I recently attended a stakeholder workshop in Addis Ababa regarding the development of an action plan for the national Faidherbia programme. This initiative dates back to December 2011 when the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced the country’s plan to plant 100 million Faidherbia albida seedlings within smallholder farms. This target was expected to be met through the combined efforts of both national and regional government agencies and local and international NGOs.
This is a very noble and worthy target, particularly when one considers the deforestation that has occurred in Ethiopia, the declining fertility of farmlands, and the enormous rates of soil erosion most notably in the northern highlands.
However, there are a number of potential problems associated with the specific target of the Faidherbia programme that could see a lot of time, effort and resources wasted, which I will discuss in this post.
Firstly, what is faidherbia albida and what are its benefits/uses?
Faidherbia albida (aka acacia albida) is a unique and valuable tree species that is indigenous to parts of Africa and the Middle East, including Ethiopia. It provides a number of ecological goods and services including timber, animal fodder, fuelwood, nitrogen fixation, and erosion control. A unique feature of the Faidherbia albida species is that is sheds its leaves and becomes dormant during winter.
The species has thus been recognised and promoted as being particularly beneficial for crop production on smallholder farms as part of an agroforestry system referred to as Evergreen Agriculture. This is because it not only improves the soil condition but also doesn’t prevent sunlight from reaching the crops during the growing season, thus increasing the yield of crops within the vicinity of the tree. Research in Ethiopia and Zambia have shown that an agroforestry system of Faidherbia albida trees with crops can significantly increase yields.
Given the potential benefits of this tree species it is understandable that aiming to plant a significant number of trees would appear to be a very worthwhile target for Ethiopia, especially given the persistence of food insecurity and land degradation.
So what are the potential problems with the 100 million target?
There are four potential problems with the 100 million seedling target. Firstly, there are a number of technical and capacity challenges associated with the implementation of this target. Secondly, it is an output target that risks becoming a be-all end-all focus of implementing agencies. Thirdly, it is a potentially inflexible target which may detract from the objectives of planting Faidherbia albida. Fourthly, the target represents a long-term transformation of small-holder agricultural systems without any clear connection to long-term regional land-use strategies or agricultural policies. I will briefly discuss each of these issues below and then provide a few ideas for improving the Faidherbia programme.
1. Technical and capacity challenges
There are a number of technical and capacity issues that pose a significant challenge to the achievement of the 100 million target. First and foremost, the survival rate of tree seedlings planted in Ethiopia is very low, with an average around 10-20%. There are a number of factors that contribute to low survival rates including poor seed/seedling quality, lack of appropriate seedling care, poor soil quality, and, in particular, free grazing by livestock. Secondly, Faidherbia albida is a relatively difficult tree to grow because of its unique propagation requirements. Therefore, successfully improving the survival rates of Faidherbia albida seedlings will require advances in tree seed/seedling quality, the establishment of community-wide initiatives to control free grazing and/or innovative seedling protection measures, and the effective dissemination (and application) of technical information to extension agents, implementing agencies, farmers, and nursery operators. Each of these alone are significant challenges that require boosting the capacity of a number of actors as well as obtaining the coordination and cooperation of multiple stakeholders at different levels.
2. Output targets that become the overriding focus of implementing agencies
The second potential problem with the target of the national Faidherbia programme is that it is a singular output target that presupposes it will automatically lead to the desired impact. In other words, the goal of the programme is to plant 100 million seedlings on smallholder farms with the assumption being that once this target it met it will generate improvements in crops yields and the environmental condition of farmlands.
However, such output targets are particularly problematic when it comes to large organisations, particularly government bureaucracies. Often such outputs become the overriding focus within these organisations resulting in the subordination of quality in favour of quantity. This is because the business units within the organisation are ultimately only responsible and accountable for the achievement of these outputs. In addition, the centralised organisational structure means deviation from plans and targets are very difficult, even if they are obviously failing to meet the desired outcomes due to poor quality.
For example, setting targets for school enrolments in developing countries is a very common output target of national education programs. However, achieving this target may lead to minimal improvements in educational outcomes, either because of poor quality teaching and facilitates or enrolled children can’t actually attend school on a regular basis. Unless less this target is accompanied by other performance targets related to the actual quality of education (and attendance rates), then such an output target may not have the expected impact. Ethiopia provides an typical example of this, for although it has made significant achievements in reaching 95% enrolment rates for primary school education, a study by USAID in 2010 found that reading and writing outcomes for students were below minimal national standards. Moreover, according to UNESCO, very limited data is actually being collected regarding the quality of education in Ethiopia highlighting the emphasis being place solely on reaching the output target of school enrolment rates.
