Ethiopian farmers test alternatives to pesticides
Ethiopia experiences chronic food insecurity in many regions. Government
and development agencies have invested heavily in pesticides as a strategy
to improve food security and many farming communities have become reliant
on pesticides, with negative effects on human and livestock health. Fantahun Assefa and Stephanie Williamson report on Save the Children (UK)’s initiative to promote safer and more sustainable pest management in the Amhara Region.
Members of the Debeko Farmer Field School discuss pest observation methods in their
teff fields. Photo Save the Children (UK)
Farmers from the Debeko Peasants’ Association in the impoverished
highlands of North Wollo, Amhara, have suffered dramatic consequences from
relying on pesticides to control the insect pests, which can eat up to 30%
of their meagre harvests. Farmers in this area struggle to feed their families
on tiny plots on degraded soils and to make matters worse, many have run
up large debts in order to purchase pesticides. Some had to sell off their
precious livestock to pay back loans and the availability of toxic pesticides
caused serious tensions within families and communities. But these distressing
events have not been repeated since the Debeko farmers took part in the Farmer
Field School training run by Save the Children (UK) (SC[UK]) in 1999.
Changing strategies for pest control
Agriculture is the driving force of the Ethiopian
economy, with 90% of the population dependent on farming for their livelihood.
SC(UK) has been running food aid programmes in Ethiopia since the major famine
in 1973-74. In 1992, SC(UK) began an eight-year programme to improve food
security in the Amhara highlands, by boosting crop and livestock production.
Smallholders here grow the indigenous cereal staple teff (similar to an upland rice), barley, sorghum, chickpea, horsebean,
and sometimes a few vegetables, on average landholdings of 0.5ha. Cereals
production is primarily for household consumption but with declining soil
fertility, farmholding fragmentation under growing population pressure, as
well as serious pest problems, farmers cultivating less than 1ha may only
be able to produce six to eight months’ supply of food, even in a good year.
Many development agencies have provided pesticides as part of their food
security programmes in Ethiopia, because losses to pests are often high in
cereal crops, particularly during outbreaks of migratory pests such as locusts,
armyworms and grain-eating quelea birds. SC(UK) has been no exception: its
Emergency Pest Control Programme to control Wollo bush cricket (Decticoides brevipennis)
in Amhara in 1994 involved widespread insecticide spraying and helping smallholders
gain access to pesticides. However, there is growing recognition that pesticide
promotion in Ethiopia has brought costs as well as benefits, particularly
to human and environmental health. The country has the largest stockpiles
of dangerous and obsolete pesticides in Africa (see PN43 pp12-13), much of
which has resulted from pesticide donations. Several donors now question
the strategy of relying on pesticides as the key control method for pests
in subsistence farming.
SC(UK) began to change their pest control
strategy in 1996, from reliance on pesticides towards Integrated Pest Management
(IPM), with an emphasis on farmer training and promotion of low-cost, locally
available alternatives with fewer hazards to humans and the environment.
They started by raising awareness of partners in the Amhara Board of Agriculture
(BoA) on dangers of pesticide use, IPM concepts and practice and on possible
alternatives to synthetic pesticides. In 1999 they began a series of farmer
participatory IPM training activities, adapting the Farmer Field School (FFS)
approach (see PN40 pp12-13 and PN49 p9) used in Asia and elsewhere in Africa
to the context of Ethiopian highland cereal farmers.
Training for IPM
To launch the FFS work, SC(UK) organised a Training
of Trainers course for 24 BoA crop protection staff, who, in turn, trained
local Development Agents (DAs), the field-level extension staff. Season-long
FFS training with Peasant Associations followed, at 20 different sites during
the 1999 and 2000 cropping seasons. Over 400 farmers participated, 5-10%
of whom were women.
The training curriculum made a radical shift
from the conventional Ethiopian extension approach of delivering pre-set
messages and promoting specific IPM packages (as encouraged by donors including
the World Bank and Sasakawa Global 2000). This governmental Participatory
Demonstration, Extension and Training System (PADETS) currently promotes
the use of external agrochemical inputs and has been criticised by farmers
and NGOs as highly inappropriate for most small-scale and resource-poor farmers(1).
Instead, the FFS sessions built up farmers’ knowledge
about pests and their natural enemies and compared farmers’ current pesticide
practice with a range of IPM options based on botanical preparations from
local plants, cultural controls and the use of ash and fermented cows’ urine
(a long-standing traditional practice in many areas in Ethiopia). FFS farmers
and DAs conducted experiments on the efficacy of 30 different plants traditionally
used for human and livestock medicinal purposes, some of which had been used
by the older generation of farmers before the widespread availability of
The FFS groups compared current farmers’ practice and IPM options in
teff, wheat, barley, peas and lentils and identified their major
pests as Wollo bush cricket, aphids, black beetles and rats. Most of the
ideas for the FFS research agenda came from farmers, but DAs and researchers
also contributed some methods to test, such as extracts of neem (Azadirachta indica) and melia (Melia azedarach) seed. Figure 1 summarizes the pest control options and findings from the FFS experimentation.
Unlike many development projects in Ethiopia which encourage farmer participation
by provision of hand-outs, the principle of cost-sharing was agreed on beforehand
and farmers participated because they were motivated to find ways to reduce
their production costs and/or had personally suffered negative effects from
Benefits of using local resources
SC(UK) ran participatory evaluation workshops with
FFS farmers, DA facilitators, BoA crop protection staff and researchers from
the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Institute to assess the achievements
and weak points of the FFS programme and how it might be improved and expanded(2).
