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Learning by doing in Ethiopia

Field trips provided farmers with practical information (© Wim Goris)
Field trips provided farmers with practical information
© Wim Goris

Much of the honey produced in Ethiopia is turned into tej, a spiced alcoholic beverage regarded as the national drink. Beeswax, made from the honeycombs, is used to make candles that light thousands of churches around the country. So beekeeping might seem a sweet business to be in. But the Wollela Cooperative, from Adama Woreda in Oromia state, found that its business was going sour:lacking market information about the level of demand, the cooperative was afraid to scale up their buying and selling operations and was losing money. Founded in 2003, the cooperative had 127 members, but only managed to market three tons of honey and a ton of beeswax a month. But after being coached in how to calculate their production costs, income and the costs and benefits of improving quality, the cooperative dared to invest their resources to scale up operations.

To strengthen the business skills of Ethiopian farmers' organisations, the Agri-ProFocus (APF) partnership began work on boosting farmers' participation in value chains through a 'Learning Alliance' approach. Through assignments, coaching, visits and workshops the Learning Alliance has enabled the Wollela Cooperative to improve its management, planning and marketing, and create new jobs in processing and selling honey. It has trained its members how to improve the quality of the honey and wax and has been able to expand its business: the cooperative now buys as much as 18 tons of honey and seven tons of wax a month from its members, and has added four shops to the one it already owned.

A learning alliance

Eight development organisations, 14 local NGOs and 18 farmers' organisations (which dealt with teff, maize, dairy, coffee, haricot beans, soybeans, linseed, honey and incense) came together in 2007 to begin implementing a model of mutual and participatory learning: the Learning Alliance approach. Developed by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), APF and its members* adapted the approach for Ethiopia.

Farmers learned new skills in marketing, enterprise and value chain development (© Wim Goris)
Farmers learned new skills in marketing, enterprise and value chain development
© Wim Goris

A cycle of initial workshops, field trips, assignments, coaching and exchange workshops, which covered six 'steps' on the 'ladder' of the approach, were specifically designed to enable farmers' organisations to look at farming as a business, analyse their specific market and improve their position in it, pro-actively develop business relations with existing and new buyers, calculate profit margins, access finance and business services, and make business plans.

During the process, farmers learned new skills in marketing, enterprise and value chain development. "I never realised that after I sell to the trader, my crop goes through more stages and through more hands before it finally reaches the family that eats it, and that I and all these people are in a way dependent on each other," says one farmer. For Wim Goris, APF network facilitator for Ethiopia, this was a vital step: "They started looking at farming as part of an interlinked commercial system: a chain from food producer to consumer," he says. "The assignments stimulated the participants to research the value chains they operate in, and to connect to businesses beyond their immediate buyers."

Empowering farmers

During the Learning Alliance, most farmers' organisations increased their sales, or laid a solid foundation to do so. In several cases organisations switched to new, more profitable crops. In six provinces, new business deals were realised that offered higher sales volumes and better prices. The local NGOs also recognised the need for a change of focus beyond production. They supported farmers by facilitating contacts, supporting negotiations and following up on deals between farmers and buyers.

The joint coaching and learning workshops formally ended in 2010 with a business plan contest, but APF continues to maintain contact with the prize winners. "Most business plans were realistic, feasible and convincing," says one jury member who found that overall, the farmers' organisations had created new market linkages and made arrangements for adding value. "The best business plans were simple, specific, well budgeted and clearly focused."

Biruh Tesfa Dairy Producers' Cooperative are no longer afraid that their milk goes wasted (© Wim Goris)
Biruh Tesfa Dairy Producers' Cooperative are no longer afraid that their milk goes wasted
© Wim Goris

The Ifabari Farmers' Marketing Organisation won first prize by opting to strengthen its core business (marketing teff) while improving key activities, such as input supply, and diversifying market outlets. Their plan clearly outlined how they intended to sell two grades of white teff in Ginchii and Addis Ababa by negotiating orders with three selected wholesalers, establishing a retail outlet and contracting transport firms to deliver the teff to their customers.

"Farmers, their organizations, and the NGOs and public agencies that serve them need to reorient themselves to deal with marketing, and to produce what can be sold in profitable ways, rather than merely growing as much as possible in the hope that it can be sold," Goris concludes. Lemma Worku, the chairperson of Biruh Tesfa Dairy Producers' Cooperative concurs: "Now we are confident. The Learning Alliance taught us how to access our local market. Today one of the big buyers comes to our processing place to buy milk. We fixed the price for them and they take it. We are no longer afraid that our milk goes wasted."

* Agriterra, Cordaid, FFARM, ICCO, IIRR, KIT and SNV

Date published: March 2012


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