Botanica Ethiopia

Lions, tigers and Ethiopian riches

This month, Oxfam launched its GROW campaign with a new report on food security. The campaign is for a world without hunger and the report shows how our global food system is failing the very poorest.

“Hunger is not a natural phenomenon. It is a man-made tragedy,” wrote Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a GROW ambassador, last week. “People do not go hungry because there is not enough food to eat. They go hungry because the system that delivers food from the fields to our plates is broken. And now in this new age of crisis — with increasingly severe and extreme weather and dwindling natural resources – feeding the world will get harder still.”

For me, three facts stood out. The first was that 80% of the world’s hungry people are directly involved in food production. Oxfam says that the 500 million small-scale farmers in the world together feed one-third of humanity – but they themselves go to bed with empty stomachs. I remembered the figure that 80% of Ethiopians are small-scale farmers.

The next was that crops in sub-Saharan Africa will yield 20–30% less (and maybe even less) by 2080 because of climate change.

The third was that foreign investors had bought 110 million acres of arable land & water in developing countries in 2009 (the size of California and West Virginia combined).

I remembered our driver, exasperated with locals in the remote south who were using a steamingly-fresh bitumen road to walk their animals to market one morning; “The people love these Chinese roads because now their clothes are not covered in dust – but they don’t know they might die walking along here!” – Beeeep! I remembered Chinese cement factories and acres of European flower farms along the lakes region south of Addis Ababa. I also noticed much less obvious poverty on the streets of the capital than I had on a trip five years earlier.

In 2010, Ethiopia offered 7.4 million acres of virgin land to foreign corporations to grow food for export.

Cement factory and teff fields - South Ethiopia. Image: May Slater


With a history of extreme drought and famine, a future especially vulnerable to climate change and a present at the centre of a farmland grab by fast developing countries like China, India and Pakistan – How can Ethiopia protect its natural riches and provide for the health of its people into the future?

We spoke to Dr Tesfaye from the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity Conservation about protecting Ethiopia’s unique natural heritage and why this is important.

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Around the corner from our guesthouse in Addis – between the mechanics yard and the bakery that sells fresh yoghurt and barley rolls on busy Abware road – is Milka’s shop ‘Wild For You.’

The bright sign out the front caught our eyes on a walk home one day – ‘Natural products of Ethiopia.’

The shop was only two months old when we stepped in, but its freshly painted yellow walls were heavy with Ethiopian artefacts, draped with bright dyed scarves and gabis (highland shawls for the cold) and hand made bead necklaces. There were paintings, rugs, pots and wooden stools for traditional coffee ceremonies, embroidered pillow cases, wild-forest coffee and honey, soap made from camels’ milk and frankincense, teas, jars of guava jam and green herbs for the skin and hair.

We were wild for it – and for the next month or so, we would pop in after a day running around Addis to have coffee with the owner, Milka, and her friend Kidist – and to see what new things they had in that day.

Milka Mebrutu

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In the very South of Ethiopia is Karat-Konso and we were to stay at a small permaculture farm in the highland town to gather ideas for our garden in Fiche.

Konso is named after the ethnic group of the area and is unique in that its people have maintained a tribal culture, dating back 1000 years and unlike any in Ethiopia. Governed by clan chiefs and councils of village elders, the Konso live in nine different walled villages on the arid hilltops surrounding the town. At this time of year it looked dry and scrubby, but the area receives two rainfalls a year and the locals are re-known for their productive terraced farming systems and hard work.

Like lava from the volcanoes that formed this land, Konso town looks to have sprung from the middle of nowhere. In fact, it is the gateway to the Omo Valley and receives a healthy flow of tourists travelling the southern route to Kenya. The kids of the region have learnt to milk a birr or two from tourists by breaking into the Konso dance when they spot a car along the plateau road. The road itself felt remote and the landscape unforgiving – until these children jumped out or we were engulfed by a rally of soccer celebrations, trophy held high amidst a crowd of men, women and children, singing and running to the next village “Ethiopia Number 1 Champion!”

Karat-Konso village

We found Strawberry Fields on the hill into town and were shown along a path of papaya and cotton trees to our mud and straw Gojo Bets (traditional round huts). Dusty from the unsealed road, we each had a cold shower outside (one of the showers is heated through pipes from compost pits in the garden – but we didn’t know this then, and were happy just to be clean!)

From our spot on the hill, we watched the sun set over the valley and the farm below before enjoying a delicious meal under the stars of vegetables and rice, ginger tea and mangoes we’d brought along the road that morning. Vegetables have been difficult to find and our spoilt and sensitive ferenji stomachs were struggling from all the meat and bread!

Washed and fed, we took our solar lanterns to bed early. But up in town, the lights went out and a food strike began – the government had set prices on food and drink in an attempt to control inflation and store owners throughout the country were protesting. We didn’t know this until the next day, when we realised the reason busloads of tourists were descending on the eco-farm at breakfast, was because it was the only place around that could provide food – it came out of the garden.

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East to Abyssinia

In less than a week, Lizzie, Alemayehu and Bizunesh head off to Ethiopia.

Good news is that Addis Ababa University is now collaborating with  Elizabeth on the research side of the project. Lizzie has been working with the Biology Department; she will have access to the Library and Herbarium when in the capital, and will also have a research student working with her throughout the project; interviewing men and women in Fiche and recording the use of indigenous herbs as medicine.


Image: May Slater

Amaseganallo – Thank you!

The project has received so much support, and such thoughtful and generous donations from friends and colleagues here in Australia. We’ve raised a total of $1,450.

Special thanks to all those who have provided encouragement; to Kristen and Erin for their time and their talent, to AACASA (Australian African Children’s Aid and Support Association), Hope for Children, Kidest Nadew, Nathanael Moges, Rebekah Russell, Christine Kavanagh, David Cunnington, Amanda Brinkman, Pauline Roberts, Karen Bridgman, Elaine Searle, Natasha Larkin, Sarah Culverhouse, Shellie Blake, Kim Robertson, Cath Cooling, Lewis d’Avigdor and to all at Blackmores.

Ethiopian jewellery fundraising

On our return to Australia in March, we’ll hold a jewellery fundraising night in Sydney. Ethiopia is re-known for its bright yellow gold, quality silver, beads, amber and exquisite Filligri craftsmanship.

Stay tuned to the blog to follow the project ‘on the ground’ from next week. Unfortunately, less than 10% of Africa is connected to the internet, and while Information and wireless technology  use is growing,  Ethiopia ranks one of the poorest countries in the world for access. So….while we will most likely have limited internet outside of Addis, we’ll post updates, stories, film and photos as regularly as possible.

Elizabeth will be in Ethiopia from 10th January to 10th March 2011.