By Helen Claire Andrus
America Asrassie is a woman determined to make the best of every situation. Perhaps it starts from her name: her parents, inspired by some American volunteers recently arrived in her hometown, named her America. Now America lives with her five children and mother-in-law on two hectares of agricultural land in the area of Bambasi, Benishangul-Gumuz, Ethiopia. She is always searching for the best methods of farming to improve her family’s life.
Conservation agriculture in Bambasi
Twice a week, on Thursday evenings and Friday mornings, Asosa FM, a Farm Radio International broadcasting partner, broadcasts a program on conservation agriculture. America listens with her community group of other farmers, and they discuss the implementation of the new information they learn in the program afterwards.
Before listening to the program broadcast from Asosa, the capital of the Benishangul-Gumuz region, America and her family produced less than 100 kg, or one quintal of product per year. They grew maize, sorghum, and green beans to sell, in addition to some crops reserved for her family to increase their nutritional intake.
America says that the program has taught her about critical information on the topics of conservation agriculture and soil health.
Conservation agriculture is a farming approach that emphasizes protecting the soil—and the environment in general—for increased productivity. The three main principles of CA are minimal soil disturbance (low-till or no-till); permanent soil cover (with crop residues or other soil cover), and crop rotation and/or intercropping.
The programs are part of a collaborative project launched by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank in Ethiopia on conservation agriculture, working with Farm Radio International and Food for Hunger. The project is undertaken with matching support from Global Affairs Canada.
” Listening and working together helps to support, help and empower [each other] when someone is weak.”
America says she has learned techniques like intercropping, which is the mixture of certain crops in the same plot that serve to fertilize and support each other. She has also learned about disease and pest prevention, like the devastating Fall armyworm infestation that many other farmers in her region are currently facing, and other related pest and weed controls. America has also learned about children’s nutrition, sanitation, and health, as well as family planning, from radio programs.
Despite hearing about the new conservation agriculture techniques, America was originally unsure about the overall impact these new methods would bring.
To test them, she picked some sample areas around her farm for a trial. Soon, she began to see a noticeable difference between those plots versus her land as a whole. Since she began practicing the new methods from the radio program, America’s output has increased to the point that she expects over 30 quintals of maize alone, with an additional 12 quintals of sorghum—more than 30 times her original harvest.
Radio helps family of seven thrive
Prior to the radio program, America did not have enough food to adequately feed her own family. Her husband left her and the rest of the family more than five years ago, and she at first struggled to provide a sustainable lifestyle for her children, her mother-in-law, and herself. With the significant growth in output, she not only has enough for her family, but she is able to sell her crops for a profit.
Her two oldest children, men aged 20 and 18, are now attending Asosa University, studying nursing and agriculture, respectively. America can now afford to pay both their tuitions: 350 Birr per month each (about $12USD), plus their living expenses in the city, including housing and food.
It didn’t always seem like this would be something she could do. When her husband left, America needed her boys to stay home and help. Because of this, they were not able to take their Grade 10 exams, an Ethiopian requirement to enter university.
Since implementing the techniques she learned from the Farm Radio program, not only did they take and pass their exams, but they both began higher education programs. America’s next oldest child, her 16-year-old daughter, will soon take Grade 10 exams, possibly becoming the third in the family to attend university.
A Look to the Future
In the next planting season, America hopes to cover the entirety of her land with the conservation agriculture practices she learned about. Through this, she believes that her output and profits will expand even further.
In addition to food security and education for her children, America is able to begin a savings fund. Her dream now is to save enough so that she can replace her current home, built of dried grasses and clay, with a weather-resistant metal home. She is planning for a more secure and sustainable future for the entire family, now that she has a reliable and consistent income.
Community: How radio works to unite farmers in the region
What is most remarkable about America, however, is her dedication to community. In a discussion with her entire radio listening group, she raised the importance of group work and togetherness twice – two times more than anyone else did. She cares not only for how her own family can benefit from these changes, but how the entirety of her listening group can.
As part of a monitoring and evaluation trip by Farm Radio, she was asked about what other topics the group wanted to learn about. America brought up group work as something to be discussed so communities of farmers can learn to better support each other. She wants people all over Ethiopia to learn about the new methods, but also to be able to work together so that more people can benefit as she and others in the region have.
Knowing exactly the fear of being alone after her husband left, she is especially passionate about the role that unity plays in helping families thrive. America describes this enthusiasm she has, saying that “listening and working together helps to support, help and empower [each other] when someone is weak.” She wants to help others to change their lives the same way she was able to.
According to America, “Love is the main thing.”
Helen Claire Andrus is a graduate researcher in Development Studies at York University in Toronto, Canada conducting fieldwork on the practice of photography by development organizations in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia