A family caravan transports hay on Highway 4 near Meki, south of Ethiopia’s capital. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
Josef Bereuter, an expert and volunteer, trains staff at the La Salle Center in more effective farming techniques. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
Cows and oxen are used to stomp on the harvested teff. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
A farmer returns home after a long day in the fields near Meki. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
A worker prepares grapevines at the La Salle Center near Meki. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
For Lema Waka and his family, life in their hamlet in Ethiopia’s Rift Valley carries on much as it has for generations. On this blazing hot day, the family is wrapping up the season’s teff harvest. With the help of laborers, they have cut, threshed and sacked the grain that Ethiopians use for the baking of their bread, injera. Together, they load and strap the sacks onto donkey-drawn carts. Harnessed up, the Lemas’ caravan is ready for the market in Meki, the nearest town some eight miles away.
Mr. Lema cracks the whip on the donkeys and the caravan pulls onto the paved and freshly painted Trans-African Highway 4, the only visible sign of contemporary life for miles. Once completed, Highway 4 will traverse the entire continent, linking Cairo to Cape Town. Intended to stimulate trade, investment and growth across the continent, it has done just that for some Ethiopians, proving to be a vital lifeline between urban centers within the country.
But the benefits of Highway 4 have not been reaped by most of Ethiopia’s rural population, even those along its route. Most of Ethiopia’s farmers use age-old agricultural methods to plant traditional crops, such as teff, onions and tomatoes, which sell cheaply in local markets. Most rely on the fickle goodwill of Mother Nature. Most expect their children, especially their daughters, to help maintain the family farm and manage the household at the expense of continuing their education. And most consider the donkey- drawn cart the industry standard. For these peasant farmers and their families, survival is a hand-to-mouth equation for which there is no margin for error.
The Lema family is no different. Lema Waka depends on the rains and his five-acre plot of land to support his wife and nine children. He grows corn, white beans, sorghum and tomatoes, but mainly teff — the most labor-intensive crop of the bunch. Though the grain covers the greatest amount of cultivated land in Ethiopia, it delivers the lowest crop yield per acre. Mr. Lema’s 1.5 tons of teff might bring in a little more than $1,000 on the market. But much of it never reaches the market at all. With it, he must first pay the day laborers, who helped with the harvest, and neighbors, who lend him cattle, and he must purchase seeds for next season. The Lemas will be lucky to clear $500, barely enough to feed the family until the next harvest.
But change is coming to the Rift Valley. A couple of miles from the Lemas’ hamlet, off an unmarked dirt road near the shores of Lake Ziway, an ambitious project to develop local agriculture is quietly taking shape. Launched in September 2007 by the Brothers of the Christian Schools, the La Salle Agroprocessing and Farmers’ Training Center will be an economically sustainable facility producing quality products, such as wine, marmalade, yogurt and butter, for domestic and international markets. In developing a sustainable and profitable facility, the brothers hope to spark a market- driven agricultural revolution in the Rift Valley that will change minds, improve fortunes and challenge the subsistent farming status quo.
Still under construction, the premises of the La Salle Center buzz with activity. Workers fasten together steel reinforcing bars for the winemaking facility, while a group of contractors pours the concrete foundation of the dairy-processing center and cowshed that soon will shelter 27 heifers. Nearby, laborers heave heavy stones to the site of the community agricultural training center. Closer to the lake, field workers monitor the industrial irrigation system as it pumps water up the slope where a variety of fruits and vegetables — alfalfa and elephant grass, bananas, mangoes and strawberries — are grown together in the same fields at the same time. Known as intercropping, this agricultural practice yields significant agronomic benefits.
Women, wrapped in scarves to protect them from the scorching sun, clear brush from under the vineyard’s 20,000 imported Italian grapevines — grouped together by origin and identified with signs, such as “Barbera,” “Sangiovese” and “Montepulciano.”
