Despite a fast-growing economy, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world. It is prone to weather-related shocks and experiences high levels of food insecurity, particularly among rural populations and smallholder farmers. Women farmers perform up to 75 percent of farm labor, representing 70 percent of household food production in Ethiopia. But they typically produce up to 35 percent less than male farmers because they have lower levels of access to extension services and inputs such as seeds and fertilizer.
Yet, there are signs of hope. USAID food assistance programs and the Relief Society of Tigray (REST) are working to break the cycle of poverty and improve food security among rural populations of northern Ethiopia with a special focus on female smallholder farmers. The program aims to improve access to food and protect assets of the poor by delivering timely food rations while investing in local capacity to improve resilience, and increase and diversify productivity among the poorest of the poor.
As part of this effort, USAID and REST are taking steps to improve access to and control over water for agricultural production to strengthen smallholder farmers, empower women farmers, and increase outputs.
Letay Gebresilasie, a 40-year-old smallholder farmer in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, is one of the beneficiaries of the USAID-funded REST program. She farms on a quarter hectare every year to feed her two sons and support her family while her husband is away serving in the military.
“Before I started receiving assistance, I irrigated my land by using the community diesel pump, which broke frequently and was costly to run. I used my entire plot of land to grow red chili peppers and it took me one to two days to water the crops. That was time away from my children and other chores at home,” said Gebresilasie.
However, in 2010, things began to change for the better. USAID and REST provided the village with an electric pump for irrigation. Now, watering Gebresilasie’s crops only takes four hours every three to four days. She does not have to wait for available water, which was often limited by equipment malfunctions and diesel shortages. Instead, she is given a designated watering time as managed by her community water users association.
Gebresilasie has diversified her crops and is now growing mangos, onions, and lettuce, some of which are consumed at home and some sold in the market. To protect these gains, she invests her profits in the community savings cooperative, and eventually hopes to invest in an ox.
With her new agricultural productivity, Gebresilasie has reduced her workload and increased her economic opportunities. By contributing more to the household income, she has gained more decision-making power in her home and has more economic autonomy in her husband’s absence.
Gebresilasie has also become a role model for other women in the village. They seek her advice and tips for improved farming practices. At the end of the year, she will graduate from the program, but her economic advances will not disappear. She will continue to use the electric pump to increase her agricultural yields, reduce her workload, and save for the future.
“After receiving the benefits of this program, I am ready to graduate, and I am confident in my ability to farm. I am no longer worried about how I will take care of my family as I have learned how to invest and protect my assets,” said Gebresilasie.
In FY 2012, USAID and REST helped to improve the irrigation of 989 hectares of land and establish 99 water users associations in the Tigray region to ensure that the new pumps and irrigation schemes are sustainable. As a result of these efforts, female smallholder farmers throughout the region, like Gebresilasie, are taking the first steps out of poverty and hunger, and building a foundation for resilience and self-reliance.
Last updated: May 05, 2014