Case Studies, Systems Thinking

Sustainable Development (ISD): Supporting smallholder farmers and communities across Ethiopia

Gizaw Gebremariam remembers how farmers laughed the first time the Institute of Sustainable Development (ISD) team introduced the concept of row-planting in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

Row-planting, which involves raising seedlings in plant beds and transplanting them in rows with plenty of space left between, was an unused practice at the time. Years later, Gebremariam says 90% of farmers in the region are using the technique in their own fields, resulting in the growth of more crops in less space, with fewer weeds and healthier soils.

Gebremariam is the Program Manager with ISD, a farmer-led civil society organization in Ethiopia. By combining modern agroecology techniques such as row-planting with traditional farmer knowledge, ISD works alongside rural communities to improve local growing conditions and rehabilitate dry and degraded environments.

Where it all began: ISD’s Tigray Project

The ISD started in 1996 when the Ethiopian Government was examining how smallholder farmers could make their land more productive. At the time, the government was especially interested in alternatives to expensive inputs such as chemical fertilizer.

Government officials reached out to Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher and Sue Edwards. With academic backgrounds in plant ecology and botany and a shared passion for biodiversity and farmer empowerment, the Ethiopian-British couple was well-placed to take on the ecological experiment.

Establishing the ISD and its “Tigray Project” in the region of the same name, the northern landscape proved a fierce adversary. “Only 10 percent of the land in Ethiopia has enough rainfall and proper soil for successful agriculture, so farmers are really living in challenging conditions,” said the late Edwards in 2012 (Edwards remained the Director of ISD until her death in 2018).

About one in three Ethiopians live below the poverty line, and poor growing conditions are compounded by lack of access to infrastructure and basic agricultural inputs. “We wanted to see if an ecological approach could help turn things around for them,” Edwards added. “The farmers were very suspicious and thought we were coming after their land, but with a dialogue we got them to appreciate that there were certain things they could do.”

Those “certain things” were diverse. Key components of the Tigray Project involved planting small multipurpose trees, digging trenches along field boundaries to catch water and soil, and utilizing locally-produced compost as an alternative to chemical inputs. At the time, compost production was not part of the Ethiopian extension system.

Each approach worked towards achieving ISD’s goals of alleviating poverty and helping farming communities become more food secure by intensifying crop production and improving soil health.

Fast forward 25 years since its establishment, and the model pioneered in ISD’s Tigray Project has been expanded to more than 165 districts in Ethiopia. Regional agriculture bureaus and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development have accepted many of its methods as best practice. And from its base in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, the ISD team leads domestically and internationally-funded community development and agriculture projects across the country.

As for its community impact, ISD found it takes about four years for farmers to restore their soil fertility once they stop using chemical fertilizer and other additives. Yields of barley, durum wheat, teff flour, and other crops are higher with compost versus conventional means of farming. Agricultural diversity has increased and erosion reduced by over 60%. The income and status of family farmers has risen.

Uniting traditional and contemporary knowledge

A central value of ISD has always been to promote Indigenous and farmer knowledge as a means to achieve community development, women and youth empowerment, and food sovereignty.

“For millennia, farmers had been using traditional systems of fallowing, crop rotations, manure, and wood ash to maintain soil fertility and their crop yields. We know that crop cultivation and breeding had been taking place here for at least 5,000 years,” wrote Sue Edwards of farming in the Tigray region.

Many of these traditional means of land management had been systematically dismantled over the course of the past two centuries. ISD’s activities are simply a means to revitalize those traditional systems and pair that knowledge with contemporary science.

By working closely with school environmental clubs and other youth groups, ISD ensures the next generation of farmers is raised to appreciate and carry forward the value of traditional farming practices, ensuring sustainability and preservation of culture.

Finally, to celebrate the ingenuity of local farmers, ISD champions “innovator farmers”—individuals who create low-tech solutions that are easy to understand and inexpensive for others to replicate. ISD has seen farmers come forward with water-lifting and well innovations, better methods of beekeeping, and other creative solutions.

While many challenges remain—climate change, pressure towards chemical agriculture, and an ongoing armed conflict in the Tigray region, just to name a few—ISD’s model has proven to make a real difference to the lives of farmers, the communities where they live, and the land on which they rely.