How one group is helping Ethiopian farmers plant their way to success
Learn how a seed specialist figured out a way to increase a plant's yield by five times.
It sounds like a great solution – give local farmers access to high-quality seeds and a few tips on how to grow them, and they’ll be able to provide nutritious food to feed and support their families.
That’s exactly the strategy a new Israeli-based NGO is taking. A team of experts and volunteers from Fair Planet is giving Ethiopian farmers access to high-quality seeds and training. The best seeds for the climate and cultural demand are selected from the biggest players in the industry, and farmers grow them using basic, traditional methods. In a single season, a farmer can increase his yield by five times.
Fair Planet was founded by seed industry veteran Dr. Shoshan Haran, who realized she had a solution for a known problem, and it was up to her to implement it. “Aid organizations didn’t know how to talk to the seed industry, and the seed industry didn’t know how to talk to the aid organizations. I was able to create the bridge,” Haran told From the Grapevine.
Dr. Shoshan Haran bringing high quality seedlings to the field. (Photo: Fair Planet)
Haran grew up in Israel and studied plant protection at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After completing her Ph.D. she received a Fulbright scholarship to do post-doctoral work focusing on plant science at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
When she returned to Israel, she entered the seed industry with a job at Hazera, the largest seed company in Israel, now a subsidiary of France’s Limagrain. She spent 11 years in the company and was in charge of research collaborations with external groups like universities and biotech companies to develop new traits to improve the plants.
“On one hand, when you work for this industry, you realize that they are developing the basis for the food supply in the world,” she told us, stressing that the seeds she works with are not genetically modified.
But on the other hand, there are millions of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Haran began to think about what she could do to help solve some of these problems. She realized that the best way to improve farmers’ productivity is to give them access to better seeds suitable for their needs.
After resigning from her job, Haran launched Fair Planet in 2012. She easily enlisted the support of her former employer, and also reached out to their competitors. “I told them from the start, I want Fair Planet to be an open platform."
She pulled together a group of volunteers from Israel, including geneticist and plant breeder Dr. Alon Haberfeld as Fair Planet’s technology manager. In order to prove that their model would work, they needed to test it. They launched their first project in Ethiopia with the help of the Israeli aid organization Mashav.
The first thing Fair Planet does when they enter a new location is to complete a “product profile,” that is, to analyze the needs of the local farmers, conditions, pests and the market. Then they send the profile to the seed companies who select a short list of candidate varieties to test.
While large-scale farmers tend to grow staple crops like corn and wheat, small-scale farmers grow vegetables as cash crops. Oval tomatoes are a very important part of the Ethiopian diet. Haran says the idea is not to develop specific varieties for these farmers, but to take what’s already developed and find out what are the best varieties for their needs.
“My previous company, Hazera, has developed more than a hundred tomato varieties. “When I sent them the needs of the Ethiopian people, they sent me eight,” she told us.
Fair Planet spent the first two years doing technical variety trials before they began on-the-ground training. Then they expanded from tomatoes to hot chilies and onions, and trained 160 Ethiopian farmers in four agro-climatic regions, each of which requires different varieties.
“What we showed is that we could increase the Ethiopian farmers' yield more than five times just by providing them better varieties and guidelines for production for these new high-yielding hybrid varieties,” Haran explained.
The average income in Ethiopia is only about $550 per year, but a farmer growing high-quality tomatoes in just a quarter-acre plot can more than double his annual income. From those profits, the farmer is able to improve the livelihood of his family and buy more seeds for the next year.
Fair Planet has now partnered with the world’s leading seed companies: Limagrain, Syngenta in Switzerland, Enza Zaden and East West Seed in the Netherlands and Germany’s Bayer CropScience.
“In the past, we just put the seeds to grow," said Ibsa Mustaffa, a farmer in Ethiopia. "Now we have the know-how, and produce good quality crop. Now I have a savings account for the future.” Mustaffa’s plot generated a profit of about $1,300 after he completed the training through Fair Planet.
Haran says she hopes to scale up the program and expand to other hunger-stricken countries in Sub-Saharan Africa like Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda.
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Related Topics: Humanitarian