If all goes according to plan, the brothers will have completely transformed this ordinary 75-acre plot of subdivided farmland into an integrated, income-generating agribusiness. Since the project’s inception, the brothers have raised a total of $800,000 in grants, which they have used to purchase the land, plants, construction materials, machinery and to pay labor costs. The next installment of funds will be used to double the amount of land, purchase 20,000 more imported grapevines and strawberry plants, and add livestock, including cattle, chickens, fish and pigs.
At every turn, the La Salle Center will provide economic, educational and professional opportunities to the community. Projecting a 54-person payroll, which will swell to 100 during harvest time, the brothers intend to staff the endeavor with people from the local community, who will gain on-the-job skills in modern agricultural techniques for use on their own family farms. The on-site agricultural training center will also offer workshops on improved agricultural techniques, such as biogas production, small- scale drip irrigation, animal husbandry and crop selection. The brothers also plan to loan the center’s tractors and other equipment to local farmers at below market rates.
However, the center’s main objective is to become sustainable and profitable.
“The project has humanitarian aspects, but we’re running a business,” stresses Brother Betre Fisseha, F.S.C., the facility’s general supervisor.
The La Salle Center has developed a business model that nurtures a symbiotic relationship with local farmers. If farmers are persuaded to plant vineyards or breed dairy cows, the La Salle Center vows to be a ready buyer that will offer them a fair price for their products. Local farmers would gain not only from transitioning to modern agricultural methods that produce more cost-effective and lucrative products, but also by having a reliable economic partner. For its part, the La Salle Center would ensure its long-term growth by placing its operations at the center of an emerging regional agricultural industry.
At this stage, however, convincing local farmers to get on board remains a difficult task. For farmers to adopt new methods and new crops requires a short-term income loss, which most of these families cannot afford.
“They’re not thinking long-term,” admits Brother Betre. “We can provide them with grape seeds and heifers, some microfinancing, but it will take them a few years to produce. They need money now. So they plant tomatoes and onions, not grapes. Maybe in the future, they’ll change, but we have to train them so that they have an idea.”
The idea for the La Salle Agroprocessing and Farmers’ Training Center first came about five years ago in the town of Meki, where the Brothers of the Christian Schools run a school that has a reputation for academic excellence.
“More than 95 percent of our graduates go on to college, and 95 percent of them come out successfully from universities because we help them to develop proper study habits,” says Brother Betre, who for the last five years has served as the school’s headmaster. “You will see the library open all hours of the day and our school compound open on weekends, too. Most students live in simple, small rooms where they can’t find quiet. So they come to school to study and prepare themselves academically.”
The success rate is all the more remarkable considering that no more than 15 percent of Ethiopia’s high school students make it to college and roughly a third of those who do never complete their degree programs.
High academic standards, and the fact that the school is the only institution offering grades 11 and 12 to the approximately 200,000 people living within a 30-mile radius, have driven up enrollment. The school is currently at maximum capacity, enrolling 1,500 students from grades one through 12. A longer waiting list only increases pressure on the administration to enlarge the school’s facilities, which are already overcrowded and ill equipped.
The library, for instance, can accommodate only 250 students at a time. A sign that reads “No space. Library full. Capacity 250” often hangs on the entrance.
Yet even with enrollment up, the Catholic school runs at a loss, depending on donations just to keep its doors open.
“Our students can’t afford to pay the fees that we require,” explains Brother Betre. “CNEWA stepped in when we were at a flat line, almost dead and really saved the school by subsidizing scholarships for half the students. The bishop stepped up as well. And the apostolic vicariate has gone looking for money to subsidize the remaining balance. But ultimately, when you look at the income and expenses, they just don’t balance. We needed to move the school forward. We needed to think of self-generating income.”
After consultation with local government authorities, the Christian Brothers decided that an agroprocessing facility would not only generate the needed income for the school, but would help develop the local, predominantly agricultural, economy.
“We wanted something that could be reliable,” recalls Brother Betre. “Anything can grow around Meki. The underground water is not far. There are lakes. We’re in the Rift Valley on the busiest road in the country centered between Addis Ababa, Awasa and Nazaret, another big commercial town. We figured, why not use that opportunity?”
