getting scarce and, on the other, there is no new breakthrough for increasing agricultural productivity. The farmer’s increasing pessimism is prompted by growing losses; worse, he is increasing chemical inputs to improve productivity to attain a small net profit. This is destroying India’s soil health to the point of disastrous consequences. In Ethiopia, things are sunnier though there are similarities between farms and farmers in both countries. Farms in both lands are predominately small in size even though the population density in the two regions is poles apart.

Even climate

This is Debre Birhan and I am taking time out to explore the countryside; visiting farms, greenhouses, villages and farmers, as my mind opens up to the paradise of possibilities. There is no air-conditioning, nor even fans in homes and offices and not for the want of electricity. The temperature under shade is bearable, and even pleasant most part of the year. Otherwise, it is cold. Nobody seems to be smoking cigarettes! This country is constantly surprising me.

Ethiopia, in North-East Africa, is located on altitudes ranging from 200 metres above sea level to 3,000 metres and between latitudes 40˚N and 150˚N. A country half the size of India, it has a population of just 80 million, just about four times the population of Kolkata. Ethiopia also has 24.6 million people living below the poverty line of one dollar per day, according to the 2010 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) report. They make for 30 per cent of the population. The similarities keep adding up.

Opportunities abound

Despite such worrisome statistics and the fact that it has troubled Somalia as a neighbour, Ethiopia is a relatively safe country with a very low rate of crime. Indians there tell me that one can walk free of fear even in the middle of the night on the streets of the capital or on the farm. Yet I find guards with AK47s at most private projects. The Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, heads a single-party democracy. Corruption, as we know it, is not apparent anywhere. This is not the Africa that one is familiar with. It would seem to be the land of opportunities; where dreams can be realised.

Meeting Apthamu

Our way from Addis Abba to Welkite – in the company of Pandu Rajan, a soft-spoken farmer and agro-scientist of repute, who has worked in the African continent for over a decade and speaks the local language – is an experience by itself. We stop by for a chat with a young farmer, Apthamu Ragasse. He is 21 and has three brothers and two sisters. Indeed, the entire country appears to be young for one encounters not too many elderly. Possibly Ethiopia is no country for old men. Apthamu owns a hectare of land and grows onion, wheat, teff or maize at different times. Besides, he owns five cows for milk and also to work on the field.

Apthamu has harvested his onion crop and is waiting to sell it by the road. A trader arrives on a pick-up truck and buys the onions for 200 Birr (Rs 2.65 = 1 Birr) per quintal. The cost of a kilogram of onion seed is 50 Birr. The onion sells at the roadside for Rs 5.50 per kg. These traders are basically aggregators, picking the produce from the roadside from small farmers. Over the season, the farmer makes five quintal of onion from his land or between Birr 900 and 1,000. In spite of far better market accessibility in the onion-growing areas of India, the Indian farmer gets less for his onions. GM crops are not yet allowed in Ethiopia because, being a large country with a small population, selfsufficient people are less likely to adopt new farm technologies, especially under the influence of European aid. This is where India is different.

Rural life

Apthamu’s brothers present a perfect picture: tall, strapping boys; each going to school. They study in classes VI, VII and IX. The second brother is 19 years old and all brothers work on the farm. The quality of the education being received by these children would seem to be below par though. The school fee is 13 Birr per year and the boys have to buy their own books. There are no free lunches in this country; nor subsidised fertilisers. Urea sells for Rs 1,050 per quintal. Apthamu buys his seed from the local shop and does not know very much about them. There is plenty of water in this region under the Awash river water system. Not every other place is so fortunate though. What is subsidised occasionally is basic medical advice and normal medicine may come free of cost.

The family lives in a wooden hut; the ‘Gojjambeth’, which is sporting a tin roof these days in large numbers. It is as if housing in the whole country is being transformed from thatched to tin roof in a decade. Every structure is made of eucalyptus wood. The walls are made of vertical thin wooden bark, nailed together with more horizontal wood and then plastered with a coat of cow dung. The floor is elevated. The irony is that eucalyptus was introduced from Australia a few hundred years ago and 80 per cent of the trees that I see on my four days of travel in the countryside is eucalyptus.

I am told that the capital shifted a few times because of lack of firewood as deforestation had left barren the hills all around. The commercial eucalyptus plantations helped Addis Ababa settle down. Once again the Indian connect strikes me: thousands of miles away, today I am contemplating cloned eucalyptus for our farm, as agriculture becomes less viable and agro forestry more promising; as wood becomes increasingly expensive in India. Tough times require tough decisions. Apthamu only uses animal drawn wooden implements. Tractors are rare and are only owned by larger foreign firms, Chinese infrastructure companies or a few with government agencies. Local public transport is basically a two-iron wheel buggy with a single row of seating in between the wheels, called ‘gari’. It is a much smaller but more versatile version of the tonga in India.

