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Abstract and Figures

Collecting field data on 161 sampling sites in very difficult conditions has allowed us to evaluate the status of cropping in part of the Tigray region of Ethiopia, by the end of August 2021. We have observed that local farming communities are remarkably resilient, also in times of conflict and instability. Relying on indigenous knowledge and local practices, farmers have shifted to the production of crops that need minimal effort and resources. However, there have been very few lean crops planted (maize, potato), and we estimate that only 20-50% of the farmland will produce reasonable outputs, which is well below what is required to sustain the local population in a subsistence farming economy. We have no reason to believe that in other districts of Tigray, the situation would be significantly different, except for Western Tigray, where many more lands have been left fallow, due to ethnic cleansing of the population. This study tends to confirm the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) statement of 2 September 2021 that “only 25% to 50% of the normal cereal production will be available this year as the agricultural planting season has been missed in many parts of Tigray”.
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August 2021 status of cropping in the wider
surroundings of Mekelle (Tigray, Ethiopia)
Tesfaalem Ghebreyohannes1, Jan Nyssen1,2, Emnet Negash2,3, Hailemariam Meaza1, Zbelo
Tesfamariam1, Birhanu Belachew1, Gebretsadkan Gebremichael1, Yafet Tadesse1, Desalegn Kiros4,
Tadese Hailemariam4, Amaury Frankl2, Biadgilgn Demissie1,2, Bert Van Schaeybroek5, Alem Redda6
Sofie Annys2, Fetien Abay7
1 Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, Mekelle University, Ethiopia
2 Department of Geography, Ghent University, Belgium
3 Institute for Climate and Society, Mekelle University, Ethiopia
4 Department of Tigrinya, Mekelle University, Ethiopia
5 Royal Meteorological Institute, Belgium
6 May Tsebri Agricultural Research Centre, Shire, Tigray, Ethiopia
7 Department of Crop and Horticultural Sciences, Mekelle University, Ethiopia
1. Introduction
Due to the combined impacts of conflict and instability, desert locusts, the poor macroeconomic
situation, and the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2021 humanitarian food assistance needs are well above
average in Tigray (north Ethiopia). Extreme low levels of economic activities, high levels of internal
displacements (OCHA 2021), combined with restricted humanitarian access (UNICEF 2021) and limited
food stocks have resulted in 70% of the population experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity
by 2 September 2021 (OCHA 2021). This situation includes large food consumption gaps at the
household level, resulting in high acute malnutrition and excess mortality (Annys et al. 2021). Due to
internal migration flows, many rural households also need to share the (limited) previous harvest with
relatives and guests, resulting in exhausted food stocks. Within the same areas, approximately
353,000 people were famine-affected in August 2021, corresponding to IPC’s Phase 5 (IPC 2012), and
hence at severe risk of starvation (FEWS NET 2021, IPC 2021). USAID estimates on 19 August
amounted to 900,000 famine affected people (Power 2021). Taking into account a daily famine-related
death rate of minimum 2 people per 10,000 inhabitants, the mentioned numbers correspond to 6142-
15660 famine victims who died in June-August 2021.
These figures are likely to increase sharply over the next few months, as it may take up to December
before this years’ harvest may be consumed; the lean period (also called “lean season”, “hunger
season”) will be very severe. That is the time in between finishing the last food that people have at
hand (which is already the case for many households) and the next harvest, or better the moment
that the grain of the next harvest has been processed (Hirvonen et al. 2016). If we consider small
cereals that are widely produced in the region (wheat, tef, sorghum, barley), harvesting takes time,
and after that the crop needs to sun-dry, then there is threshing, then winnowing and grinding it. So
we speak about end December before this years harvest can start to be consumed.
The greatest fears were raised, when we observed, early May 2021, that very few croplands had been
ploughed. By the end of June, True Colour Composite images, produced from Sentinel satellite imagery
showed that, there was good ploughing progress in most of the region (except for Western Tigray)
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with often more land ploughed than in 2020 (Nyssen et al. 2021). But overall in Tigray, war conditions
made crop cultivation very challenging: oxen had been looted or killed, and farm inputs and farm tools
destroyed (Tghat 2021b, WeForest 2021, World Peace Foundation 2021). Furthermore, farmers who
wanted to plough felt vulnerable out in the open; in many places, Eritrean soldiers forbade the
Tigrayan farmers to plough (Addis Standard 2021, AFP 2021). While trying to produce in February-
June 2021, farmers evaluated all risks involved with ploughing and organised lookouts verifying that
no soldiers were approaching (Nyssen et al. 2021).
