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The Greenhouse Effect
Greenhouse farming in southern Ethiopia puts affordable vegetables on local plates and gives farmers more growth opportunities
By Li Xiaoyu | VOL.10 January 2018 ·2018-12-07


Chinese and Ethiopian technicians visit a greenhouse in Agarfa (COURTESY PHOTO)

Over the past two years, the food culture of the small town of Agarfa in south Ethiopia has seen some tasty changes. Tomatoes, previously unaffordable to all but the very wealthy, have become a common sight on the plates of local people.

The secret lies in the introduction of greenhouse tomato growing technology. Ayele Abduikadir, a local agricultural technician who has been experimenting with greenhouse technology for two years, describes it as “a dream come true.” In less than a year, he was able to recover his initial investment of 1,200 birr ($44) and even began to make profits in November 2016. Today, he is the proud owner not only of a motorcycle, but also of a new house. 

Although greenhouse vegetable growing has long been a tried-and-tested method in other countries, it is the first time that this technique is used in Agarfa. The driving force behind this “greenhouse effect” is Wang Li, a 43-year-old Chinese agronomist. As a teacher at the Agarfa Agricultural Technical and Vocational Education and Training (ATVET) College since November 2015, Wang has focused his research work on Ethiopia’s agricultural sector. 

Local advantages 

A major feature of Agarfa lies in the big temperature difference between day and night, which can sometimes reach up to more than 10 degrees. Such climatic conditions are a hurdle to the development of crops that are not resistant to low temperatures, but have the potential to generate high profits, such as tomatoes. 

Highly prized by local people, most of the tomatoes sold in Agarfa used to come from other parts of the country. Between December and May, due to scarcity, the price of a small tomato would rise to up to $0.3. 

Faced with such challenges, the Agarfa ATVET College asked Wang to address this problem. He immediately thought of introducing new techniques, including greenhouse technology. Indeed, greenhouses allow vegetable farmers to easily regulate both temperature and humidity, making it possible to harvest all year long. In addition, greenhouses also make it easier to protect plants against diseases, thus ensuring higher yield compared to field cultivation. 

Given its advantages, it comes as no surprise that greenhouse cultivation has already taken root in several African countries, including Rwanda, said Wang. The Rwandan Government has made the promotion of this technology a central part of its Fourth Strategic Plan for the Transformation of Agriculture (2018-23), in which greenhouses are seen as a major step toward achieving more high-value crops. As for Ethiopia, while the technology is already being implemented in Addis Ababa’s flower farming industry, it remained unknown in Agarfa, until recently. 

Adapting to conditions 

“Introducing a new technology in a distant region is never an easy task. You have to know how to make it adapt to specific local conditions,” said Wang. Selecting which vegetables will be grown was one of the first decisions he had to make. In order to diversify local vegetable production, he chose to plant tomatoes, melons, green beans and cucumbers. Indeed, these vegetables all have something in common: they are in high demand, but too expensive. 

To keep the technology affordable and accessible for small-scale growers, Wang used a local material - bamboo - to make greenhouse framing instead of steel tubes, which are more expensive and difficult to find. But the biggest hurdle to overcome was the lack of reference documents for greenhouse cultivation in this region. 

With no other choice, Wang had to record temperature and humidity data in each of the greenhouses every single day. After two years of hard work, he finally managed to write a manual on how to grow tomatoes and cucumbers in greenhouses adapted to the conditions of the Sanetti Plateau, where Agarfa is located. In February 2016, the greenhouses gave him their first harvest. 

Mutual benefits  

This first experiment was soon emulated by others throughout the region. Agricultural technicians like Ayele and a number of other small-scale farmers were among the first to adopt this technology. According to a survey by three local farmers, who each owns a greenhouse covering 100 to 200 square meters, their average annual income rose from 6,000 to 18,000 birr ($222 to $666) after they adopted greenhouse farming. Large operators such as Asfa Biru Gurmu of Highland Shine Farm soon followed in designing their own greenhouse projects. Asfa said his objective is now to have 100 hectares of greenhouse tomatoes and 50 hectares of greenhouse strawberries within a year. 

The technology introduced by Wang has also gained traction among government officials. Dr. Eyasu Abraha, Ethiopian Minister of Agriculture and Natural Resources, believes that greenhouse cultivation has tremendous potential in the country. Tamirat Tesema Senbeta, Dean of Agarfa ATVET College, insisted on including greenhouse cultivation into the list of techniques that all students had to master by the time they graduate. 

While growers benefit from the project’s effectiveness, Wang, for his part, said he also learned from this experience. “I spent 10 years working in Nigeria, Senegal and Ethiopia, during which I have been able to understand the agricultural conditions of these different countries, and broaden my knowledge of various crops,” he said. “My experience in Africa is a source of great spiritual wealth for me, and it has opened a new path for my future career.” 

In the future, Wang said he hopes to strengthen his efforts to train students, agricultural technicians and farmers in neighboring communities. He also wishes to broaden his current partnership to include other agencies, including financial institutions, to secure more technical and financial support. This, he said, will enable him to further popularize this technology. 

(Comments to lixiaoyu@chinafrica.cn)

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