Brothers Amilcare Boccuccia, F.S.C., and Pedro Arrambide, F.S.C., drew up the project’s blueprint. Both in their 60’s and of Italian and Basque origins, respectively, they have decades of experience working in rural Africa. Brother Amilcare spent nine years developing the Hagaz Agroprocessing Center and Farming College in Eritrea. Together, the two brothers, now based in Rome, provided a vision for the La Salle Center near Meki and have followed it through every step of the way. After a team of experts conducted a survey, they submitted a grant proposal to the Basque government, which agreed to support the project.
“Brother Amilcare does everything — the engineering work, the consulting work, the manual work, directing the project, dealing with donors, looking for more funds. He installed the whole farm system,” lauds Brother Betre. “Brother Kesseye Antuan follows up and implements,” he continues, nodding to the facility’s field director.
“I support Brother Kesseye. And Brother Pedro Arrambide — he’s the main beggar.”
These brothers know well, however, that begging is not a long-term solution.
“The farm will, in five years, support the school,” says Brother Betre, “but first it has to support itself.”
“Nowadays, donors aren’t willing to help the ongoing formation projects like schools,” says Brother Kesseye, his soft voice nearly drowned out by the growl of a passing tractor. “They want to help on short-term projects — three years, two years, one. So this is a threat for the future. If the economy continues like it is, well, those people who are supporting the project now are going to be in trouble. And when that time comes, where are you? Are you in the air? Crying? I think it’s a good lesson for others to think about, especially church-based institutions.”
Behind where the foundations have been laid for the dairy processing center, Brother Kesseye and a handful of staff have gathered in an expanse of unruly weeds. There, they form a semicircle around Josef Bereuter, an agriculture expert who volunteers frequently in the region to train local farmers in more effective techniques.
Mr. Bereuter grabs a long-handled sickle he fashioned by hand and turns his back to the group. In halting English, the Austrian minces no words as he commands the workers to watch closely and follow his lead.
“Put arms like this,” he directs his students, holding the sickle and sticking his sinewy arms out in front of his chest. In hushed tones, Brother Kesseye translates.
“Make strong,” Mr. Bereuter barks.
“Stiff,” he calls out, pointing to his lower back.
“Now turn like this,” he says as he steadily holds his arms out in front of him, bends his knees slightly and pivots his torso and shoulders, first to the right, then to the left.
The group begins to mimic him, awkwardly at first. Mr. Bereuter demonstrates again. Like a master craftsman, Mr. Bereuter implores his apprentices to do it his way, the right way.
Feeling confident and ready to set a good example, Brother Kesseye steps forward to take a turn in front of the group. Mr. Bereuter hands him the sickle and steps back.
Brother Kesseye starts twisting his hips and swinging the sickle. Unmoved by the sickle’s blow, the weeds stand tall.
He struggles to find an acceptable rhythm, reminiscent of a young man who sets foot on the dance floor for the first time. Fortunately for him, there are no teenage girls in the audience to giggle at him, only no-nonsense Mr. Bereuter and the other eager learners. Determined, Brother Kesseye soldiers on.
“Yes! That’s it!” shouts Mr. Bereuter. “Hold it up higher. You got it!”
And with a heavy swing of the sickle, Brother Kesseye chops the weeds down.
But hacking weeds in a parched field with a hand-held sickle is one thing. Erecting a modern, successful agroprocessing facility of impressive scale is something else entirely.
“I heard about the poverty of this land and its people going hungry,” says Mr. Bereuter. “So I said, ‘We have to help the farmers, not only with machines and equipment, but with knowledge. They have a lot of land. With help, they can bring new life to the soil.’
“But they need more time so that people can learn. You can’t say ‘it’s good’ after a short time. This is much more than a project. Really, it’s a process — to teach and share knowledge. We need time, patience and the love to teach and learn. Only if we are conscious of the love we have for others will we realize the fruits of success. These fruits are for us all, to be shared by everybody.”
Award-winning journalist Peter Lemieux is a frequent contributor to these pages.