Sunday, 15 February 2009

Investment in the livestock sector is helping poor Eritrean farmers cope with their many challenges

In drought-prone Eritrea, livestock is a farmer’s most valuable asset. Eritrean farmers consider animal husbandry as one of their main lifelines and a form of insurance in times of drought and other types of disasters.

Recent World Bank statistics show that agriculture constitutes 18 per cent of GDP in Eritrea and that livestock plays a vital role in generating food and income. Livestock represents an affordable energy source for both lighting and cooking. It is also used for draught work, transportation and threshing. In addition, the animals provide an invaluable source of organic fertilizer. Rural households, particularly those without access to rural roads, make extensive use of livestock to transport a range of necessities and items from water to firewood to cargo.

The livestock sector was seriously damaged during the 1998-2000 Eritrea-Ethiopia border conflict. Today, climate change is exerting further pressure on the sector.

According to the Global Environment Facility (GEF), crop cultivation and animal husbandry account for 60 per cent of rural incomes in Eritrea. GEF models and estimates show that the anticipated climate change will adversely affect the agricultural sector in Eritrea. The models suggest that Eritrea will experience a decrease in rainfall and a rise in temperature over the coming decades. This will mean more dry spells and a reduction in soil moisture and will therefore negatively affect the pastoralist sector.

To face these challenges and assist poor rural people in overcoming their poverty, the Government of Eritrea, the Ministry of Agriculture and donors such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) have joined forces to rebuild the Eritrean agricultural sector.

IFAD-funded projects such as Gash Barka Livestock and Agricultural Development Project and the Post-Crisis Rural Recovery and Development Programme (PCRRDP) are providing the Eritrean Government and rural communities with assistance to revitalize the livestock sector and help the rural population engage in other agriculture-related activities.

Eritrean farmers and pastoralists are embracing dairy production systems

Zoba Debub, also known as the southern region, lies along the border with Ethiopia and shares its western border with the Gash-Barka region. The region has an area of 8,000 km2 and its rural population depends on farming and herding.

The Mendefera milk collection centre was built in 2000 and became operational in 2001 under the IFAD-funded Gash Barka Livestock and Agricultural Development Project. Today, the centre is fully managed by a farmers’ cooperative. The cooperative is composed of 435 dairy farmers. Almost 90 per cent of the cooperative’s members are small-scale farmers who own between one and five dairy cows. The cooperative has four large-scale farmers who have approximately 70 dairy cows and 40 medium-scale farmers who own 10-17 dairy cows.

Solomon Beraki is one of the cooperative’s small-scale farmers. He leaves his farm early each morning to bring his milk to the milk collection centre. "I travel approximately four kilometres, carrying the milk in yellow plastic jars tied to my bicycle", says Beraki.

At the centre, Goitun Gebregergis Mounjar, one of the technicians, tests the milk for adulteration. "When the farmer brings in the milk, it is tested to make sure it meets the required standards and the adulteration specifications," explains Mounjar.

"After these tests the milk is poured into a special container for blending. The blended milk is tested in the laboratory for quality control. Here it is checked and certified, and impurity, fat and protein content are recorded", explains Monjuar.

After the testing, the milk is transferred to the chilling tank, where it is kept at 4˚C. The tank can hold up to 3,000 litres", says Mounjar triumphantly.

"Once the milk passes the rigorous test, I register the amount in the ledger, wash the containers so that they are ready for tomorrow's expedition", explains Beraki.

"Before the project, we used to produce a maximum of two litres of milk and sold it in the village or immediate surroundings. Today, on average the small-scale farmers produce 10 litres per day which we sell at 12 nakfa (ERN) per litre", says Beraki with a smile. "As a result, I am able to send all my four children to school and I can pay hospital and medical fees when necessary and, most importantly, my family is well fed". He adds, "the cooperative staff have educated us about the nutritional value of milk and have also taught us to boil the milk before drinking it."

"Each day, the centre receives 1,200 litres of milk, which is sold locally to consumers at 14 nakfa per litre", says Mounjar. "The daily excess is sent the following day to Asmara where it is pasteurized and sold to supermarkets." "Every month, we send 20,000 litres of excess milk to Asmara", says Mounjar proudly.

One of the challenges facing Eritrean farmers is the shortage of forage such as alfalfa. Compared with other hay crops, alfalfa is a high-yielding forage plant and has high feed value.

"We know that if the animals have good feed, they will give more milk", says Beraki. "But the problem is that feed is scarce".

"I have five cows, I would like to have more, but that depends on the forage", explains Beraki. "I am now leasing forage land for 1,500 nakfa per year. If I were assured of good feed, I would be willing to pay more to have more forage land."

The Zoba Debub milk collection centre has improved the livelihoods of the cooperative’s members. Over the last seven years, the centre has provided the farmers and their households with a secure source of income and their children with a safe and secure source of highly nutritional food.

"The centre is flourishing and is self-sufficient" says Gbazghi Kefle, coordinator of the Post-Crisis Rural Recovery and Development Programme. "It is staffed by two technicians and is fully managed by the cooperative itself". "Its finances are also blooming; the cooperative holds 750,000 Nakfa in savings and thanks to the commitment of its members it has become sustainable", says Kefle.

"The cooperative's vision is to use part of the savings to set up a feed processing plant, to get a better equipped laboratory and, last but not least, to join forces with private-sector operators to set-up a pasteurization plant", says Kefle.

"Thanks to the Government's awareness-building campaign we've learned the benefits of pasteurized milk", says Beraki. "So we are keen to install a pasteurization plant which will allow us to pasteurize our milk and sell it at a higher price to the supermarkets in Asmara".

"IFAD’s assistance under the Post-Crisis Rural Recovery and Development Programme is helping the Mendefera milk collection centre to improve the quality certification laboratory", explains Abla Benhammouche, IFAD country programme manager for Eritrea.

"Together with the Government of Eritrea we are planning to replicate this experience in other sub-zoba (administrative regions) and promote zoba-wide cooperatives to meet the aspirations of many farmers."

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