Sustainable Urban Agriculture Starts at School in Ethiopia

Compared to many other countries, even in Africa, Ethiopia has so far been spared the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic: the country accounts for around 10% of the continent’s total population, yet less than 2% of its Covid cases.

But that hasn’t stopped it from having a huge impact on daily life, though unlike most countries around the world, it has not introduced a lockdown.

To get a clearer picture of the situation in Ethiopia, and the work of the Slow Food network in adjusting to this new reality, we spoke to Eskender Mulugeta, the founder of Food Secured Schools Africa, the IncrEdible Gardens, and a committed proponent of agroecology.


“Generally we are pushing on. People are not locked down, so they can go to work and get food to eat, but the price of food has skyrocketed. Onions are now 40 birr (around €1) a kilo, which is almost double what it was before. The reason for the price jump is not entirely clear, but clearly we need to address it. Action must be taken. This could start with people producing more of their own vegetables at home: urban agriculture and home agriculture.”


Agriculture is still by far the largest sector of the Ethiopian economy…

Though it has shrunk in terms of its percentage of the total GDP in recent years: from over 60% of the economy in the early 1990s to around 30% today. This is testament to the exponential growth of Ethiopian industry,1 yet despite the fact that two-thirds of the Ethiopian workforce still work in agriculture, the country is now a net importer of food. “They import rice, sugar, oil, even wheat and beans,” Eskender tells me. “The last World Bank report I saw calculated our import bill at 1.5 billion birr (around €40 million) per year.”


The other major factor at play is urbanization. While Ethiopia’s urban population is still relatively small (only around 20% of the population live in cities, compared to the global average of 55%) this is set to increase rapidly in coming decades. Urbanization often leads to alienation between urban (consumptive) and rural (productive) societies, but that’s precisely where Eskender is working to bridge the gap: through the promotion of urban agriculture in school gardens in Addis Ababa and beyond.

Preparing to plant seeds in a school garden.

“I grow leafy vegetables, potatoes and pumpkin. They use these in the local schools to feed the students: at Mekdela primary school they make pumpkin and vegetable soups, while in the Bruh Tesfa school they’re making potato chips from the school garden potatoes. Other schools produce sugar cane and chickpeas which they use to make traditional snacks like nefro made from boiled maize and wheat together with beans or chickpeas.”

“Covid has taught our communities a good lesson regarding the importance of healthy local food. People are more aware of the need for diverse nutritious food, and now the prices for some of those foods are very high, the popularity of growing them is increasing. Local food becomes more important when people can’t afford to buy packaged products.”

Eskender in a blooming garden


“In the past, people used to eat injera (a sour, fermented flatbread), and nefro, but many people have forgotten or neglected these foods in favor of modern imports: pasta, pizza, rice—generally foods with a higher starch content and lower overall nutritional value. Beans and pulses have seen a decline in popularity, but whenever I reintroduce people to the traditional bean-based dishes of Ethiopian cuisine they tend to be very popular. I think people are becoming more aware of the importance of growing their own food. We can’t wait for someone else to change the food system for us—we can change it ourselves by creating our own local food systems. Covid is bringing us back to our yards and balconies to grow something, instead of relying on the supermarkets. We’ve been selling a lot of seedlings to people so they can grow their own food.”

Seedlings for sale.

What are your hopes for the future?

“A lot! I want to compete with BAYER and Monsanto on the local level (but not international!) promoting sustainable food. I am an entrepreneur, and I see lucrative opportunities in sustainable agriculture. I’m excited about that. My next goal is to sell 10,000 avocado seedlings in my local food system, and to connect the local school gardens to the wider communities. I want to use the school gardens as a platform to teach the wider local community about models they can replicate at home to grow their own food. I think the future is bright, and I’m working every day to achieve that brighter future.”


The brighter future that Eskender envisions isn’t just limited to Addis Ababa, either, but to the whole country. “The international image of Ethiopia is still not very good: people know about famine and war, but now we are entering a time of prosperity. And even regarding Covid, we haven’t been hit hard in terms of fatalities. Nonetheless the food shortages are teaching people a valuable lesson, and I think the government can see the potential of resilient local food systems.”

Eskender with local Slow Food coordinator Sara Asfa at the Don Bosco school garden

“Ethiopia has enormous resources and lots of land: less than half of the country’s arable land is being cultivated. But we shouldn’t be inviting in multinationals to take over our land and seed systems; we should control it all ourselves through local seed banks which smallholder farmers have access to. This is the mission of Slow Food in the country: to spread the word of agroecological best practices to farmers, home gardeners, schools and the government, so we can cut our import bill and become a sustainable breadbasket.”

by Jack Coulton [email protected]

1The population has more than tripled since 1980, from 35 million people to over 110 million people today, with an average annual growth of around 3%. It’s GDP has increased more than tenfold in the same time period.

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