SEED PROGRAMS INTERNATIONAL: THE BIRHAN LADIES: PLANTING CHANGE IN ETHIOPIA
GrowEastAfrica (GEA) and Seed Programs International (SPI) have partnered in Burji district to augment rural farmer families’ traditional knowledge about local farming and agriculture. By gaining access to high-quality vegetable seeds and learning new farming practices, families reduce their food vulnerability by growing nutritious vegetables and quinoa for self-sufficiency.
The GEA-SPI partnership focuses on the Birhan Ladies Group: a fifty-member women’s farming cooperative that was formed after 2,000 refugee families relocated near the town of Mega in southern Ethiopia. The refugee families—all traditionally-skilled farmers—fled their homes to escape inter-ethnic clashes between two Oromo tribes, the larger Borana tribe and smaller Burji tribe.
Leaving their farms and animals behind, families traveled 200 miles to take shelter in the Burji district, their ancestral home. Since then, about half of the refugee families have returned to their former homes, while others remained in the Burji district to start new lives — like the Birhan Ladies Group who are regaining power over their own lives through this project.
In the first phase of this project, the Birhan Ladies group introduced vegetables and quinoa as new crops alongside the traditional teff crop on 4.5 hectares of farmland. The farmers prepared the soil using new techniques learned from GEA training, sowed seeds accessed through the partnership, and tended the plants. Their skilled care led to a higher yield than the previous harvest seasons. The harvests were shared for consumption among the members, and a portion was sold at the local and surrounding markets. The increased yield correspondingly improved the livelihoods of over 300IDPs and increased access to nutritionally-diverse vegetables for many in the community. Their resounding success increased the surrounding community’s interest in home vegetable gardens and the nearby farmers' interest in growing quinoa on their farms.
Worldwide, climate change and responses to COVID-19 have posed significant challenges for folks working in locations already stressed from historical violence and exploitation. The Birhan Ladies are no exception. Unexpected and continuous heavy rain washed away seeds and waterlogged sapling plants, ultimately resulting in crop loss. COVID-19 restrictions further stressed the group and community, straining the group’s cooperative efforts. In response, the GrowEastAfrica team quickly implemented training that mitigated the environmental and social stressors, and they developed a strategy to minimize the impact of water stagnation and waterlogging on the farm. For instance, farmers dug new drainage ditches to divert excess water from the crops and implemented COVID safety standards on the farm to continue their work.
The Birhan Ladies Group faces additional challenges because they are women.. Burji is a primarily male-dominated society. Burji women are not allowed to participate in or hold any meaningful decision-making roles, and there are very few women working in the district offices, especially at the management-level. As part of GEA’s program\, the Birhan Ladies Group is laying the groundwork to improve gender equality through farming. As they become key contributors to the local economy through their vegetable production and local cereal market participation, they are establishing their presence in the supply chain. If men recognize the value of women's leadership development because it results in income generation, social attitudes — and the corresponding material benefits — could shift toward greater gender equality.
With GrowEastAfrica’s assistance and the perseverance of the Birhan Ladies, the success of their project remains steady. Crop yields are again projected to increase from previous years, and the community’s nutrition is improving. The Birhan Ladies’ confidence has been key to this success. GrowEastAfrica reports:
“This partnership has increased the amount of nutritious food available for families. As refugees, the Birhan Ladies received a few kilograms of grain, typically maize, for consumption. Today, they grow their own vegetables, teff, and quinoa. Not only do they have access to more food, but the food is nutritionally diverse, providing a more balanced diet for their family's—and the community’s—health and well-being.“