When people ask how our recent trip to Ethiopia was, my first answer is "cold and wet". It's true - it's currently the rainy season, and in the highland capital Addis Ababa, temperatures rarely reach 20°C. It doesn't do justice to the incredible landscapes, fascinating history and great people we met there, but it does cause people to question stereotypes of the country as arid and disaster-prone.
My visit to Ethiopia certainly challenged widely-held preconceptions. Recognised as the cradle of humanity, and the only part of Africa not to be colonised in the nineteenth century, it’s nevertheless seen global injustice of a more subtle kind.
Local markets are bursting with food - but high prices are squeezing household budgets.
After tacit British support for a failed Italian takeover in the 1880s, Ethiopia’s arguments against Italian claims on the country were ignored at the League of Nations in 1934, and an Italian occupation ensued. One legacy of the short Italian rule was the impact on agriculture: importation of grain, almost unknown until then, became significant. The country continues to be a significant importer of staple foods, particularly wheat, despite the fact that locally grown tef, used to produce the popular (and delicious) injera pancakes which Ethiopia is known for, is one of the most nutritious grains on earth. Reliance on imports of staple foods makes the country vulnerable to global food price fluctuations, including those caused by speculation. Everyone complains about the high cost of food stretching household budgets and making it harder for families to put decent meals on the table.
Knowing a bit about Ethiopia’s recent history also exposes the political and economic (rather than climatic) causes of hunger. For example, a famine in 1973 was caused largely by a feudal land system in which farmers were impoverished by the extortionate rents they had to pay to landowners, followed by an ill-advised attempted cover-up by the imperial government. The public outcry that followed lead to a revolution and the end of centuries of rule by Ethiopian emperors, while subsequent years saw calls for land reform albeit with limited success.
A man demands land reform in the 1970s. His placard reads "Land for the tiller".
Similarly, while the famine of 1983–5 which inspired Band Aid is often ascribed to drought, in fact widespread drought occurred only some months after the famine was under way. Once again, political causes were at work – this time failures of a brutal military government, and refusal of western countries to respond to the needs of a socialist-backed country.
Recently, as one of the world’s fastest growing economies and with an increasing tax base (signs in hotels and restaurants everywhere urge you “Do not pay unless a receipt has been issued” – an attempt to ensure that the required VAT reaches government coffers), Ethiopia has fared better. The country escaped relatively lightly compared to neighbouring Somalia in 2011 when once again thousands of people in the region went hungry.
But the country’s food system faces new challenges. The G8 is making aid money to Ethiopia and other African countries conditional on policies that make it easier for foreign ‘investors’ to take over land for industrial agriculture (or remove it from food production entirely), and reform seed laws in favour of multinational seed companies.
But there's definitely hope and resistance. Alternatives are evident: north of the capital, for centruries the Agaw people have been using highly productive yet ecologically sustainable agricultural practices which have minimal impact on the local environment. And last week saw famers' organisations and civil society groups from across the continent converge in Ethiopia’s capital for a meeting to discuss strategies for resisting the new colonisation of Africa. Far from being helpless victims, as the mainstream media would like the west to believe, Africans are fighting back.