The farmer rarely finds work beyond his own field. The average price of agricultural labour is
between Rs 25 and Rs 40 per day, though farmer efficiency is much below the Indian agriculture farm labourer’s. Hopefully, as the farm labourers improve their productivity, the demand for their service will increase; so will emoluments.

Farming ways

The Ethiopian farmer, as the rest of the country, is self-respecting, proud and honest. The Italians, who were settled here for some time, established Addis Ababa but the Ethiopians have never been under foreign occupation. It was essentially isolated and left alone for 2,000 years. Christianity survives here as the oldest faith with 50 per cent of the population belonging to the Christian faith. They fast for 55 days to observe Lent, prior to Easter and then celebrate Good Friday. They eat no animal product not even milk or milk products, during Lent.

They are awakening to the concept of smart commerce though. I see a herd of camel on the road and take a photograph. Promptly, the herdsman comes over and asks for money. I am unhappy to pay but happy to chat. Where is the camel going? To a slaughterhouse to provide the meat for the Easter celebrations. The fasting population will feed on meat over the weekend to make up for the lost time, it appears.

Global interest

On the other side of the local small farmers are people mostly from such countries as the Netherlands, Indians from Kenya and Uganda; Indians from India or, the latest entrants, rich Arabs. There are also country investment funds from UAE! Saudi Arabia, I am told, has discouraged growing wheat or cereals to preserve its sparse fresh water for basic crops. It is now buying land in Africa to meet its own cereal and animal fodder requirements. The Indian option is transferring water for miles away from source without any control on use of water in the command areas. The Narmada waters in Gujarat are being misused to grow rice in what is the most telling example of bad governance. India’s Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh will visit Ethiopia this month! Certainly, there would be lessons for the economist Prime Minister to learn.

Green houses dot the landscape, vegetables and flowers are exported to the middle east or Europe and sometimes to Japan. There are plane loads going out daily. Roses are the most exported flowers. One can grow 4,000 roses per day from a hectare of greenhouse. Each rose sells for 20 cents in Amsterdam and this includes the cost of transport that is 50 per cent of the sale value and the five per cent commission charged by agents in Amsterdam, compared to the eight per cent charged in India. Every farm I visited had Indian managers: all MScs or BScs in agriculture. They earn double of what they would have earned back home. They are totally in charge of their farms; hard working and happy though most of them leave their families in India.

Land use

Ethiopia was a communist country till the last decade and all land is owned by the government. One cannot buy land but can lease it from the government. First, one must approach the central government investment office in Addis Ababa. For leases under 5,000 hectares one is directed to the regional governments and for those over 5,000 hectares one must visit the agriculture ministry. The government allots land according to the need and crops proposed to be cultivated. The average land rent may vary but generally it is $10 per year per hectare. At the start, one has to deposit a full year’s rent with the government to show the seriousness of intent. For the next three years, one gets a break and no rent is required, being the time given for developing it. The government also allots land free of cost, where there is no infrastructure.

Indian and middle-eastern companies are leasing large tracts of land (over 100,000 hectares each) in Ethiopia, though the common complaint is that they are not farming the land they have contracted to farm. They are either building land banks to sell or to attract funds with the size of their land holdings from the stock exchanges. If such chicanery continues, surely India will lose its preferred treatment that it has been getting from Ethiopia, which provides excellent support to foreign companies. The Ethiopian ambassador to India H.E. Mrs Gennet Zewadi, is doing a wonderful job of trying to facilitate the participation of Indian, companies and entrepreneurs in the development of her country.

Indeed, the Ethiopian economy is waiting to take off for it is the land of opportunities. The economy has expanded by more than five times since the 1990s, when the gross domestic product was only $6 billion, according to the International Monetary Fund. In 2010, the country’s nominal GDP reached $30.9 billion. The nearby port at Djibouti helps.

Like in India, food inflation is a problem here. The food index headed to 36 per cent above last year’s level, according to a World Bank report released in April. The prices of maize (74 per cent), wheat (69 per cent) and sugar (21 per cent) are among those rising the most. The English newspaper that the hotel gave us reported food inflation at 25 per cent as the lead story.

What was my takeout from this African safari? It was an eye-opener like never before. The present generation of Americans still feels it hard to believe that China has arrived and would soon become the biggest global economy. Those who believe that Africa is back of the beyond may be in for some surprises too. This is the land of great natural resources and enormous potential. It is not burdened with a huge population. What it is catching up on is development, governance and order. In India, we continue to argue and debate, make constant omissions and set up commissions, even as the country is heading towards food insecurity.

The message that rings out in my mind is: a nation that cannot feed itself is never going to a strong nation. That is not independence that our forefathers fought for.