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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 synthetic pesticides. 
    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 pesticide use.

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 problems. 

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 scarce.
    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 
PAN UK 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 other farmers.

Fig. 1 Summary of some botanical and urine-based preparations for pest control tested by FFS groups during 1999-2000(3) 
Target pest  Material  Method  Observed Effect
Wollo bush cricket (WBC), grasshoppers, bollworm  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 
pest damage.
Household pests (fleas, headlice and bedbugs)  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,

[This article first appeared in Pesticides News No. 52, June 2001, pages 8-9]

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