Ethiopia’s farmers are flocking to a hotline that provides free agricultural advice about planting crops, using fertiliser and preparing land as part of a government initiative to turn subsistence farmers into surplus sellers.
The automated hotline has received nearly 1.5m calls from more than 300,000 farmers since it launched 12 weeks ago, according to Khalid Bomba, CEO of the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), an internationally backed government initiative. The 90 lines are now taking an average of 35,000 calls a day.
Other African countries have used similar methods to get information to farmers, but Ethiopia’s initial success is unparalleled, Khalid said. “The numbers speak for themselves,” he said. “It’s working and the farmers are finding it useful.”
The advice line is just one of 82 targets on the three-year-old agency’s agenda, which include devising “value chain” strategies for each key crop, increasing the use of higher-yielding seed and making credit more widely available for the nation’s approximately 70 million smallholder farmers. One of its most high-profile projects has been a soil-mapping exercise to understand which areas of the ecologically diverse country are suitable for particular crops and fertilisers.
ATA’s data shows around a quarter of callers to the hotline have been what are known in Ethiopia as “model farmers” or “development agents”. Both groups are used by the government to impart information at the grassroots. The content on the phoneline is replicating advice offered as part of Ethiopia’s Agricultural Extension Programme – a longstanding effort to provide farmers with tutorials and inputs such as seeds and fertilisers.
One young “educator”, Shimeles, was brought to the capital, Addis Ababa, by the ATA to explain how useful he’d been finding the new service, which is available in three of Ethiopia’s main languages: Amharic, Oromo and Tigrinya. He said people’s enthusiasm surged when they found out it was free and that “it was like watching television as the information comes to you”. The government has advertised the initiative on national and local radio but workers like Shimeles “are the best promotion and awareness people”, Khalid said.
Ethiopia’s government relies on support in rural areas. About 80% of the population of around 90 million live outside towns and cities. An extensive political apparatus reaches down to household level, and according to critics, the regime’s cadres often double as agricultural development agents.
The extension system “is driven by political imperatives aimed at effectively controlling the bulk of the Ethiopian electorate”, said academic Kassahun Berhanu in a 2012 paper for the Future Agricultures Consortium, which is partly funded by the Department for International Development.
More surprising than the government’s ability to use its networks to promote the hotline is the huge volume of calls from rural areas. This raised eyebrows because of the unreliability of the state monopoly provider Ethio Telecom. Even in relatively developed Addis Ababa, calls often do not go through or are dropped mid-conversation. And while mobile-phone penetration is at 69% on the continent, in Ethiopia it stands at only 27%, according to the International Telecommunications Union.
The ATA, which takes a highly technocratic approach, describes itself as a “problem solving organisation” that will help propel Ethiopia to middle-income status – an ambition the government wants to achieve in the next decade. Unlike most other government agencies, its staff includes plenty of foreigners and returning members of the diaspora.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has said Ethiopia’s economic gains have reduced rural poverty rather than just enriching an urban elite, and projected an annual economic growth rate of about 8% over the coming years.
The ATA was supported by Ethiopia’s hugely influential former prime minister Meles Zenawi, who initially directed its work as chairman of an oversight council. So far, one of the organisation’s main successes has been introducing a package for improved production of the staple cereal, teff, which saw yields increase by up to 73% last year compared to the national average.
The ATA works closely with Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture and other partners including UNDP, USAid, the Nike Foundation, the World Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Khalid’s team plans to expand the new hotline to also cover pulses, cotton and flowers, but admits that it has not yet proved its effectiveness at boosting productivity. “Impact is ultimately the driver of everything we have to do,” he said.