It doesn’t get much drier than Atsbi Wenberta. This dusty, remote woreda, or district, in the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray, gets around 600 mm of rain a year. That’s in a good year, and they don’t come along very often. Tigray is one of the world’s drought hotspots, with the latest dry spell lasting more than three years.
Making a living from the stony, arid landscape is beyond challenging. The soil is seriously degraded and there are just a few stunted trees. Most of the villages are above 2,600 metres and the steep slopes are so eroded that even when the rain does fall, it simply runs off - sometimes causing devastating flash floods. In 2015-16 alone, nearly half the cattle died.
“When I was young, life was good,” says father of five Abdella Ali sadly. “Crops were abundant and there were few problems. The hills and valleys were covered with trees. But gradually things got worse. Perhaps it was our own fault - we had to clear the forest for charcoal and firewood, and to cultivate more land. We had less and less food, and meals got smaller.”
Yet against this daunting background, a remarkable success story has quietly been gathering pace. A ten year, €241 million investment by the EU in Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme is paying off.
“I have nine children, and I couldn’t feed my family,” says Lemlem Kahsay, a farmer from Atsbi Wenberta. “We were overwhelmed by problems. Sometimes we could only eat once a day. But the safety net helped me develop my farm. I’ve bought a cow and taken out a loan for a water pump.”
The programme works by providing employment on public infrastructure projects like irrigation, building hillside terraces or growing trees for reforesting the bare hillsides. In return, participants get paid either in cash or kind.
Fifty-six year old Bayray Kahsay runs a nursery where he and his team grow seedlings to plant out and replace the trees which for decades were chopped down for firewood and charcoal. He’s passionate about the project. “Here in the nursery we put our hearts into the public work projects. We prepare millions of seedlings. If we are paid in food, we get three kilograms of grain a day. If we receive cash, it’s 20 birr [€0.80] per day. “The food shortage is gradually getting better. Previously there was nothing but drought and desertification. Everything was dry, but now the countryside is coming back to life.”
The safety net programme is a win-win. Not only to the communities receive food and money in return for their work, but they also benefit from living and working in a much-improved environment. Villagers have better access to clean water and they have enough fodder to feed their livestock. Some are branching out into new sources of income like bee keeping - honey is one of Ethiopia’s biggest exports.
Over the past eight years, 1.5 million people have passed through the EU safety net programme. With the extra food, cash and training they’ve received, they are able to stand on their own feet with enough income or enough food to feed themselves.
Now, Lemlem can afford to smile when she contemplates the future. “I’m looking to open a shop to sell what I grow. I want to be able to live comfortably and in peace. And finally I can start making some money to give my children a better life.”
Video: Food security in exchange for public works