By the end of June, without field verification, we anticipated that some part of the land would have
been sown timely, in difficult conditions (Nyssen et al. 2021) and without fertiliser, though fertiliser is
necessary on responsive farmlands (Nyssen et al. 2017, Tittonell and Giller 2013). Late sowing was
assumed to have led the farmers to sow crops with a short growing cycle, like in drought years, such
as lentil and selected fast-maturing wheat or barley (sa’isa’a) cultivars, obviously with a lower yield
(Frankl et al. 2013). Anecdotal evidence in August 2021 showed a contrasted situation, partly cropped,
partly fallow (Fig. 1). Here, we present field data collected by the end of August 2021, that were
analysed in order to determine the share of Tigray’s land that has been sown timely, the type of crops
that were sown, and the status of these crops. We draw conclusions about the resilience of the
Tigrayan farming systems, as well as about the upcoming needs of humanitarian aid.
Fig. 1. Farmlands near Koraro (end of August 2021), covered with crop (at left) and left fallow (at right).
Photos (Tghat 2021a)
2. Methodology
2.1 Study area
The area of study is located in Eastern and Southeastern Tigray and covers around 500 km², situated
between 13°10’-14°05’N and 39°05’-39°45’E, at elevations between 1700 and 2800 m a.s.l.
The study area, where farming has been done in the midst of conflict and battles, was considered to
be representative for the regional variability in environmental characteristics. From south to north it
includes Samre district, Hintalo district, Addi Gudom urban district, Inderta and Mekelle urban district,
Dogu'a Tembien and Hagere Selam, Kilte Awula'ilo and Wukro, as well as Tsa'ida Imba districts, all in
a radius of 70 km around the regional capital Mekelle (Fig. 2).
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Fig. 2. Study area centered around the Tigray’s regional capital Mekelle and location of studied
farmlands.
2.1.1 Geology and soils
The Samre district largely exposes Mesozoic sandstone; Hintalo Mesozoic sandstone, shale and
limestone; Inderta limestone and dolerite. Higher up, Dogu’a Tembien exposes volcanics at higher
elevations, while sandstone, limestone and shale occur at lower elevations. In Wukro there is a
dominance of limestone, while the northern part of Kilte Awula’ilo exposes various, mostly brittle
precambrian rocks. Tsa’ida Imba literally means “white mountain” which points to the dominance of
Enticho sandstone, holding coarse grains pertaining to Palaeozoic glacial outwash
(Tesfamichael Gebreyohannes et al. 2010).
The influence of parent material on soil characteristics is important in the study area (Nyssen et al.
2019). Along slopes on basalt, the catena comprises Leptosols, Regosols, Vertic Cambisols and
Vertisols. The typical succession in limestone or shale areas is Regosols, Cambisols and Calcisols. Along
these sequences, soil depth generally increases while rock fragment content decreases (Nyssen et al.
2008). In the sandstone areas, common soils are Lixisols and Luvisols in the plains and on the plateaus,
while Regosols and Cambisols typically occur on the slopes. Due to active geomorphological processes,
most soils are young (Nyssen et al. 2019).
2.1.2 Rainfall and crop growing season
Rainfall in Tigray is highly seasonal, with a main rainy season in summer (kremti), preceded by less
reliable spring rains (belgi). Overall, annual rainfall in Tigray shows a clear south-north gradient, with
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decreased annual rainfall as one moves away from the equator (Jacob et al. 2013). Topographical
factors, especially elevation, valley orientation and rain shadows determine the spatial distribution of
annual rainfall (Van den Hende et al. 2021), which varies between 400 and 1800 mm per year, with a
great interannual variability. Due to the occurrence of large drop sizes rains can be very intense
(Nyssen et al. 2005).
The start and length of the growing period the period of the year in which crops and herbaceous
plants grow successfully (De Pauw et al. 2000, De Pauw et al. 1996) typically depend on local
environmental conditions (slope gradient, soil type, temperature), and crop type as well as the annual
rainfall pattern, which determines the moisture availability (from rain and from the moisture reserve
in the soil).
Overall, in most places in the Tigray region, the growing period starts in the month of June and lasts
90 to 120 days (De Pauw and Ramasamy 2017). In the two to three months prior to the start of this
growing period, the farmlands need to be well prepared (Tewodros Gebreegziabher et al. 2009). In
Tigray, fine seedbeds are typically prepared by ploughing the land two up to five times (depending on
the crop type) with a non-reverting animal-drawn plough. Once the seedbed is ready and soil moisture
has been replenished, the seeds are mainly sown by broadcasting.