Pesticide use by FFS-trained farmers has decreased
considerably compared with the 1996-98 period, partly as a result of training,
but also because of decreased pest pressure as a result of unfavourable climatic
conditions and possibly due to the knock-on effect of large-scale earlier
pesticide applications. The Debeko Peasant Association FFS group estimated
their use in 2000 to have decreased by 36% compared to their averages for
1995-99. Farmers and DAs have observed a change in attitude among FFS members
regarding the desirability of and need for pesticides in crop management.
DAs from zones adjacent to FFS groups have been impressed too and have requested
to participate in IPM training.
FFS farmers valued the training in empowering them to adopt environmentally
safe and cheap methods which did not disrupt natural balance or harm animals
and bees. They stressed the importance of appreciating the role of indigenous
knowledge and techniques, which are readily available to resource-poor farmers
and free. Another benefit was the strengthening of group collaboration and,
acting together, they improved the response of government agencies to pest
Further research and extension needs
Farmers drew attention to some problems: irritation
from certain botanical preparations and lack of personal protective clothing;
lack of buckets and sprayers to prepare and apply urine and botanical preparations;
some additional workload in collecting plant materials and preparing these
and in regular data collection; and some mechanical damage to crops during
field observations. Their main concern, however, was for researchers to help
them improve the efficacy and safety of urine, ash and botanical treatments
by in-depth studies on preparation methods, best dosage rates and application
frequency; validating the effectiveness of each method against specific pests;
and careful assessment of potential hazards to animals and humans.
DAs highlighted the need to encourage more participation of women and to
discuss with local communities and relevant agencies how best to conserve
and propagate some of the indigenous plant species tested which are increasingly
Save the Children’s experience with FFS training in North Wollo demonstrates
the feasibility of achieving a major shift in attitudes and practice from
the pesticide dependence mentality dominant among most farmers and crop protection
staff. It also raises serious questions about the extent of reliance on pesticides
to achieve food security, as promoted by government and certain donor agencies.
|Impact of pesticides on families and communities
staff and Ethiopian crop protection colleagues talked to FFS farmers from
the Debeko and Mesfina Peasant Associations in Meket District, North Wollo,
during a travelling study tour of obsolete pesticide stockpiles and IPM alternatives,
organized by Ethiopia’s Safe Environment Group in November 2000. Farmers
explained that by using the natural control methods tested in the FFS they
had been able to obtain satisfactory yields, doubled in some cases, notably
by improved control of Wollo bush cricket(4). Financially they were
much better off as they made savings on production inputs and no longer had
to get into debt or sell off livestock in order to repay loans for purchasing
pesticides. As a result, they could spare more cash for fertilizers. They
were also able to control pests in a timely fashion using their own resources,
rather than worry about how to afford or access pesticides.
Handling and storing toxic insecticides, mainly lambda-cyhalothrin,
malathion and cypermethrin, had caused many serious incidents in these villages.
Accidental poisonings of animals, by malathion in particular, had been common,
but was no longer a worry when using local alternatives. One of the most
remarkable benefits that the FFS farmers had observed was an increase in
community harmony: previously there had been incidents of deliberate pesticide
poisoning of livestock during disputes between neighbours and there had been
several cases of attempted suicide by teenagers drinking pesticides, following
arguments in the family, with one fatality.
The Debeko FFS group is unusual in its high degree of women’s participation
(six out of 24 members) and members have shared their experience with 270
|Fig. 1 Summary of some botanical and urine-based preparations for pest control tested by FFS groups during
|| Observed Effect
|Wollo bush cricket (WBC), grasshoppers,
|| Fermented animal urine
|| 10-15 days fermentation and applied as contact pesticide on field borders
||~ Pests killed, WBC killed within 1 hour.
~ Take care not to ferment more than 15 days or plant scorch may occur.
|Storage pests (weevils)
|| Melia azedarach, Strychnos innocua, Acanthospermum spp, Calotropis procera
|| Leaves dried and ground to a flour, then mixed with grains
||~ Grain is protected from
|Household pests (fleas, headlice
|| Fermented animal urine
Sisal Agave sisalana
| As above
Aqueous extract made from chopped leaves and stem and applied fresh
|~ Effective control achieved.
| Sisal with urine and Dracaena steudneri
|| Leaves and stems fermented in urine
1. M Haile, Lobbying for policy support to local innovation, ILEIA Newsletter 2000, 16 (2), 23-24.
2. F Assefa, M Asnakew and J Mckee, IPM-FFS annual review report, Save
the Children Fund (UK), Woldiya, Ethiopia. Unpublished report, 2000, 59pp.
3. Some insecticidal preparations tested by farmers in North Wollo and
Wag Hamra zones, SC(UK) document prepared for the Safe Environment Group
study tour on Obsolete Pesticides and Environmentally Sound Alternatives,
13-17 November 2000.
4. S Williamson and F Assefa, Impact of IPM-FFS training in Ethiopia, with
reference to capital assets and sustainable rural livelihoods. (in preparation)
For more information contact:
Dr Fantahun Assefa,
Integrated Pest Management-Farmers Field School Project Coordinator, Save
the Children (UK), Ethiopia, PO Box 7165, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, email@example.com
[This article first appeared in
Pesticides News No. 52, June 2001, pages 8-9]