Unlocking the potential of climate-smart sorghum in Ethiopia
Ethiopian farmers are suffering in the face of climate change, with droughts being particularly problematic. As a drought-resilient crop, sorghum is grown by 4.3 million households across the country. Yet yields remain low due to a lack of varieties adapted to local soil conditions. Furthermore, productivity is worsened by a lack of post-harvest processing machinery, inadequate storage solutions and weaknesses within the sorghum value chain. These factors not only constrain farmers’ income, but also increase time spent on laborious farm tasks, such as threshing and de-hulling, particularly among women and children, who are most involved in post-harvest processing.
By developing and deploying key technologies, researchers from the Climate-smart interventions for smallholder farmers in Ethiopia project are working to reduce the risk of crop failure, increase productivity and create new economic opportunities for women-led businesses. The technologies include drought-tolerant sorghum varieties, improved management practices, small-scale threshers, farm-scale grain storage systems, value-added sorghum products and linkages with new markets. The research was funded by the Cultivate Africa's Future Fund (CultiAF) – a joint partnership between IDRC and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. The Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research and the University of Queensland, Australia, are implementing partners of the research.
More than 8,800 sorghum farmers reached with climate-smart technologies.
Threshing time for 0.5 ha of sorghum grain reduced from one day to four hours.
Improved varieties increased average yields by more than 40%.
New, early-maturing, drought-tolerant crop varieties – such as Argity, Degalit Yellow, Fedis and Melkam – have been tested by the research team and grown on more than 323 demonstration plots (62 of which are women-led) since 2019. Large-scale demonstrations, trainings and field days were also held with 8,525 farmers (1,308 women), while 247 extension agents and district-level experts received training in good production practices. These included advice on improving soil fertility and water management by applying optimal fertilizer and seed-spacing rates, and information on best planting times and weed management.
The demonstrations also intended to empower women farmers in accessing technologies and in decision-making around farm investment. Of the total farmers engaged in the demonstration activities, 19% were women who owned farmland, which is less than the research target (30%). Engaging women farmers who are involved with both farm and household responsibilities was a challenge.
By using improved varieties alongside good agricultural management practices, the research team demonstrated that average yields could be increased from 2.7 to 3.9 t/ha, which is 44% higher than local practices produce.
“We are developing climate-smart interventions and promoting existing available technologies to increase demand and adoption for improved sorghum productivity,” said Taye Tadesse from the research team. Tadesse explained that farmers and local seed companies reported a preference for Melkam, as it produced the highest biomass and was better suited to the soil conditions. This was an important learning point for the project, which expected Argity to be the most productive and therefore the most popular.
Sorghum threshing, usually carried out with animal traction or by manual hand beating, is the most laborious and time-consuming aspect of sorghum processing. To address this issue, three engine-driven mechanical threshers were demonstrated to 2,155 farmers (27% women) and other sorghum stakeholders to raise awareness of the technology and garner feedback on its efficiency and ease of use. The multi-crop thresher, which can be used on a variety of crops – including maize, sorghum and wheat – was farmers’ preferred option (over the sorghum and maize-specific threshers), due to its threshing capacity and compactness for easy handling and transportation.
The thresher reduced post-harvest losses by 30% and significantly enhanced sorghum processing, reducing the time taken to process 0.5 ha of sorghum from around one day to just one hour. In addition, by reducing on-farm drudgery, women in the household are afforded time to spend on other income-earning opportunities, while children can attend school.
The project team also introduced Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) bags, which prevent oxygen from degrading the grain inside so that it can be stored for up to six months. This gives farmers more time to sell their crop, meaning they do not have to sell at a lower price during the competitive post-harvest season. In total, 4,412 farmers (48% women), 216 development agents and 22 experts from eight districts of the project intervention areas were trained on hermetic grain storage principles and the practical application of PICS bags. During the research period, including training, a total of 5,500 PICS bags were distributed to 2,781 smallholder farmers.
Potential injera income
In recent years, a mixture of sorghum and teff flour has increasingly been used in Ethiopia due to soaring teff prices and difficulty producing enough of the crop to meet consumer demand. To create high-quality sorghum-teff injera, producers required information on the most appropriate ratios to use. The research team tested different teff and sorghum proportions, ranging from 0 to 63.5% for both crops, and learned that a 50:50 teff and sorghum mix produced the best quality injera. Quality was measured by the bread’s lightness and colour. The optimized protocol was demonstrated, and training was given to sorghum farmers and injera-making women’s groups to promote the tested recipe.
While the protocol represents a new income opportunity for sorghum farmers, de-hulling the hard outer skin of the grain to improve injera quality is an extremely time-consuming activity entirely carried out by women using a pestle and mortar. To address this issue, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research manufactured a de-hulling machine with the capacity to de-hull 2 t/hour. By removing the laborious activity of manual de-hulling, the technology is transforming the business potential of injera-making women’s groups.
Meeting feed demands
Sorghum is also a major source of animal feed and represents a promising opportunity to meet increasing demand for poultry feed. The research team evaluated sorghum-based chicken feed by analyzing the feed intake and subsequent bodyweight changes of 210 Bovan Brown hens over 12 weeks. Seven diets were formulated using either Melkam or Degalit Yellow sorghum varieties at 20%, 30% and 40% inclusion levels (Argity was not used due to limited seed availability.) The hens’ performance was compared to hens fed a traditional maize-based diet.
The hens fed a diet formulated with 30% Degalit Yellow demonstrated a significant difference in bodyweight (heavier by 102 g) compared to the maize-based diet. This increase will enable poultry farmers, who are mostly women, to achieve higher market prices for their birds and is thus the most beneficial feed choice. This represents yet another business opportunity for sorghum producers.
The technologies developed by the research team have delivered significant outcomes for sorghum productivity, on-farm and off-farm labour-saving, market opportunities and women’s business resilience. Working closely with local communities and embracing their feedback has been key to tailoring innovations and garnering insights on preferred technologies.
The project had planned to promote Argity as the most favourable new, improved variety, but it was clear this was not the most popular variety after farmer testing. The project recommends further variety adaptation for Argity to ensure it meets farmers’ preferences.
The time and labour-saving benefits of the sorghum thresher is a key outcome of the project, but the technology needs to be locally sourced to be sustainable. The thresher also needs to be made more accessible for poorer rural communities by, for example, making it available to farmers through a paid service provider. This could also present employment opportunities for the youth.