Farm Ireland

Sunday 18 February 2018

Irish spud helps sow revolution in Ethiopia

Thousands of lives are being transformed through a project that aims to end hand-to-mouth existence in a fertile region

Fantaye Awash and her husband Asefa Enko weed some of their spuds. As well as potatoes, Fantaye grows barley, wheat, maize, beans and peas
Fantaye Awash and her husband Asefa Enko weed some of their spuds. As well as potatoes, Fantaye grows barley, wheat, maize, beans and peas
Declan O'Brien

Declan O'Brien

Fantaye Awash is an unlikely foot soldier in an Irish revolution that is sweeping through the highlands of south-western Ethiopia.

The 37-year-old mother of six is one of thousands of farmers whose lives have been transformed by a very simple but effective development project.

The main driver of this initiative is a new variety of the humble spud that is known locally as the Irish potato.

The development programme that has helped change Fantaye's life is backed by the Irish aid agency Vita, as well as a number of international food organisations.

Fittingly, it has also garnered the support of two of the main players in the Irish spud scene -- Dublin-based vegetable wholesaler Joe Dennigan and John O'Shea of O'Shea Farms in south Kilkenny.

The project is based on a very simple premise -- increase the yield local farmers get from their potato crop by introducing new and better varieties and you will help move people beyond subsistence production and out of the hand-to-mouth existence that entails.

"By improving potato yields, locals can be moved beyond simply feeding themselves to a point where they produce surplus spuds as a cash crop," John O'Shea explains.

John and his three brothers, Seamus, Richard, and Joe have been growing potatoes on a large scale in Kilkenny and surrounding counties for over 40 years.

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It is this experience that he has brought to bear in the Horn of Africa.

Seed varieties which are suitable to the growing conditions in Ethiopia's southern highlands region of Gamo Gofa are already being used by more than 1,600 farmers and the results of the project to date have been very encouraging.

While traditional varieties usually yield around three tonnes per acre, the Irish potatoes are giving six tonnes per acre, and even more in some cases.

For Fantaye, the switch to the Irish spud has been life-changing.

She farms a two-hectare holding near Lake Kebele, outside the town of Chenca and close to Ethiopia's borders with Kenya and Sudan.

Fantaye's husband Asefa Enko is a school teacher, but she is the boss when it comes to the family farm. Her six children, who range in age from 18 to nine, help out with the planting and harvesting the myriad of crops that can be grown in the very fertile highland soils.

As well as potatoes, Fantaye grows barley, wheat, maize, beans and peas in rotation. In addition, vegetables such as carrots, cabbage and kale are sown.

However, as was traditionally the case in rural Ireland, spuds are the primary crop, both as a staple food source and a provider of additional income.


Potatoes are planted on close to a quarter of Fantaye's holding for the two growing seasons that this area of southern Ethiopia enjoys each year.

In the past, the family would have anticipated a surplus of one tonne of potatoes from this area.

But since adopting the new varieties and modern crop husbandry, this return has doubled to two tonnes.

This increased surplus has helped change the lives of Fantaye and her family in a very practical way.

The money earned from the extra potatoes she has been able to sell in local markets has been invested in the education of her children and used to upgrade their simple homestead.

"During the last three main cropping seasons, we have gotten on average 1,500Birr per season (€68 per season) from selling potatoes," Fantaye explains.

"This is a really great change for my family."

And that is certainly the case, because the reality for most of the 30,000 families in the Chenca area is that people go hungry for four months each year in the periods immediately prior to harvesting their potato crops.

In the space of two years involved in the programme, Fantaye has become a model farmer for her community. Her success hasn't gone unnoticed and this year she plans to sell seed potatoes to 14 neighbouring families.

Fantaye's story is music to the ears of John O'Shea. The Kilkenny farmer and businessman has been involved with Vita's work in Ethiopia since 2011 and is evangelical in his passion for the potato project.

He is particularly proud of the manner in which local people have taken ownership of the programme, since direct outside involvement is due to end in 2017.

John is adamant that the basis for this aid project is that it is knowledge based, and that the skills learned will be transferable to other communities and regions in Ethiopia.

The Kilkenny man's involvement in the aid effort stemmed from a presentation that Vita made to the Irish Potato Federation in 2011.

Both John and Joe Dennigan are leading members of the federation, and they liked what Vita was aiming to do in Ethiopia and the manner in which the project was structured.

"There was a natural fit with the Irish Potato Federation, since the project was all about growing potatoes," John recalls.

"But the fact that this was a structured project, which was knowledge-based, sustainable and transferable really impressed us."


The potato programme is not solely a Vita effort. It is supported by the Irish agricultural research body Teagasc, Wageningen University in Holland and the International Potato Centre in Peru.

Indeed, the so-called Irish potato is in fact a variety which was developed thanks to a very international effort.

The long-term goal of the project is to establish a centre of excellence for potato growing in the Gamo Gofa region by getting 75,000 farmers to produce 112,000t of spuds each season by 2017.

This would represent more than a doubling of current output and would help provide an affordable food source for up to two million people.

To realise these goals, the project is based on five essentials: good land, good seed, good management, good storage, and good marketing.

John sees his role and that of the Irish Potato Federation as being facilitators and advisers who will help local farmers.

"It took our family 40 years of mistakes to reach excellence in potato farming, the Irish Potato Federation wants Ethiopian farmers to save all those years and be excellent now," he explains.

John says the perception of Ethiopia as an arid dust bowl, could not be further from the truth.

"This Gamo Gofa region of southern Ethiopia is ideal for potato growing as the land is 8,500 to 10,000 feet above sea level, with rich and fertile soil and a good supply of natural rain water."

As part of the project, potato stores have been built in the villages to keep excess production. These are simple but effective structures.


Training is also offered to the farmers in irrigation, water storage, as well as establishing co-operatives to market produce, secure access to finance and improve crop management.

There is still a lot of work to be done in the project. Only 10pc of farmers have the improved seed varieties and building up the technical support systems for the project has been slow.

But John O'Shea is confident the aims set out for the programme, which has just a budget of less than €3m for the five years, can be realised.

Farmers like Fantaye have already bought into the Irish spud and the changes it has brought in its wake.

"We have a plan to plant more of the better variety in order to produce more [potatoes], and have enough to eat and sell," she says.

Irish Independent