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Pulse innovations: Food and nutrition security in southern Ethiopia


Ethiopia has made significant progress in combatting child malnutrition, but undernutrition remains a challenge in many rural regions. The country ranks fifth globally in terms of stunting, while anemia affects nearly 37% of children under-five. Livelihoods and diets in Ethiopia’s southern highlands are heavily dependent on cereals and root crops, which contain minimal protein and deplete the soil of nitrogen.

Building on nearly 20 years of collaboration between Canadian and Ethiopian scientists, CIFSRF researchers developed practical and environmentally sustainable solutions to encourage the adoption of healthy and soil-building pulse crops (chickpeas, lentils, fava beans, and snap beans) in poor regions with huge untapped potential. These successful innovations and technologies include improved pulse varieties and better processing techniques and farming practices to increase yields. However, identifying approaches to increase farmers’ adoption of these practices, and to encourage families, particularly mothers, to include pulses in food preparation for infants and young children, proved to be challenging.

A unique partnership between male and female farmers, processors, consumers, universities, and government has developed proven approaches for transforming subsistence agriculture into a dynamic and market-oriented enterprise. Tens of thousands of farmers now have access to high-yielding seeds. They also have access to the expertise to support them to sustainably produce pulses rich in protein, zinc, iron, and other nutrients for those most in need of enhanced nutrition, such as mothers, infants, and young children. Farmers increased their incomes by planting pulses on land that was often left idle after the cereal harvest. A type of rhizobium bacteria was isolated that helps pulses fix nitrogen from the air to improve the extremely degraded Ethiopian soil, which also increases yields of cereals — the main staple crop of farmers.

Scaling up proven approaches

Over the course of this project, sustainable seed production models were field tested using one of two distribution models. One distribution model provided 25 kg of seed and required that four to five farmers cluster part of their land to increase efficiencies (e.g. pest control, fertilizer application) and share knowledge. The second model provided 2 kg packs of seeds to farmers with access to smaller pieces of land, particularly women. Yields produced enough seeds for household consumption, for the next growing season, additional income, and for sharing 2 kg of seed from their harvest with another farmer (the “model follower” approach). This informal approach is now widely recognized as the most sustainable and affordable mechanism for seed management. Overall, more than 51,068 farmers (42% women) directly benefited from growing improved pulse varieties.

Moreover, farmer’s field days, trainings, and radio broadcasts were effective at reaching farmers with messages about improved seeds, best practices, and the health benefits of pulses. A total of 246,526 households were reached via radio on the benefits of producing and consuming pulse crops.

Subject matter specialists and development agents from the 15 districts received training on improved agronomic practices such as sowing times and fertilization. Women farmers were empowered through training in agronomic practices, marketing, finance, and establishing cooperatives to sell nutritious pulse foods and seeds. The women micro-franchise model increased employment for women and their participation in production and marketing, improved household nutrition, and popularized pulse products. Consumers in 15 districts were introduced to their ready-to-eat, pulse-rich products.

Sefiya Heliso stands in her chickpea field in Halaba, Ethiopia.

Encouraging the consumption of pulses in family diets

The pulse-nutrition education interventions improved the dietary diversity of children and lactating mothers. More than 3,810 educational materials (manuals, quick guides, and posters) on dietary diversity and household pulse processing techniques were disseminated to caregivers, households, and communities. Further, 23,059 female farm households in 52 villages benefited from nutrition education, cooking demonstrations, and skill training programs.

Recipe demonstrations, complementary food preparation training, improved children feeding practices, and nutrition education increased pulse consumption, especially among children and lactating mothers. Farmer Alemitu Biramo credits Farm Radio International programs for teaching her about the importance of beans in family nutrition. She used to make only boiled beans, but now prefers to prepare dishes of beans mixed with maize and enset (also known as Ethiopian banana). She says that her children have been in better health since they started eating beans prepared this way.

What's next?

Additional resources are needed, including partnerships, to meet the growing demand from farmers for high-yielding seeds and other agronomic techniques, such as insect control. There has been particular interest in the Hawassa Dume variety of seed, which produced higher yields, is preferred by consumers, and proved to be highly resilient during the 2016 heavy rainfalls and flooding.

Future projects will seek opportunities to employ more adolescent girls in food processing, promote women’s entrepreneurship, and foster an enabling environment for more women-run enterprises to prosper. IDRC and its partners also worked with a high-level group of public and private sector experts to develop an internationally coordinated pulse crop productivity and sustainability research strategy for the next 10 years.

The Canadian International Food Security Research Fund is jointly funded by IDRC and Global Affairs Canada.

Learn more about this project and its outcomes.