Gambella’s land is extremely fertile and if managed properly could feed the entire Ethiopian population. However, because of poor management, bureaucracy, ineffective loan systems, corruption, and security problems the region has failed to live up to its potential. Investors in the area complain about poor regional administration, and economic experts argue that the farms do not benefit locals. Adege Nigussie, was one of the first investors in Gambella and owner of Westren Agro Processing Industry Zone, but because of regional mismanagement he shut down his business in Gambella. He sat down with Capital’s reporter Tesfaye Getnet to tell his story and talk about the state of commercial farming in Gambella.
Capital: What is the state of commercial farming in Gambella today?
Adege Nigussie: Mechanized farming started in Gambella during the Derge regime following the proclamation “land to the tiller” this caused large farms to become fragmented and decreased productivity. Then the Derg created state run farms to alleviate reoccurring famines. After the down fall of the Derg regime, commercial farming began and some companies such as Bazin and Agri Mech were successful. After the Ethiopian millennium about 90 international and local investors purchased land and ran commercial farms. When banks began giving loans for rain fed agriculture, about 1,000 local investors appeared in Gambella, but to answer your question there are only 10 investors who are engaged in commercial farming the rest are gone with the wind.
Capital: Why does Gambella not have a significant amount of farm exports when it has such fertile land?
Adege: You are right the Gambella region has virgin arable land. Its arable land is almost equivalent to the Netherlands which is one the world’s top agricultural producers and exporters.
However; it is able to feed its 16 million people and export products but Gambella is not able to feed its 300,000 people. Ethiopia’s export GDP in agriculture contributes 83.9% out of which Gambella contributes less than 10% Most sectors in Ethiopia have properly articulated policy and regulations and so does agriculture. We need to figure out what the problem is. One dilemma is that sectors like agriculture are being led by political appointees who often do not have any clue about effective policies while people who actually know what they are doing are often in subordinate positions.
Capital: Are the county’s policy and regulations enough to guide commercial farming in Ethiopia?
Adege: Most sectors in Ethiopia have properly articulated policy and regulations and so does agriculture. We should make a proper evaluation to find out where our short comings are. As far as we are concerned we feel that most sectors like agriculture are being led by political appointees who want to be an expert while the expert in the area tends to be subordinate.
Capital: What happened with your farming investment in Gambella?
Adege: Our business was one of the few profitable farms in Gambella because there were not many local or international investors. But soon an organized gang came and disturbed our farm. They were made up of laborers but apparently were organized by ministry level people. I was put in jail five times for no reason other than I was from a certain ethnic group and that I had money.
Even though we endured many inflictions, we were the first to invest in a cotton farm in Abobo Wereda. We purchased additional land to potentially build an agro processing plant and cotton gin. Once people saw that we were doing well they worked harder to sabotage our operation.
My land was invaded and then without notifying us people constructed buildings on the land. When this occurred we appealed to responsible government bodies from the Prime Minister to the Wereda Administrator and ARRA to prevent people from unlawfully occupying our land. While we were taking the case to them, they unlawfully imprisoned me over five times without any conviction. Now we have decided to take the case to the court to get our land back or financial compensation.
Capital: How to you plan to get your land back and restart commercial farming?
Adege: This is a new era when justice will prevail for all citizens and we will see growth. We are very optimistic that we will get our unlawfully confiscated land returned or be financially compensated. With regards to the plan we have for the upcoming year, we will enhance our cotton farm productivity and build a cotton knitting plant in order to add value and make products for the export market.
Capital: Why do you think local people in Gambella don’t invest in farming there?
Adege: Most investors throughout history have been from government affiliated groups. This is because they are the only ones who get loans and know information through government channels. Disadvantaged groups including native populations do not get transparent information and are not able to tackle problems. In the Gambella region there is only one native investor his name is Okum Ojulu.
He got land from his brother and developed a farm for over 10 years. He was able to get a loan and became the first and only local individual farmer. The other farms were from the farm union at Pugnudo being developed by native people.
Capital: GMO cotton is allowed to be used in Ethiopia and other GMO crops like corn are being studied. Some think it will enhance production and others fear it will reduce soil fertility and hurt our environment and health. What is your stand on GMO seeds in the country?
Adege: Cotton production has suffered from low yields because seeds have stayed around a long time and pests such as the Mealybug and Pink Bollworm diminish its production. Cotton production in Ethiopia was about 60,000 tons/h in 2012/13 however; it declined to 38,000 t/h in 2017/18 while we import 19,000t from India to meet the 2017/18 local demand. When we see the demand of cotton in Ethiopia, it has increased alarmingly because many industrial parks were being built and numerous international textile companies are attracted to Ethiopia (such as H & M) the cotton market will likely increase. Therefore, we should use BT cotton to meet the growing local demand and international exports while we also should use organic cotton product for the organic market.
Capital: What kind of reforms do you think should be initiated to transform commercial farming across Ethiopia?
Adege: Ethiopia should enhance commercial farming. The country should facilitate the market system to the investors. It needs to create ties with agricultural universities with a vicinity agriculture office in order to facilitate chemical supplies, soil fertility tests, seed supplies and skilled human resources. It needs to avoid the entire political entrepreneur and make the investment open to the genuine entrepreneur. Costs can be reduced by using combiners and up to date technology, while leaving the financial sectors to professionals only.