Aberu's Savings Plan

Building resilience to recurring drought in Ethiopia

Story by Nic Corbett | Photos by Thomas Cristofoletti
May 2019

In the south Tigray region of Ethiopia, it’s harvest season. Aberu Mamo, a 33-year-old farmer, is hard at work cutting wheat in the fields. Her husband herds oxen in a circle, trampling the cuttings to separate the grain from the straw, a process known as threshing.

A woman holds a basket for sifting wheat.
An overhead picture of cattle circling around a pile of feed.
Closeup of wheat stalks.
Portrait of a woman.

Aberu was born in this village at a time when the country was experiencing severe drought. With no rain, crops failed. Grain prices spiked. Widespread famine followed. About 1 million people died. “People couldn’t get food to eat,” she says. “Children were unable to breastfeed because they lost their mothers to hunger.”

Overhead picture of terraced hillsides with mountains in the background.
A family portrait of two parents and three children.

These days, Aberu is no longer worried about the prospect of drought. That’s because with USAID’s help she has learned strategies to prepare her family to fight back. “The money saved can be used to pass the worst time,” Aberu says.

A few years ago, USAID, through Feed the Future, connected Aberu and her husband, Samuel Shumuye, 38, with a coach to teach them financial literacy and business skills. They learned how to use loans to invest in new ways of making money.

Aberu began selling cooking oil to her neighbors as a result, and her husband went into the cattle trade, fattening cows to sell every three months.

A man feeds cattle.
Closeup of a chicken eating from the ground.
A woman pours oil through a funnel into a bottle.

Before, Aberu and her husband were registered for the Government of Ethiopia’s social safety net program, which distributes a mix of food and cash to low-income households. Within a year of participating in the USAID project, they were able to make enough money on their own to graduate from the safety net.

“It is a huge disadvantage if your life depends on donations,” Aberu says. “Having a source of income is much better.”

A man drives cattle.

With their profits, the family bought materials to build a house surrounded by a cactus fence. “The house we had before was so small, I used to eat and sleep in the same place,” Aberu says.

Aberu also replaced the clay oven she used to make injera with an electric oven that produces no smoke, improving her health. “I have now learned that if I work hard, I can solve any problem,” she says.

A woman cooks.
A woman stands among cactuses.
A wood fence.
A group of people sits on the ground talking.

Aberu joined a community savings group known as a Village Economic and Social Association (VESA). The VESA is made up of 14 neighbors, both men and women, who meet once a month to pool their savings together. Members can take out small loans for investments. “We support each other,” says Aberu, who is the deputy head of her VESA. “If someone is in debt from our group and I am not, I help them.”

Closeup of a notebook with handwritten columns and data
Portrait of a woman outdoors.

Aberu’s VESA also serves as a platform for talking about women’s empowerment. “I advise women and girls to be independent and work hard like we do,” she says.

A family portrait in front of a home.

With USAID’s support, villages like Aberu’s are becoming more resilient to recurring drought, helping break the cycle of emergency food aid.

“If severe drought happens here, I could withdraw from my savings and manage to take care of my children and other family members,” Aberu says. “But if we didn’t have savings, we would be obliged to sell our cattle or sheep, and we would go back to the same old life of poverty and eventually death.”

A woman carries a water jug.

“I never worry about drought happening again in this area,” Aberu says. “Even if it did happen, we are prepared.”

About This Story

Feed the Future’s Graduation with Resilience to Achieve Sustainable Development (GRAD) project began in 2011 to build resilience among chronically food-insecure households in Amhara, Tigray, Oromia and SNNP (Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’) regions of Ethiopia. Led by CARE in partnership with local and international organizations, GRAD improves long-term food security by connecting families to economic opportunities and financial, agricultural, and nutrition services to end reliance on the Ethiopian Government’s Productive Safety Net Program.

Through GRAD, families learn to invest money from loans to start small businesses and diversify assets, helping them nearly double their annual incomes and increase savings by fourfold on average. As a result, 80 percent of families graduated from the safety net program. Today, the Feed the Future Livelihoods for Resilience activity builds on GRAD’s success, helping many more families achieve a brighter and more prosperous future.


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