Every society has staple foods that embody its subsistence strategy. In agricultural societies, this suite of staple crops is determined by a variety of factors: dietary preference, environmental constraints and opportunities, economic development and political economy, and basic nutritional requirements for a functioning social system. The suite of crops that a society consumes embodies all of these factors and their relative importance. For example, in a complex economy like the United States there is access to global food imports as well as a reliance on cheap maize that is artificially priced through subsidies and a massive industrial agricultural system. This is a result of a combination of dietary preference, the political and economic context within which the United States finds access to food, and the environmental opportunities manifested in the maize-growing areas throughout the country. In a stable subsistence agricultural society, however, the foods that are consumed are more likely a reflection of more immediate environmental constraints and opportunities. A tighter variety of dishes and local fare reflects the reliance subsistence agricultural societies have on local resources and environmental conditions. 

The area of southern Ethiopia where Nuru is working is characterized by a dramatic diversity of ecological zones. Boreda (the district where Nuru is working) is a jagged landscape of rising and falling highlands. At its lowest points it dips into the 3,000-4,000 foot range, while at its highest points it surges to over 7,000 feet. This diverse landscape thus presents a variety of agro-ecological zones that require different crop choices and agricultural strategies. In the three kebeles (Amharic “neighbourhood”) we will be working with in 2014, for example, there is almost 500 feet separating the lowest kebele (Hambisa) from the highest kebele (Metakamele). The soils, rainfall, and temperatures between these two ecological zones are remarkably different. As a result, farmers in these two kebeles have deployed vastly different agricultural adaptions to their environments. In Hambisa, there is a mid-land agricultural regime of maize, teff, haricot bean, and sweet potatoes mixed with tree crops like mango, guava, papaya, avocado, and citrus. The landscape in Hambisa is even low enough to support the small-scale production of bananas. In Metakamele, farmers work with clay soils that are susceptible to water-logging during the rainy season. They also have access to highland springs that can be diverted to irrigate vegetable gardens and sugar cane fields during the dry season. The staple crops in Metakamele include maize, sweet potatoes, haricot bean, taro, chick peas, teff, and rice. Farmers in Metakamele, however, dedicate much less land to maize, teff, sweet potatoes, and haricot beans than in the other kebeles and instead produce higher quantities of taro and rice. This is because of a combination of the soil structure and rainfall patterns that is far different from what is present in Dubana Bullo and Hambisa. Interestingly, rice also has a historical dimension replete with a narrative about rice being “brought” to Metakamele by an enterprising farmer in the early 1990s. This is a good reminder that culture can determine dietary preference just as much as the environment (a reminder not to be deterministic)!

Farmers in Metakamele getting ready to plant an improved variety of taro.

Farmers in Metakamele getting ready to plant an improved variety of taro.

While this undulating landscape is a challenge in many ways, it also presents Nuru with a unique opportunity to test our commitment to scalability. In designing our agriculture program, we realized that focusing on a narrow suite of crops (maize, haricot beans, and sweet potatoes) would exclude Metakamele from experiencing the full benefits of our agricultural intervention. If this was the case, how could we claim that our intervention is scalable? Metakamele is within five kilometers of Hambisa, so if our program was impactful in one kebele but not impactful in the other then we would be compromising our commitment to impact and scalability. It was thus important for us to adapt our program to the prevailing variables that influence the subsistence strategies in the kebeles we are working with. Furthermore, when we acknowledged that this program is going to scale throughout Boreda – and then the Gamo Gofa zone, and eventually much of Ethiopia – we realized that an important component of a scalable agriculture program in such an inconsistent environment had to be flexibility. By holding on to certain core components of the agriculture program that are easily scalable – cooperative granaries, capacity building, and increased access to inputs – but leaving room for flexibility and diversification in our selection of crops, we created an agriculture program that can guarantee a high impact in any kebele that we work with, regardless of its environmental limitations (provided it is an area that practices agriculture).

In the next blog entry, I will discuss the particular crops that Nuru Ethiopia will be working with in the kebeles. In addition to describing their characteristics, benefits, and challenges, I will also discuss their local context and their various culinary manifestations.