Betting the farm: Strengthening agriculture in Ethiopia

A few years ago the late prime minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, was in conversation with Melinda Gates. The subject of their discussion? The fact that the largest agricultural extension workforce in the world, Ethiopia’s, was delivering agricultural yields well below even sub-Saharan African standards. What was going wrong?

‘Agricultural extension’ – the application of scientific research and new knowledge to agricultural practices through farmer education – has the potential to deliver transformational impact, and the Gates Foundation began a study into Ethiopia’s system, which soon evolved into a comprehensive review of the entire agricultural sector. The result was the establishment, in 2010, of the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), a government agency modelled on similar units established in Taiwan, South Korea and Malaysia during those countries’ phases of rapid agricultural-led development in the second half of the 20th century.

Leading from the front

The ATA is designed to identify systems issues that can emerge across different government ministries. For example, a typical initiative focuses on expanding farmers’ access to irrigation pumps – it starts well but eventually fails because importation taxes make it prohibitively expensive to bring in spare parts to maintain the new pumps.

Another issue the ATA can tackle is poor implementation capacity. A lack of project management and resource coordination results in a duplication of effort in some areas but no action in others. This is especially the case in a federal system like Ethiopia’s, where significant powers are devolved to the regions. The agency overcomes this by playing a quasi project management office role across both levels of government and reporting to a council made up of both federal and regional leaders.

On several measures the agency has already been a success. In a heavily bureaucratic government system, which traditionally emphasises academic credentials and seniority, an approach that valued general analytical capabilities was initially met with scepticism, especially when the agency’s representatives at ministry meetings turned out to be young Ethiopians not long out of university. Yet these same young analysts are now sought out by the prime minister’s office, and other ministers want the agency to replicate the training model for their own staff.

The agency has also set high standards of transparency. In a recently released public report assessing its first four years of operations, the agency highlighted a number of successes but also explicitly called out the areas where it has failed or been significantly delayed. This is a level of raw detail and transparency not typically seen in government reporting in Ethiopia.

The ATA is starting to affect outcomes in the agricultural sector, too, although it may be several more years before its full impact can be measured. It has heavily promoted the unconventional approach of replacing the broadcasting of seed with meticulous row-planting, an approach that has been adopted by 2.2 million farmers and has contributed substantially to a 38% increase in the national yield over the last four years. Similarly, an initiative to comprehensively map the country’s soil types now means that the government can discard its 40-year old policy of providing all farmers with the same fertiliser, irrespective of soil type.

Setting the standard

The ATA has several design features that are important for any transformation-type agency within government. These ensure it has a capability and purpose that are distinct from other parts of the government, while avoiding the accretion of power that could lead to duplication or bureaucratic ‘turf wars’.

It is clear that dual reporting lines have made a huge difference. On a day-to-day basis the ATA’s CEO reports to the agriculture minister. However, the agency formally reports to the Agricultural Transformation Council. It is chaired by the prime minister and includes regional leaders and important federal ministers – this is because agricultural-led transformation must necessarily address issues such as infrastructure, finance and trade. At the same time, a strong day-to-day reporting relationship with the agriculture minister enables the agency to harness the significant resources of the ministry, avoid any perception of a turf war, and critically transfer capacity to ministry employees over time.

There is no doubt that the agency has also developed an exceptionally strong analytic capability. The best talent from Ethiopia’s universities has been recruited and trained in a ‘core analytics’ unit by international specialists from the likes of The Boston Consulting Group, mimicking the rapid on-the-job training new hires receive in their first few years at larger consulting firms. The approach develops a capability not commonly found in the Ethiopian government, while providing a compelling and credible basis for the Ethiopian government to engage with the private sector and international donors on agricultural transformation issues.

And the agency is ‘time-limited’ in order to reinforce its catalytic role and prevent mission creep or the development of a bloated bureaucracy. It will begin to transition its responsibilities to relevant ministries from 2026 and will close by 2030. The agency has been at pains to ensure these dates do not shift, retaining a healthy sense of urgency and purpose.

Although Ethiopia’s journey is far from complete, the success of the ATA is an apt metaphor for a country that stands on the cusp of a brighter future. The task now facing policymakers is to keep up the momentum in the months and years to come.

 

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