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Unleashing the power of women farmers in Ethiopia

Bedria Hussein. Photo: Oxfam
Bedria Hussein

On International Women’s Day, a thousand women – mostly farmers – gathered in Ziway in central Ethiopia to celebrate the power and potential of women food producers. One of the women at the event was a farmer called Bedria Hussein:

Bedria shows me the small piece of land behind her house where she and her husband farm. It’s about 400m2. At first I’m disappointed – I wanted to see a farm and I’m being shown a garden. But as I look and listen I realise that although the land is small, she really is a farmer. Farming is how Bedria, a mother of two daughters, supports herself and her family. More than that, it has transformed her life and is enabling her and her husband to progress and have greater dreams for the future.

When they married seven years ago Bedria and her husband were both labourers working on other people’s land. It was a daily struggle to survive. “Some days I had no work, other days I worked for 12 hours and earned only 10 Birr (less than $1). We lived in a one room mud and grass hut. I was about to leave my husband and go home to my parents,” she recalls.

International Women's Day event in Ziway. Photo: Oxfam
International Women's Day event in Ziway

Things started to change four years ago when Bedria joined 13 other women in a group organised by SEDA (Sustainable Environment and Development Action, an Oxfam partner). Her husband said she was wasting her time, but she persisted. The group held adult education classes, they saved and borrowed money together, and, just as importantly, they started learning from SEDA and each other about ways to improve their lives.

The land that now supports Bedria’s family was barren and dusty at the time. This is the Rift Valley and it is notoriously dry and drought prone. The women started with just a few seed beds, growing crops with water pulled from a well by rope and bucket. They soon saw the potential and began to expand.

Bedria pumping water for the farm. Photo: Oxfam
Bedria pumping water for the farm

SEDA helped Bedria get a hand pump, which enabled her to plant more of the carefully maintained beds of vegetables. Other women began to join the group, or formed their own. When her husband saw what was happening he also joined a SEDA group, and now he farms alongside Bedria. Recently she has started to use a motorised pump, which she rents together with two other women. This enables them to plant more and work less.

About three years ago, as Bedria began to see the potential in her own farming, the government of Ethiopia implemented a land certification process in the area. Bedria and her husband got a certificate confirming them as joint owners of the land, which had originally been given to the husband by his mother. “It has both of our names and pictures on it!” Bedria explains. Asked what receiving this certificate meant for her, Bedria laughed. “I am happy he will not be able to deny me anything! It also motivates us to work, because we know it is ours.”

With advice from SEDA, Bedria and others started to grow seedlings of crops like onions and tomatoes and sell these to farmers with more land. The seedlings give a much better return from the small pieces of land, and a faster cash turnover. “I am about to sell these onion seedlings for 4,000 Birr ($220),” Bedria explained as she showed me her field. “In two months I will be selling seedlings again, and at the same time I sell kale leaves every ten days.” Bedria and her husband mix and rotate the crops, maintaining the soil’s fertility and growing food for their home as well as a healthy cash income.

At work in the field. Photo: Oxfam
At work in the field

The couple have also expanded by entering a sharecropping arrangement with another land owner. On land approximately twice the size of their own, they grow crops like onions, tomatoes, chillies and cabbage until they are ready to harvest. They sell to traders from as far away as Addis Ababa and then split the profit 50/50 with the land owner.

Not surprisingly, the increased income from their joint efforts has brought other important changes to the couple. “Before we joined the SEDA groups there was no discussion about income in the home,” Bedria says. “Now we discuss everything”. Bedria has taken more control of her life in a way that has also built a stronger partnership with her husband.

Comparing life as a labourer to farming for herself, Bedria is animated. “My life has changed completely. We have built a larger house with a tin roof, we have a water pump, more income, and I can provide for my children.” Now Bedria has the time and resources to try other ideas. She has started to buy vegetables from other farmers and sell them in markets in nearby towns. She wants to buy her own motorised water pump and extend her house, building a kitchen. She has plans to start a small restaurant and want to ensure her daughters get a good education.

The gathering in Ziway came under the banner of “Unleashing the power of women food producers.” With her beautifully cared for and highly productive little farm, her new business ventures and her hopes for the future, Bedria is a great example of a woman with her power ‘unleashed’. With a little bit of the right assistance many more women can follow a similar path, taking more control of their lives and contributing to wider progress and food security for all.

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Written by Marc Wegerif

Marc Wegerif

Marc Wegerif coordinates Oxfam's Economic Justice campaign in East Africa, working with partners to bring about fair policies for small farmers, pastoralists and communities affected by climate change. He is based in Tanzania

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