As such, it is reasonable to suggest the same issue could arise with the Faidherbia program if there are no quality indicators attached to the output target. For example, if 100 million seedlings are planted but only 10-20% of them actually survive then only minimal benefits are likely to be realised. And given the existing survival rate of tree seedlings in Ethiopia this represents a likely scenario.
3. Inflexible targets and distraction from actual objectives
Another potential problem associated with the use of an output target as the primary focus of a programme is that it often reduces flexibility and responsiveness, and may distract attention from the actual objectives. For example, if the main focus of the implementing agencies involved in the Faidherbia program is on reaching the seedling planting target, they risk losing sight of from the underlying and over archiving objectives, which are to improve the environmental condition of agricultural lands and increase crop yields.
Moreover, the output target may restrict the ability of the implementing agencies to adapt and refine their approach in response to feedback, or to adopt new methods for achieving the same objective.
For example, there are alternative methods that could be used to achieve the desired objectives in addition to the planting of Faidherbia albida tree seedlings, such as Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) or a range of other agroforestry or agro-ecological methods. However, these approaches may be subordinated or excluded if they are difficult to include as part of the measurement of the output target by implementing agencies, regardless of their effectiveness in meeting the objectives.
4. Strategic transformation of smallholder agriculture without a regional land-use strategy
The target to plant 100 million Faidherbia albida on smallholder farms represents a fairly significant transformation of Ethiopian small-holder agricultural systems into agroforestry/evergreen agriculture systems. It is also a medium to long-term investment on behalf of the farmers given that it will take about 5 years to realise the benefit on crop yields and environmental conditions. However, it is not clear how this transformation fits within regional development strategies, land-use planning processes, or agricultural policies, or what areas will remain designated for smallholder agriculture. There are a number of areas in Ethiopia that have been converted from smallholder systems into industrial agricultural plantations or special economic zones, although the government remains a strong supporter of smallholder agriculture. Yet in the absence of certainty about the future location of smallholder agriculture systems, it may be difficult to convince farmers of the benefits of this long-term investment in their farms. Ethiopia is in the process of developing a Master Land-use Plan which should hopefully provide some specific guidance on these matters
Ideas for improving the Faidherbia programme
Based on the potential problems outlined above, I would like to suggest a few ideas that could help improve the Faidherbia programme:
- Consider refining or changing the output target. For example, an alternative target for the programme could be a certain number or percentage of smallholder farms transitioning to evergreen agriculture systems that incorporate Faidherbia albida. This target could be calculated based on the original target, e.g. one million farms with 100 trees on each. Defining the target in this way would make it easier to include the planting of seedlings, FMNR, or other agroforestry methods as strategies to achieve the desired objectives. If the output target of 100 million seedlings is retained, then it should be accompanied by some performance targets related to quality that implementing agencies are responsible for achieving, such as minimum acceptable survival rates.
- Identify overarching programme objectives and targets that are agreed and shared by different stakeholders. This would involve a collaborative effort to identify the overarching programme objectives, e.g. increasing crop yields and improving environmental performance, and then selecting suitable key performance indicators and targets that align with them. Ideally these targets and performance indicators would be shared across different organisations so they are all accountable and responsible. In this way, existing programme and initiatives will similar objectives could also help contribute to the attainment of the targets.
- Engaging with smallholder farmers and providing them with certainty. Currently the Faidherbia programme has been a relatively top-down initiative with limited engagement with smallholder farmers. Efforts should be made to engage with smallholder farms so that they understand the potential benefits of transition to evergreen agricultural and that their views and perspectives are incorporated into planning and implementation processes. They also need to be provided with certainty that the areas in which they farm will remain dedicated to smallholder agriculture systems. This would most likely require careful consideration of how the Faidherbia programme and smallholder systems will be integrated with the new Master Land-use Plan.
- Focus on quality before scaling up. This would involve an initial emphasis on building the technical capacity of implementing agencies and stakeholders to develop and propagate high quality seedlings and take care of them after they have been planted. Once a satisfactory level of technical capacity is developed then the focus could shift to scaling up the number of trees being planted. This would likely help to improve the survival rate of seedlings being planted on farmlands. However, it would also need to be incorporated with the established of community-led initiatives to protect the seedlings from browsing livestock.
- Creating a collaborative platform for sharing information and feedback. Regardless of what the targets and performance indicators are adopted for the programme, effective collaboration and communication will be very important. Therefore, establishing an appropriate collaborative platform would be a practical way to enable all the relevant stakeholders and implementing agencies to share information and lessons learned and discuss issues and challenges.
Fortunately, a number of these concerns were raised in the stakeholder workshop so hopefully the taskforce overseeing this program will take such considerations into account when finalising the action plan.