When spring rains induce sufficiently-wet soil moisture conditions lasting up to the main rainy season,
a good long growing season is possible (azmera), and farmers will select their crop types accordingly.
Particularly at lower hence warmer locations, crops with longer growing requirements will be sown,
such as maize, sorghum and finger millet (Frankl et al. 2013).
In northwestern and western Tigray, the growing period is longer, and maize and sorghum are
frequently cultivated. Some areas in the northeast of Tigray and along the eastern Rift Valley
escarpment have a growing period of less than 90 days, which is less than the minimum required
number of days for most crops to grow. The overall short length of the growing period leads to a great
chance of crop failure with the smallest variation in moisture availability, which is among the reasons
Tigray is often at risk of crop failure (Tewodros Gebreegziabher et al. 2009).
2.1.3 Farming systems
Agriculture in the study area consists almost exclusively of small-scale family farms operating in a
cereal-based permanent farming system, where oxen are used for traction (Westphal 1975). Crop
agriculture is practiced in Tigray since at least 3000 years (Blond et al. 2018, D’Andrea 2008), what
allowed fine-tuning the farming systems over time, including a great knowledge of land suitability and
seed selection processes (Fetien Abay et al. 2008). The indigenous knowledge also comprises a rich
language on soil types (Nyssen et al. 2019), and ability to interpret the rainy season when choosing
the crop to be sown (Frankl et al. 2013). Since the 1980s a land tenure regime has been introduced
that has led to a broad equality in the size of landholdings (Hendrie 1999). On average, the families in
the study area use two or three parcels of cropland, with a combined area of less than one hectare.
Grasslands, rangelands and forests are communally owned and managed (Nyssen et al. 2008).
The cropping system in our study area has as most basic goal to increase the food security of the
household; it is mainly subsistence farming. Here, the accent of the cropping system lies on cereals
such as wheat (Triticum aestivum), barley (Hordeum vulgare) and the endemic fine-grained tef
(Eragrostis tef) for the production of tayta (or injera), the staple food of Tigray (Frankl et al. 2013). If
spring rains are good, sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), maize (Zea mays) and finger millet (Eleusine
coracana) are grown (Fig. 3). Stews accompany the tayta and, therefore, pulses like horse bean (Vicia
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faba), field pea (Pisum sativum), grass pea (Lathyrus sativum), fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-
graecum), lentil (Lens culinaris) and chickpea (Cicer arientum) are cultivated (Alemtsehay Tsegay et al.
2019). Due to their ability to fix nitrogen, the legume crops are grown in a crop rotation system.
Though the practice of fallowing is well-known and positively valued, there are few farmlands left
fallow (Alem Redda 2021, Nyssen et al. 2008), as a result of the agricultural intensification. Common
is the mixture of crops like wheat-barley (hanfets) and field pea-horse bean to avoid total crop failure
in case of drought or disease (Frankl et al. 2013).
Fig. 3. Cropping calendars in the May Bi’ati valley (2200 m a.s.l., in Dogu’a Tembien), deemed to stand
representative for the study area. After Frankl et al. (2013) and Jacob (2010).
In the crop production systems of the area, generally, one or two successive years of cereals are
alternated with one year of legumes (horse beans, grass peas or lentils). Block rotation is common,
which means that adjacent farmers in a certain area through consultation follow the same crop
rotation scheme through consultation. Typically, such blocks include 10-20 parcels with a total area of
4-7 ha. The creation of larger areas under the same crop facilitates protection and eases stubble
grazing after harvest. On fertile soils, cereals are grown for several successive years, without rotation
with any legume crop or fallow. Generally, the crop rotation schemes are not very rigid; they often
depend on non-edaphic factors such as the seed price and availability, climatic conditions, progress of
preparatory works for sowing, and the availability of labour that is necessary for weeding, especially
after planting tef. Moreover, higher valued cereals are preferred above legume crops (Nyssen et al.
2008).
Traditionally, fallow is part of the crop production system, but there has been a strong trend towards
abandoning fallowing, in relation to land scarcity and the concomitant need to increase cereal
production. Also, the cultivation of legume crops has become spaced within crop rotation schemes.
Such shortening of the crop rotation schemes results in a decrease in crop productivity and will cause
further depletion of soil nutrient reserves, if the levels of organic and mineral fertiliser inputs are
insufficient (Corbeels et al. 2000). Traditionally a farmer who practices fallowing is appreciated in his
community, and the best fallowing technique is not only to interrupt cropping for a year, but also to
plough it once at the beginning of the rainy season, in order to enhance infiltration, a practice called
tsig’e (Alem Redda 2021). On marginal lands, farmers are reluctant to grow no crops at all and prefer
to grow grow lentils, niger seed (Guizotia abyssinica) or linseed (Linum usitatissimum) when they want
to restore the soil fertility. Rather than a simple abandonment of fallowing, this is a more balanced
intensification of the crop production system (Nyssen et al. 2008).
