Regenerative agriculture is being explored as a solution to climate change and declining soil health around the world. In Ethiopia, where the majority of farming is practiced by smallholders, production is important for livelihoods and food security. Ethiopia leads Africa in rates of soil loss and degradation and is most vulnerable to drought, crop failure and famine. It is vital that Ethiopia’s smallholder farmers work towards restoring one of their most vital resources: soil.
In our interconnected world, local agricultural methods and production have global significance--not only for our shared atmosphere and mutual responsibility for the changing climate, but for industries and economies that rely on abundant and affordable raw materials, such as flowers. Consumers also play a vital role with their everyday purchasing decisions.
Digital regenerative agriculture crowdfunding platform Grow Ahead talked to Hussen Ahmed of Soil & More Ethiopia about recycling waste from the flower industry and turning it into compost, which he provides to smallholder farmers to help regenerate their land. For Hussen, soil building with compost was an obvious solution to recycle green waste and regenerate land in a country plagued by drought and desertification.
How did you become interested in farming?
Hussen Ahmed (HA): I was born in Goro, Ethiopia, where the natural beauty is stunning. I picked wild fruits, foraged organic cereals, and fished from my backyard. For someone like me who appreciates and is easily inspired by the natural world, it was very easy to become a nature enthusiast. Since my youth, I have been committed to preserving the environment and its sustainability.
Why is regenerative agriculture important to Ethiopian soils and the future well-being of farmers?
HA: The current state of Ethiopian soils is very worrying. Organic matter is depleting rapidly. A study conducted by the federal Ministry of Agriculture shows that severe degradation of soil is affecting the country’s economy. Ethiopia is losing more than half a billion dollars in harvests of barley and wheat due to underproduction each year. In the Awash Basin alone, where I live, more than 4,000 hectares of irrigable land is no longer farmable because of salinity. This contributes significantly to food insecurity and hunger.
Considering Ethiopia’s population and current growth trajectory, soil health and farming are very important. Regenerative agriculture supports the wellbeing of smallholder farmers, society, and the environment because it builds soils and productive farmlands for the very food and nutritional security of Ethiopia.
When did you learn about regenerative agriculture and begin putting it into practice?
HA: After I completed university in Addis Ababa, I went home to visit and what I saw was alarming. Farmers were using vast quantities of chemical fertilizers. The natural smell and taste of the food was not as it used to be. For me to see this level of change in farming and the quality of our food in a decade was really shocking. That was when I intuitively understood that farming and building soil health without chemicals was important and decided to start working on regenerative agriculture.
Tell us more about your compost operation.
HA: My business, Soil & More, has an annual production capacity of 25,000 to 30,000 tons of compost. Our operation provides solutions to two major issues. The first being agrowaste produced by the flower company that we work with, which totals more than 200 tons per day of mostly green leaves that are usually dumped in a landfill. Soil & More also addresses nearby smallholder farmers’ serious soil depletion and fertility problems. Our initiative offsets the social and environmental challenges of agrowaste by converting it into compost.
Our compost is rich in nutrients and free from pathogens, weed seeds, and chemicals. We sell around 65% of the compost back to the flower growers. The remaining compost is provided to the smallholder farmers at a reasonable rate with demonstrations and hands on trainings so that they understand the benefit and long-term impacts of healthy soil.
Are there any other regenerative agriculture techniques you’re using on your farm and teaching to other farmers?
HA: I use as many regenerative techniques as possible on my farm to demonstrate and promote regenerative agriculture. I prefer teaching by example more than giving lectures and seminars. Farmers are knowledgeable and can easily become inspired and learn when they see tangible results from regenerative practices. I combine permaculture, aquaculture, and organic goats, sheep, and local dairy cows on my farm to show the collective potential of regenerative farming.
What do you see are the biggest challenges in getting farmers and consumers on board in the regenerative agriculture movement?
HA: Regenerative agriculture provides long-term benefits and environmental security, but it also takes time to build soil health. The biggest challenge to getting farmers on board in a country like Ethiopia, where more than 80% of the population consists of smallholder farmers, is to create a mechanism for these farmers to be compensated in the short term, until the regenerative practices start paying off.
On the other side, consumers need to know where their food comes from and at what environmental cost. True cost accounting of food production should be done and communicated to the consumer for a better understanding and to promote regenerative agriculture.
What suggestions do you have for individuals hoping to fight climate change through regenerative agriculture in their daily lives?
HA: Regenerative agriculture is the only means for food and nutritional security for farmers and individuals in developing countries. It is also a key component in combating climate change, because crops grown regeneratively have the potential to sequester huge amounts of atmospheric carbon, a known greenhouse gas.
Why are your daily farm practices relevant for people on the other side of the world?
HA: We’re living in an interconnected world. The good practices of one will positively impact the other, while the bad actions of one affect all of us. For example, people on the other side of the world have invested in businesses assuming a guaranteed supply of raw materials that come from my side of the world. If people in Ethiopia are not operating in a sustainable way, businesses on the other side of the world will be at risk. We need to check our supply chains and make sure they are sustainable.
To learn more about Grow Ahead’s work with farmers like Hussen, visit https://growahead.org/