As Dhaki Faranjicha hikes to the nearest town to sell her milk, she uses a mobile phone to communicate with other women that may meet her on the way to sell their milk. Photo from Guradhere Kebele, Oromia Region, Ethiopia, by Robert Sauers, USAID Ethiopia, February 2015.

Bigger land plots and smarter mobile apps – reshaping smallholder farming in Ethiopia

Over the last 15 years, Ethiopia has seen remarkable economic growth. The agricultural sector is part of this growth, but its proportional contribution to the overall economy has gone down. There is a need to transform Ethiopian agriculture, not least when it comes to the inefficient land laws that impede young people from investing in farmland. In a new policy note, researcher Atakilte Beyene gives recommendations on how this can be done.
In Ethiopia, the average total farm land area per smallholder household is 0.78 hectare. The average number of plots constituting a household farm is four. Since the start of the land redistribution programmes in the mid-1970s, the general trend has been towards smaller and more fragmented land plots.
“For decades now, agricultural reform programmes have emphasised the need for land consolidation and land accumulation among smallholder farmers. But no such trend has yet been observed”, says Atakilte Beyene, senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute. 
The need for land reform
According to Atakilte Beyene, the today’s land tenure system is partly to blame for the land fragmentation. It impedes or prevents the long-term or complete transfer of land. 
“Land leasing, for example, is only practiced for short periods of three years, on average, which makes it difficult for entrepreneurial farmers to plan and take loans for long-term investments”.
Atakilte Beyene advices policy makers to encourage a gradual consolidation of farms through long-term, or permanent, transfer of plots to farmers who are willing and able to invest. Gathering scattered land plots into larger production units would promote investment in improved technologies and methods.
The need for land reform is closely linked to Ethiopia’s demographic challenges. With 71 per cent of the population aged under 30, Ethiopia is a country of young people, who often have little or no opportunity to hold land of their own. And although Ethiopia has a proportionally bigger rural population than other African countries, there is a slow but steadily rising urbanisation trend.
“The expanding cities push up urban demand for major staple crops, which in turn raises the demand for greater production output from the agricultural sector, especially in peri-urban areas”, Beyene argues.
Mobile phone services strengthen smallholders
Atakilte Beyene also argues that the state has an important role in encouraging and helping farmers who wish to develop co-operatives based on industrial crops. For example, by guaranteeing minimum prices for a selected range of crops with industrial potential and through state intervention in the quality grading of farmer products.

"To break the smallholders’ dependence on arbitrary middlemen, the state should build regulations, appoint officials and design information systems that compensates for this imbalance,” Beyene argues.

To some extent, this is already being done today for some products, such as coffee, which is one of Ethiopia’s most important export products. Smallholder coffee farmers can have their beans graded by a public official and then, based on the grading, get money transferred straight to their bank account. 

“This system has to a large extent wiped out the market for those middlemen who come to the farm gate and offer rip-off prices,” Beyene says.

This trend is fuelled by modern technology that helps improve smallholders’ access to markets. Through smartphone apps, toll-free phone-in services, and other trading services, such as the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX), they get updates on world market prices and connect with purchasers in the closest cities.

“However, this technique is not yet available for all crops and all regions. It needs to be further elaborated,” he says.

More policy advice
Land consolidation and smartphone apps are not the only answers to Ethiopia's agricultural challenges. In his policy note, Atakilte Beyene also gives advice on how new water management methods and support for co-operatives can reshape smallholder farming in Ethiopia. Here are his policy recommendations in short:
  • Build capacity in water management. 
  • Secure land rights and promote land consolidation. 
  • Support for co-operatives based on bottom-up initiatives. 
  • Put more effort into post-harvest handling. 
  • Expand the use of trading services.
  • Liberalise the market for extension services.

Land Consolidation, Canals and Apps : Reshaping Agriculture in Ethiopia​ – Policy Note No 3:2019
Download the full-text version from our online repository Diva or read it online as an e-booklet.

About the author

Atakilte Beyene, Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI). His research is mainly focused on governance of natural resources, agricultural transformation and food and energy security – in Ethiopia, and also more broadly in East Africa and the Horn of Africa.

Arable land and agricultural irrigated land – in Ethiopia, in Sub-Saharan Africa and the world. Source: FAO (download original data file in csv-format or excel-format).

Rural vs urban population – from 1960 to 2017. Rural population in Ethiopia went down from 94 per cent in 1960 to 80 per cent in 2017, but the country is still one of the least urbanised in the world – and in Sub-Saharan Africa. Source: World Bank (download original data file in csv-format or excel-format).

Further reading

Order the book from Zed

Agricultural Transformation in Ethiopia

State Policy and Smallholder Farming

Edited by Atakilte Beyene, senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute.

An examination of Ethiopia's agriculture system, and the vitally overlooked importance of this component of development strategy for health and food security in the wider region.

Published by the Nordic Africa Institute and Zed Books in the Africa Now series.

Text and infographics: Henrik Alfredsson


About our policy note series

NAI Policy Notes is a series of short briefs on relevant topics, intended for strategists, analysts and decision makers in foreign policy, aid and development. They aim to inform public debate and generate input into the sphere of policymaking. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute.

Agbo, Mathias Jr ; Makuwira, Jonathan Cruelty by design: how African cities discriminate against people with disabilities 2019
Adegun, Olumuyiwa Community engagement key for upgrading informal settlements 2019
Abraham, Fofana ; Persson, Henrik ; Themnér, Anders Yesterday warlord, today presidential candidate: ex-military leaders running for office in post-civil war societies 2019
Beyene, Atakilte Land consolidation, canals and apps: reshaping agriculture in Ethiopia 2019
Lawson, David ; Dubin, Adam ; Mwambene, Lea Ensuring African Women’s Access to Justice: Engendering Rights for Poverty Reduction in Sub-Saharan Africa 2019
Højlund Madsen, Diana Women’s Political Representation and Affirmative Action in Ghana 2019
Adetula, Victor ; Murithi, Tim ; Buchanan-Clarke, Stephen Peace negotiations and agreements in Africa: why they fail and how to improve them 2018
Bjarnesen, Jesper ; Söderberg Kovacs, Mimmi Violence in African elections 2018
Adu, George ; Dramani, John Bosco Africa’s mineral economies: breaking their dependence on mining 2018
Adetula, Victor The future of EU-Africa cooperation beyond the Cotonou agreement 2018
Aeby, Michael Peace and security challenges in Southern Africa: governance deficits and lacklustre regional conflict management 2018
Bøås, Morten Rival priorities in the Sahel: finding the balance between security and development 2018
Eriksson, Mikael Security without sabre-rattling: counteracting increased militarisation in Africa 2018
Navarra, Cecilia ; Udelsmann Rodrigues, Cristina Debt, aid and poverty in Mozambique: lessons learned from the Mozambican debt crisis 2018
Mohamed Nour, Samia Satti Africa bridging the digital divides 2017
Angerbrandt, Henrik Nigeria and the Lake Chad Region beyond Boko Haram 2017
Eriksson, Mikael Who put the 'Post' in the Post-Arab Spring?: Towards a Fresh Narrative for North Africa 2017
Beyene, Atakilte ; Adetula, Victor Ethiopia in the United Nations Security Council 2017-2018 2017
Adetula, Victor Growing mistrust – a threat to democracy in Ghana: opportunities and challenges in the upcoming general elections 2016
Adetula, Victor Sweden's bid for a UN Security Council seat and what Africa stands to gain 2016
To the top