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Helping sorghum farmers thrive in the face of climate challenges


Farmers producing sorghum crops in the dry lowland sub-Saharan regions of Africa are suffering in the face of climate change. Sorghum is a resilient crop that is widely grown, but low yields, poor processing and inadequate storage reduce potential income for farmers. IDRC is championing an initiative to provide game-changing processing technologies — among a portfolio of interventions —to support sorghum farmers in Ethiopia in becoming more climate-resilient.

Drought is not an uncommon occurrence in Ethiopia, but the intensity and frequency of droughts are increasing. Recovery periods are also becoming fewer or even non-existent, which affects farmers’ ability to cope. In 2022, millions of people across the Horn of Africa are facing food shortages due to the worst drought in 40 years and rising global food prices.

To enhance farmer resilience to climate change and support improved sorghum production, IDRC, in partnership with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), is supporting the Climate-smart interventions for smallholder farmers in Ethiopia project. The project team has adopted several key approaches to optimize yields, including supplying early-maturing, drought-tolerant crop varieties and providing farmers with training in optimal planting times, soil fertility and water management.

Threshing machinery eases post-harvest task

Sorghum is a nutritious staple crop grown by more than 5 million households in the lowland areas of Ethiopia. The crop is particularly suited to drier, resource poor soils, but this grain is not immune to the effects of drought and high temperatures.

“We are developing climate-smart technologies and interventions and promoting existing available technologies to increase demand and technology use for improved sorghum productivity,” explained Taye Tadesse, from the IDRC-ACIAR funded project, which is part of the Cultivate Africa's Future Fund. “So far, we’ve reached about 8,850 farmers through demonstrations and the scaling-up of technologies.”

A game-changing step was the introduction of post-harvest threshing technology, particularly for women who are generally tasked with the laborious and time-consuming exercise of processing the grain by hand. In addition, “about 30% of crops are lost post-harvest due to poor storage and processing technologies,” Tadesse shared.

Introduced in collaboration with the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research, threshing equipment removes the grain from the panicle — a task that is otherwise completed by hand or using oxen. With the machinery, “farmers report they are able to thresh half a hectare of sorghum grain in one hour,” said Tadesse. “Previously, it would take the whole household an entire day. It has made a huge impression on farmers.” Women now have more time to focus their efforts on alternative income-supporting work and children are less likely to miss out on school.

The project has also demonstrated that the use of improved, early maturing sorghum varieties (such as Argity, Fedis, and Melkam) and enhanced agricultural practices improves productivity. Yields have significantly increased from 2.7 tonnes to 4.2 tonnes per hectare.

This is certainly good news. However, the benefits are compromised if there is nowhere to safely store the grain. To tackle this, the project introduced Purdue Improved Crop Storage bags. These three-layered bags prevent oxygen from reaching the crop inside, so grain can be stored (insecticide-free) for up to six months without reducing its quality.

Not only does this solution prevent waste, it also enables farmers to sell their crop when they choose and at a higher cost, rather than being forced to sell immediately following harvest when competition is high and prices are lower. 

Project leader Taye Tadesse explains the attributes of the Argity sorghum variety.
Mercy Rurii
Project leader Taye Tadesse explains the attributes of the Argity sorghum variety.

Improving farmers’ livelihoods

To help farmers capitalize on their increased productivity, the project is also working to develop sorghum markets. Currently, 70% of sorghum is consumed at the household level where it is grown, but “creating markets for sorghum produce will give famers the confidence to produce more, sell the grain and get better income,” Tadesse noted.

One prospective market involves injera, a traditional thin flatbread that is widely consumed in Ethiopia. This food is typically made with teff flour but using a blend of teff and sorghum allows farmers to “produce the best quality injera flour that has the best market price,” Tadesse emphasized.

Furthermore, by using flour that comprises cheaper sorghum in place of more expensive teff, injera producers can save money. Combining these factors, shared Tadesse, has “created huge demand among farmers for improved production technologies and to incorporate sorghum grain in the injera value chain.”

The project has already been driving change and improving the livelihoods of thousands of farmers across Ethiopia, particularly women. As climate change evolves and continues to create more challenges for those in the agricultural sector, it is imperative that technology-driven support measures — such as those introduced by this IDRC-ACIAR assisted project —– are offered to as many farming households as possible to optimize their resilience. 

Learn more about the Cultivate Africa’s Future Fund