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Though Ethiopia has achieved strong economic growth since 2007, it remains one of the world's poorest countries. Eighty percent of Ethiopians live in rural areas and subsist mainly on agriculture. Smallholder farmers are very vulnerable to increasing droughts and climate variability. Better access to inputs, technologies, credit and markets will help boost productivity and improve livelihoods.

$170 - Ethiopia's annual per capita income

8 out of 10 - Ethiopians subsist on agriculture

Over 12 million - Ethiopians who depend upon

some form of food aid

38% - Percentage of Ethiopia's children under five who are underweight


General context

Ethiopia has a population of around 80 million (second largest in Africa) growing at 2.6% a year. It covers about 1 million square kms and makes up a large part of the Horn of Africa. The country has a very varied topography and climate. About 85% of the population lives in the temperate zone in the highlands.

Since 2007, Ethiopia has achieved strong economic growth, making it one of the highest performing economies in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet it remains one of the world's poorest countries with an annual per capita income of only US$ 170.

Infant and maternal mortality rates and child malnutrition are among the highest in the world. Nearly 40% of children under 5 are underweight. Life expectancy at birth is 54.7 years. Over 12 million people in Ethiopia face chronic or sporadic food insecurity and farmers are very vulnerable to climate variability, especially drought.


Eighty percent of Ethiopians live in rural areas and subsist mainly on agriculture. Ethiopian women provide most of the labour on small farms, yet their access to resources and control of the same is mediated through men, either their fathers or husbands.

The main crops grown include coffee, cereals, maize, sorghum, wheat, barley and millet. Most farmers are smallholders with over half cultivating plots of 1 hectare or less and struggling to produce enough food to feed their families. During the pre-harvest period, a large number of poor households face a long hunger season. Smallholder farmers are highly vulnerable to external shocks such as market fluctuations and climate variability like droughts. Over 12 million people depend upon some food aid assistance throughout the year in order to meet basic needs.

Persistent lack of rainfall impacts on rural poverty. Vulnerable households living in the pastoral areas of the lowlands and the high-density parts of the highlands are most at risk. Over the past decade, drought has become more frequent and severe and this is predicted to worsen in the future. Very few farms are irrigated and agriculture is dependent on rainfall. Farms also suffer from low levels of inputs and poor productivity as well as poor land management practices which have resulted in degraded lands.

The limited access to microfinance services in rural areas partly explains the low agricultural investment and productivity. Women particularly suffer from the lack of access to credit which lowers their ability to purchase inputs and invest in farms.

There are weak market linkages on both the input and output side. Farmers don't know about or can’t access improved inputs. Poor linkages between agricultural outputs and processors (ie, insufficient packaging and storage, inability of Ethiopian products to meet international market standards, and restrictive trade regulations) are among the major constraints.

However, Ethiopia has high potential for agricultural development given that only about 25% of its arable land is currently being cultivated. IFPRI’s General Equilibrium Model indicates that a 6% annual agriculture growth rate could help 3.7 million Ethiopians escape poverty by 2015, if population growth rates remain stagnant. 

Working with the government and national partners

Ethiopia's semi-arid environment that constitutes more than 47% of the land area, is one of ICRISAT's high priority countries. The Ethiopian government is strongly focussed on improving agriculture, with . investments having been made in a wide agricultural extension system and a commitment of 16% of public expenditure to the sector. The new Agricultural Growth Program (AGP) and the new Agriculture Transformation Agency (ATA) have been set up to address key sectoral constraints.

Despite the government's efforts to encourage intensive agricultural practices, productivity remains very low with limited access and use of improved technologies. For instance, under 5% of farmers use improved seeds and only 39% use any kind of chemical fertilizer.

For example, germplasm-sharing and capacity building assistance from  ICRISAT to Ethiopia-EIAR has contributed to major chickpea production gains in East Shewa Zone of Oromia region, benefiting nearly one million farm households. For instance:

  • Yields increased by 75% to 1.4 tons/ha from 2003-05 to 2010
  • National production increased by 136% to 402,000 tons from 2003-05 to 2012
  • About a quarter of the crop is exported; export earnings increased 21-fold, to US$ 21 million per annum from 2005 to 2010.
  • Models predict that these gains will lift at least 0.7 million people out of poverty during 2001-30.

Stronger partnerships with national partners are expected to increase the area under improved chickpea varieties from the current 25% to 50% over the next 3-4 years. This calls for an investment of US$ 33 million but will benefit the country and its chickpea growing farmers by more than US$ 330 million every year.

Partnerships are underway for sustainable agricultural development notably with ICRISAT's Bhoochetana (land rejuvenation) program in India. This natural resource management program which covers 3.5 million ha of agricultural land in the Indian state of Karnataka, has proven that improved technologies such as soil fertility management and improved varieties resulted in a 20% growth in the target areas. Ethiopia's agriculture minister is keen to transfer this success to benefit the smallholder farms in his country.

ICRISAT research priorities in Ethiopia

  • Improving production and productivity of dryland cereal and legume crops through collaborative research, development and dissemination of improved varieties
  • Sustainable management of natural resources under variable climate conditions
  • Improving access to input and output markets and enabling policy and institutions to drive the uptake of new technologies
  • Adoption and utilization of improved varieties is promoted through:
    • Support to seed multiplication
    • Awareness creation on using improved varieties and fertilizer microdosing
    • Capacity building along the sorghum and millet value chain in areas such as seed production, hybrid development, agribusiness, financial management and marketing
    • Support to post graduate studies
    • Watershed-based management of natural resources started in 2010 is helping to rehabilitate degraded land, increase productivity and diversify incomes in semi-arid Ethiopia where climate variability is a severe constraint to crop production.

Current programs

Important documents

World Bank, Ethiopia

IFAD strategy Ethiopia

IFAD rural poverty portal

FAO country profile Ethiopia