Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world and has faced enormous challenges feeding its people and providing critical health services to mothers and their children. Yet, I returned from a recent visit excited about advances the country is making in agriculture and health.
If these innovations—which are a top priority for our foundation—succeed, they can be replicated in other African countries that also face big challenges in health and agriculture.
One factor in Ethiopia’s progress is Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his leadership team, who have played a key role in reinventing the country’s agricultural and health systems. Making changes to either would be a big challenge in any country, so it’s even more impressive in Ethiopia, which has the second largest population of any country in Africa but a limited economic infrastructure.
Around 85 percent of the country’s population survives by growing crops on small plots of less than five acres. But frequent droughts and soils that have been depleted of nutrients often led to low crop yields and considerable food insecurity. More than half of the country’s population of 83 million is malnourished and more than 5 million households receive food aid each year.
Our foundation has been working with the Ministry of Agriculture, the county’s new Agricultural Transformation Agency, and other partners to help farmers plant higher-yielding, drought-tolerant seeds, improve soil health and fertility, and get higher prices for their crops by selling to global markets.
At the Melkassa Research Station, one of 13 government-run agricultural outposts, Dr. Markus Walsh, Sr. showed me a new, state-of-the-art technology called NIR spectroscopy that’s part of a digital revolution in agriculture. This portable device, which quickly and cheaply analyzes soil conditions, is a fantastic breakthrough that will help farmers everywhere. But it’s especially valuable in countries like Ethiopia, where farmers haven’t been able to afford laboratory tests but need to know how to amend soils to grow better crops. The spectroscopy is part of an even bigger agricultural digital information system that will provide a comprehensive and detailed map of soil properties across the country.
I also met with a number of farmers to talk about new varieties of sorghum (a grain) and beans they are growing. Beans are very important because they provide protein and people need a combination of protein and grain to have a reasonable diet.
Helping small farmers sell their crops in world markets is another important part of the work we’re supporting in Ethiopia. It’s currently a big challenge because poor farmers may not be growing the right crops for world markets and they often lack the roads, trucks, and other infrastructure necessary to enable exports. And getting foreign investors to help build this “value chain” can be difficult. But I visited one agricultural processing facility called ACOS, that is processing and shipping a variety of beans to European markets. It is jointly owned by an Italian company and Ethiopian investors and is a great example of private investment in developing countries.
What Ethiopia is doing in health is really a model system because it reaches everyone in the country. I visited the Germana Gale Health Post, where I talked to several of the more than 30,000 health extension workers who have been trained in recent years to deliver basic health education, prevention, and treatment. Most of the health workers are women, and those I met were energetic and well-trained.
These kinds of primary health services—giving vaccines, educating women about family health, and promoting hygiene and environmental sanitation—is the foundation for building good health systems in poor countries. Ethiopia’s health system also includes district health centers like the Dalocha Health Center I visited. There, they do a little bit of surgery and have more expertise and a wider variety of drugs. There are also primary hospitals that focus on higher level treatment and some emergency surgery, and general hospitals that deal with serious emergencies and high-risk and specialized care.
Ethiopia still faces some big problems. But the people I met and what I saw re-energized me and increased my optimism that the big investments we and other donors are making in health and agriculture will pay off for the people of Ethiopia and can serve as model activities in other African countries. Improving agricultural productivity and the quality of life through better health services is the key to unleashing the potential of Ethiopia and other poor countries and getting them on the road to self-sufficiency.
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