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2.1.4 Characterisation of the 2021 rainy season
The 2021 rainfall conditions were analysed at the time by which which all crop types had been planted,
using the CHIRPS 2.0 dataset (Funk et al. 2015) that covers January 1981 - July 2021. Rainfall conditions
for the spring months February-April of 2021 were mostly normal, and locally (southern Tigray)
extremely dry (Nyssen et al. 2021) - following American Meteorological Society - AMS conventions
(Svoboda et al. 2002). In this period, March, however, was overall abnormally dry with the probability
of only 23% for a March being even drier, based on the CHIRPS dataset.
The summer rainfall conditions (up to July) were wetter than normal in large parts of Tigray.
Particularly the study area, located within a radius of 70 km from the regional capital Mekelle,
experienced moderately to extremely wet rainfall conditions (Fig. 4). Our own qualitative field
observations (section 3.1) show that by the end of August, it was still raining around Mekelle and south
of it, but it had not been raining since the beginning of August in the northern Tsa’ida Imba district.
Though the crops there did not yet suffer from drought by the end of August, they would require at
least one additional good rain event.
Fig. 4. Relative summer rainfall for 2019-2021 (as compared to long-term averages), comprising the
months of May, June and July but NOT August 2021 (based on CHIRPS data)
2.2 Observations on croplands in August 2021
The study area could only be visited by the co-authors residing in Mekelle, as the conflict made the
area inaccessible to the part of the team residing outside of Tigray. Data were transmitted using a rare
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internet connection (1 September 2021). The local team visited 161 farm plots in an area
representative for the contrasting bio-physical conditions of the wider region, particularly with regard
to elevation (plots were at 1767-2598 m a.s.l.), lithology, soil type, rainfall conditions and hence
farming systems. Land use types other than rainfed farming have been excluded from the analysis,
such as irrigated land, grassland, barren land, bushland or forest.
Data collection consisted in recording the crop type, a group assessment of the status of the crop
according to local standards (good, medium, bad, failed), observations whether cropping was done in
block by neighbouring farmers, and a short interview with the farmer or other local people present
near the land. Attention was given to blockwise cropping with neighbouring farmers because this
practice is an indicator of (a) internally well organised community, and (b) favourable cropping
conditions, hence outlook on better yields.
3. Results
3.1 Qualitative observations in the field
Upon return from data collection, the local team summarised their qualitative observations as follows:
Farmlands have not been adequately ploughed in all the places visited, as would have
happened in the previous years;
Many farmers did not use chemical fertilisers as fertiliser supply was either late or very low;
Like in most sectors, at woreda (district) level, the agricultural and rural development offices
were not functioning. Hence, development agents were not present to advise and help
farmers;
All crops are late, even though helpless farmers were supported in their agricultural
activities by the Tigray government and the community;
Owing to shortage of human resources and herbicides, weeds are common in almost all
farmlands with crops, which will obviously reduce yields; and
Crop diversity is highest in woreda Tsa’ida Imba, with crops such as potato, sorghum, maize,
wheat, barley, lentil and flax commonly grown almost in each village.
In the same period, and independently from our research, an NGO worker observed in Koraro (woreda
Hawzen, slightly west of our study area) that more than one-third of the farmlands were not sown
due to lack of oxen and seed, and the late onset of rainfall (Tghat 2021a). They also mentioned that
kremti crops were growing well and that farmers were trying to manage their crops (weeding and
other) (Tghat 2021a).
3.2 Recorded data of 161 farmlands
The quantitative dataset shows that by the end of August, 21% of the land had been left fallow without
attempt to grow crops (34 plots out of 161). However out of these fallow plots, 9% was without any
weeds indicating that tsig’e ploughing (see section 2.1.3) had taken place. A further 7% of the plots
was under flax or niger seed, commonly used as an improved the fallow, focusing more on soil quality
than on crop production. Among the cropped lands, 62 out of 127 (49%) were under wheat, barley or
a mixture of both (hanfets) and 33 (26%) were under tef. Only 6% was cropped with maize and a
meagre 4% with sorghum (Fig. 5).
Even where farmlands have been sown, the qualitative field observations (section 3.1) show that
farmlands have not been adequately tilled, as would have happened in the previous years, and many
farmers did not use mineral fertilisers as the fertiliser supply was either late or very low. Those who
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applied fertiliser used some leftovers from last year, or had or borrowed cash to purchase it on the
formal or black market (Nyssen et al. 2017).
