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Awash with cotton

Mahesara clan members have worked hard to clear their land of the thorny shrub - Prosopis juliflora - to grow cotton. (Carol Kerven)
Mahesara clan members have worked hard to clear their land of the thorny shrub - Prosopis juliflora - to grow cotton.
Carol Kerven

In the Awash valley of the Afar region of Ethiopia, great swathes of valuable grazing land have been encroached by a noxious and thorny shrub - Prosopis juliflora. Known locally as the devil tree, Prosopis was introduced from Mexico in the 1970-80s. Spreading rapidly and growing to six metres tall, the dense canopy deprives other species of water and light. But in Gawani district, members of the Mahesara clan have decided to grab the shrub by its thorns, clearing the land to make way for a lucrative business growing cotton.

Life is tough for the Mahesara pastoralists, with successive droughts in recent years resulting in the loss of many livestock. Inter-ethnic conflict with neighbouring Issa (Somali) tribes, rangeland deterioration, livestock disease outbreaks and a lack of appropriate development policies have left the pastoralists struggling to maintain their traditional lifestyles.

In 2002-3, when 90 per cent of the clan's livestock were lost to drought, clan members gathered to see how the most vulnerable could be supported. Some relief aid was available for immediate assistance, but, for the longer term, leaders took a decision to form a clan-based, agro-pastoralist association to which each household could belong.

Joining the cotton club

Established in 2004, the Lee-Asita Irrigation Users Co-operative (LIUC) took advantage of its closeness to the Awash River to use flood irrigation for growing cash crops, particularly cotton. Starting in 2005 with only 14 hectares, the cropping area for 2009 has been extended to 120 ha, roughly a quarter of the total LIUC-owned land. Yields average around 38 quintals (3.8 tonnes) per ha, although in a good year and with good management, as much as 50 quintals per ha have been harvested. In 2008, the co-operative celebrated its first export: 106 tonnes of cotton were sent to Europe (Austria), earning the members US$200,000. Formerly the harvested cotton was sold, unprocessed, for much less to local markets.

In 2008 the LIUC celebrated its first export of cotton to Austria (Carol Kerven)
In 2008 the LIUC celebrated its first export of cotton to Austria
Carol Kerven

Funded solely by clan members, the co-operative has created jobs for 25 permanent staff and more than 400 temporary employees. Agricultural advice is provided by the local district office of the Pastoral, Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry and professionals such as a farm manager, agro-economist and pest controllers have been employed as permanent staff.

Despite this, the years since 2004 have not been without challenges, with lack of technical training and appropriate technology the major constraints. At the start of their activities, the co-operative members had no access to farm implements and, due to its thorny nature, clearing the land of Prosopis was time-consuming and expensive. Also, flood irrigation has to be carefully controlled to avoid increasing the salinity of the land. Obtaining acceptable prices for cotton has proved difficult, particularly for international markets but, after its success with cotton, the LIUC is now keen to branch out into other cash crops, including sesame, groundnut and sugarcane.

Meeting critical needs

The profits made by the LIUC are used to support clan members in a number of ways. The education of 16 boys at the newly constructed Hamedu Yossie Memorial Student Center is financed by the co-operative, and a university student from the clan is also supported. For clan members referred to hospitals in Addis Ababa and Adama, medical and family support expenses are paid; during livestock disease outbreaks, costs are covered for veterinary drugs. A relatively new venture is the establishment of the Lee-Asita Information and Communication Technology Center.

"We are very happy now. We started from zero, from nothing," enthuses Herrie Hamidu Ali, the LIUC foreign relations committee chairman. "Through our efforts, we have been able to cultivate a large area of cotton and to reach international markets. Despite the challenge of supporting almost 1,000 households across the clan, we have been able to meet some of the most critical needs of our members."

Community-driven development

Herrie Ali recommends that other local clans could grow cotton to support their members. (Carol Kerven)
Herrie Ali recommends that other local clans could grow cotton to support their members.
Carol Kerven

Despite the clan's achievements, Herrie would like to see further support of their activities, particularly in extending the facilities at the students' centre to include girls. However, Herrie warns that the traditional development approach for pastoralist areas needs to be reviewed. "We are still struggling to improve the livelihoods of our members," he says. "But any development support should be provided with the approval of the clan and carried out through the established clan structures." He concludes, "The community-driven development approach is really the best way to help us make real progress in the Afar region."

When asked whether other clans in the area are taking note of LIUC's efforts, Herrie responds that many clans have already given over their land to outside investors but are desperate for support. LIUC's advice is to farm the land themselves. "If they take the same approach, they too can achieve similar things," he says.

Date published: May 2009


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