On 16 October, World Food Day was observed in countries across the globe, including Eritrea. Among the most celebrated days on the international calendar, WFD is all about “promoting worldwide awareness of hunger and mobilizing global action for the future of food, people, and the planet.” In accordance with the underlying goals and general significance of the special occasion, the following paragraphs seek to provide a small snapshot of food and agriculture in Eritrea.
Eritrea is mainly arid and semi-arid, with torrential and erratic rainfall in rainy seasons. About 60% of the country’s population resides within rural areas, although urbanization is increasing, and population density in the country stands at approximately 35 people per km2 of land area, which is less than the global and Sub-Saharan Africa averages. An important part of the national economy in Eritrea is rain-fed agriculture and pastoralism, and it is estimated that farming, animal herding, and fishing are the mainstay of livelihoods for approximately 65 percent of the population.
Overall estimates suggest that the country possesses around 2.1 million hectares of potential land for rain-fed agriculture and around 600,000 hectares for irrigation. According to reports conducted in recent years, around 500,000 hectares of land are cultivated, with more than 93 percent under modified rain-fed farming (cultivated with on-farm soil and water conservation measures), while the rest is irrigated.
Notwithstanding a wide range of challenges, Eritrea has been able to register important progress in improving food and agricultural production and productivity, as well as ensuring food and nutrition security, in the three decades since independence was achieved. Compared to the early 1990s, for example, the proportions of poor people and those suffering from food insecurity in the country are believed to have declined substantially.
In terms of cereal production and productivity, a key area, considerable strides have been made. The National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI), established shortly after independence and working under the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), has conducted many trials in the pursuit of developing improved crop varieties, particularly types resistant to drought, resilient against disease, and high-yielding. To date, NARI has managed to develop 45 crop varieties (comprising 16 varieties of wheat, 10 varieties of sorghum, 7 varieties of barley, 6 varieties of pear millet, 3 varieties of maize, 2 varieties of legume, and 1 variety of oilseed), with many more currently at different stages of analysis. For most crops, these improved seed varieties, which are distributed to farmers across the country, in combination with effective agronomic practices and other inputs have helped to more than double productivity.
Meanwhile, within horticulture, an increasingly significant area, the number of farmers engaged in the production of fruits and vegetables on a semi-commercial basis now stands at well over 11,500, a dramatic jump from around 1,500 years ago. What is more, the total area of coverage for horticulture nationwide has increased fourfold, while the total production of fruits and vegetables has increased by 71 times and about 6 times, respectively.
The production of potatoes has likewise witnessed tangible improvements. Over the years, more than 70 potato varieties have been imported for adaptability trials, with the most successful being distributed to local farmers in communities across the country. At present, not only has Eritrea secured adequate potato seed for the entire year, but farmers have also begun to grow potatoes in the lowlands, while the production of sweet potatoes continues to be a prominent area of focus.
Notably, poultry production, which has historically been extremely limited, has tremendously grown and it is now increasingly common within households and communities nationwide. Similarly, beekeeping has also expanded significantly; the number of beekeepers and apiaries in Eritrea has continued to steadily rise, their coverage has spread to more areas, and total honey production has maintained an upward trajectory.
Another area that is demonstrating promise is date palm cultivation. It has great potential, particularly due to the favorable climate along Eritrea’s long coastline. Thus far, approximately 21,000 date palm trees have been planted in the country, predominantly within the Northern and Southern Red Sea regions. (The MoA plans to reach 200,000 date palm trees by 2026.) In addition to helping address food security, growth in date palm cultivation will help to provide income-generating opportunities and improve livelihoods, as well as serve as a carbon sink to reduce the impact of climate change.
In addition to being largely arid and receiving low annual rainfall, Eritrea is also negatively impacted by climate change, as well as decades of land degradation. Accordingly, a key part of the government’s strategy is reducing dependence on rain-fed agriculture, promoting on-farm and off-farm soil and water conservation activities, conducting afforestation programs, and modernizing the agricultural sector to increase productivity and adapt to agriculture to climate change.
Through the efforts of the government, communities, and various other national institutions, the number of dams and ponds has increased from 138 at independence to nearly 800, with much greater nationwide coverage. This has helped to massively raise the availability of water for irrigation and household consumption. Eritrea is also steadily shifting from furrow irrigation to pressurized irrigation.
In order to minimize the cutting of trees (as well as reduce health risks), “the Adhanet”, an improved traditional stove, was designed by the Ministry of Energy and Mines. Since 1998, approximately 170,000 of these special stoves have been distributed to households across the nation, mainly in rural areas.
As well, a variety of programs and initiatives are conducted by the MoA to assist farmers in increasing productivity and output, including water harvesting, increasing arable land, introducing better seeds, applying more efficient farming techniques, containing soil erosion, and applying environmentally- and health-friendly fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, technical experts from the MoA and local colleges also regularly conduct workshops and provide consultations to farmers and communities throughout the country.
Beyond these efforts, Eritrea has designed and implemented several initiatives to help promote agriculture, reduce poverty, and improve livelihoods. Perhaps the flagship is the Minimum Integrated Household Agricultural Package (MIHAP). Through this support package, each rural household receives 1 improved cross-breed dairy cow or 12 goats, as well as 25 chickens, 2 beehives, 20 trees (comprising 10 fruit trees, 5 leguminous trees, and 5 trees for firewood), a vegetable plot, land for crops, and regular support with modern inputs and management. Over the years, the MIHAP has reached thousands of households, many of them poor and headed by women, ultimately promoting food and nutrition security, reducing poverty and inequality, and ensuring that more families can lead lives of dignity.
Other highly successful support initiatives include, among others, the voluntary resettlement of vulnerable households and groups to fertile, productive areas near the newly constructed dams in Kerkebet, Gerset, and Logo, transforming the conditions and circumstances of isolated settlements and villages in pastoralist and semi-pastoral communities, and the Savings and Micro-Credit Programme, which extends loans and credit through a nationwide network of 538 village banks. [FIKREJESUS AMHAZION (Ph.D.)]