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Monday, 11 June, 2001, 22:27 GMT 23:27 UK
Ethiopia: Getting food to the people
Blacksmiths
The project aims to improve the lives of people in remote areas
By Charles Haviland in Meket district, northern Ethiopia

"People are happy to spend a little money on transport," said Molla Aganyew, "and now vehicles will come through this area at last. The road will help sick or hungry people get to health centres even if they have to be transported by animals."


The road will help sick or hungry people get to health centres

Molla Aganyew
Thirty-year-old Molla, tall and stately, is headman on a community scheme to build feeder roads linking remote communities with the main highway through Meket district in northern Ethiopia.

In exchange for 10 birr ($1.20) a day, local people put in two weeks of hard work. The labour is then rotated among other members of the community.

Rocky road

What they are constructing may look like just a stony track, but lack of a proper road infrastructure is one of the main factors behind Ethiopia's crippling poverty. The feeder roads are built, and maintained, entirely using cheap and locally available materials.

Woman cooking njera
The road means the village gets barley to make enough njera
This is a beautiful and rugged part of the world, and a colourful one. The local people have a rich Orthodox Christian tradition. At one funeral gathering I saw, they had decked out their horses with red and purple coats embroidered with crosses.

But it is also a poor and exposed place, 3,000 metres up on a rocky ridge, and it has suffered from severe famines in the past when the rains have failed.


Little by little, they are inching their way towards greater food security

One way of guarding against hunger is to keep livestock, which sometimes increase in value during lean years.

But the more insurance mechanisms you have, the better. That is the message of SOS Sahel, a small British-based development organisation working here in the Ethiopian highlands.

Alongside road building, they have promoted grain banks. In the village of Filakit, a troupe of donkeys arrived and ceremonially dumped a new consignment of barley in the mud hut I was visiting - one of the local grain banks.

View from Meket district
Meket district is a beautiful and rugged part of the world
"During the harvest season, when there is plenty of grain, the bank buys grain from its own members," SOS Sahel's Endelkatchew Yaregal told me.

"It gets safely stored. Then at planting time, when prices are generally high, the bank sells grain to the members at a cheap price."

Ethiopia's national food, the pancake called njera, can be made of barley or other grains.

Regeneration

SOS Sahel's work spans other sectors, too, helping get people additional income to use in hard times. Blacksmiths are a group of people traditionally looked down on in this conservative rural society.

Now the organisation has helped establish a local Blacksmiths' Association, with a centre where home-made tools are upgraded to get a better market price. Blacksmiths' incomes, and also their social status, have risen.

The organisation is also helping beekeepers promote a new style of beehive, known as the top-bar hive - far more efficient than the traditional model in harvesting honey. And honey means money - it is the main ingredient in a popular liquor called tej.

Life will never be easy in this part of northern Ethiopia. People will continue to depend, to some degree, on food aid. But, little by little, they are inching their way towards greater food security.

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See also:

24 May 00 | Africa
War and drought in the Horn
17 Apr 00 | Europe
EU food aid for Ethiopia
01 Apr 00 | Africa
Why is famine back again?
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