Saturday, July 29, 2017

Ethiopia 2017 - Day 8. Meeting new friends in Mek’ele

Today was a relatively uneventful day, although I think the contacts made might bear fruit in the not so distant future.

First thing I noticed as I went out of the Planet Hotel (a very nice hotel indeed) was that I had a nearly flat tire. Rats! Yes, it was the spare tire my minibus driver had changed for me, which clearly was not in great shape. Fortunately I had had the other one repaired, so it was a matter of pulling out the jack from the trunk and almost immediately letting another helpful young man change it for me. What can I say? The folks here are fabulous!

I am being hosted by Tedros, the Program Coordinator of Bio-Economy Africa, and through his good services I visited with the Chair of the Department of Land Resources of University of Mekelle, who expressed great interest in collaborating with CSU Stanislaus in educational projects. From there we went to see a wind farm installed over the last couple of years by a French contractor, with an installed capacity of 120 MW. Ethiopia does not have oil or coal resources, and hydroelectricity is barely developed, so the whole country is interested in wind and solar energy. Did I already tell you that Ethiopia has 13 months of sunshine? They use a calendar with twelve, 30-day months, and a 13th month of 5 days (6 days in leap years) that is mostly used for celebrations.

A visit to the newly installed Bio-Farm/Farmers Training Center in Mesanu Kebele followed. This FTC is a joint project between the Ethiopia Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) and Bio-Economy Africa (BEA), and it is in its infancy. The project started in 2016, with the fencing of about four hectares of rocky soil in a dry, wheat-growing portion of Tigray, the construction of a Farmers Meeting Hall, a dormitory, a cow byre, a bio-digestor, and a couple of ancillary buildings. The initial effort also included demarcation of small plots for the planting of fruit trees and green  legumes, wheat demonstration plots, a composting area, and a chicken coop. In a way one could say that the stage is set, and the only thing missing was the arrival of the actors.

As it happens, the actors were there, for no sooner had we arrived in the property when a long string of farmers passed us on their way to the Farmers Meeting Hall, chatting and laughing, and carrying with them their long plows and ox yokes. I counted no less than 15 plows! Why would such a large number of plows would be needed for what can be no more than a couple of hectares at the back of the property? Well, they had come together, to exchange techniques and to engage in a friendly competition with the ATA tractor, and now they were heading for a well deserved lunch and discussion. It was not for me to interfere with their lively discussion, but I could tell from the tone of their voices that they had had a good time and had many ideas to exchange. I am absolutely amazed by the way the farmers have taken ownership of the project. Bravo!

From Todros I learned that the farmers have all sorts of good ideas about how to diversify the agricultural production of the FTC, and are very interested on improving their stock. For example, they would like to improve milk productivity by selective breeding of their milk cows. Milk is an excellent source of protein, although it is a product that spoils easily, so the next challenge will be to develop preservation processes, such as ultra-pasteurization, and production of curds (like they do in Mongolia), cheese, and butter.

Before finishing the day we stopped at a comparatively large farm, where the owner wants to develop a vineyard and eventually a winery. The grapes come from South Africa, and to my untrained eye they looked good but a bit small. As always, the big challenge is to have access to irrigation water. For a while they got water from the reservoir that supplies the city, but last year they had to shift to wastewater from a bottling plant (high TDS, so they are not sure they want to continue this practice for long). Eventually they will have to drill a deep well, particularly since they would like to expand the 10 hectares they have now to 40 hectares.

We celebrated our successes by going to lunch at a traditional Ethiopian Restaurant, where we had a common platter of ketfo (raw chopped beef with a delicious mix of spices), tebs (thin strips of goat meat in a red sauce), deep-fried goat meat morcels, and cooked spinach. As is traditional, the dishes are scooped out of their bowls unto a flat injera pancake, and Todros and I ate them by tearing pieces of the injera and using them to scoop small portions into our mouths. A fine way to end the day.

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