Fig. 5. Crop status of 161 investigated rainfed croplands in a radius of 70 km around Mekelle on 20-30
August 2021.
Among all observed plots with crops, 40% had been sown in block, in concertation with the owners of
neighbouring lands. Especially wheat and barley were sown in block (53%). For three of the seven
lands with maize, it was grown in block, but the five observed lands with sorghum were all stand-
alone, with the neighbours growing other crops that had been sown later (Table 1).
Small cereals were dominant in all districts, where wheat and barley were widely grown in the Inderta
and Tsa’ida Imba districts, whereas tef was common in Samre. The farmlands with maize were in the
districts of Tsa'ida Imba, Hintalo and Samre (Table 1).
Oil crops were especially observed in Dogu'a Tembien (flax), Inderta (flax) and Kilte Awula'ilo (flax and
niger seed) and the two observed plots with rainfed potato were in the Tsa’ida Imba district (Table 1).
Maize
4%
Sorghum
3%
Tef
20%
Other cereals
(wheat, barley,
millet)
40%
Legumes (beans, peas)
4% Oil crops (Flax, niger
seed)
7%
Potato
1%
Fallow with
weeds or
grass
12%
Fallow (no
vegetation at
all)
9%
Fallow
21%
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Table 1. Summary of field observations
Maize
Sorghum
Other
cereals
(wheat,
barley,
millet)
Potato
All
cropped
lands
Fallow
with
weeds or
grass
Fallow
(no
vegetat-
ion at all)
All
fallow
Number of plots
observed
7
5
62
2
127
20
14
34
Share of all plots (%)
4
3
39
1
79
12
9
21
Share of croplands (%)
6
4
49
2
No. with good crop
2
2
29
2
48
No. with medium crop
0
1
5
0
10
No. with poor crop
4
2
27
0
66
No. with failed crop
1
0
1
0
2
No. in block rotation
3
0
33
0
51
No. out of block
rotation
4
4
22
1
66
9
8
17
No. surrounded by
fallow
0
1
7
1
10
11
5
16
Average altitude (m
a.s.l.)
2262
2271
2266
2373
2328
2251
Woredas with greatest
occurrence (in
decreasing order)
Tsa'ida
Imba,
Hintalo,
Samre
Samre,
Tsa'ida
Imba
Inderta,
Tsa'ida
Imba,
Kilte
Awula'ilo
Tsa'ida
Imba
Kilte
Awula'ilo,
Hintalo,
Tsa'ida
Imba
Tsa'ida
Imba,
Kilte
Awula'ilo,
Samre
Tsa'ida
Imba,
Kilte
Awula'ilo,
Hintalo
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Fig. 6. Assessment of the crop status per crop type by the end of August 2021. There were only two
potato farmlands formally recorded, but casual observations indicated that rainfed potatoes were
doing extremely well in the Tsa’ida Imba, the only location where they were observed.
Nearly half (47%) of the wheat and barley lands were in good condition, as well as two of the five
sorghum lands. In contrast, out of the seven lands with maize, four were in poor shape and one totally
failed (Fig. 6). Also in poor condition: 67% of the tef lands and 73% of the oil crops (mainly flax).
4. Discussion
4.1 Lack of manpower and fallowing
The 21 % of the land left fallow (Fig. 5) is in line with earlier observations (Nyssen et al. 2021) that a
large share of the farmers was absent (refugee or fighter), were forbidden to plough, or were unable
to manage their land due to a lack of resources, injuries, sickness, etc. Oil crops were especially
observed in the woredas Dogu'a Tembien, Inderta and Kilte Awula'ilo (Table 1). The outlook of oil
crops such as flax shows 73% in poor condition (Fig. 6) it is indeed mainly used as an “improved
fallow” crop (see section 2.1.3). It also requires little land preparation and is easy to harvest. The failed
maize has also turned the lands where it was sown into de facto fallow.
Even the weedy nature of farmlands (section 3.1) makes the lands to bear characteristics of fallow
land. Though these wide “fallow conditions” may be good for aiding the regeneration of future soil
fertility, it will strongly reduce the yields of the 2021 season.
Since the farmers were late to cultivate their land and in addition there was a lack of farming tools,
fertiliser, and manpower, it is evident that farmers were forced to leave some or all of their lands
uncultivated. The crops are late because many farmers could only start cultivation in late June, after
most military troops had retreated from the region.
The lands under tef were in poor condition for 67% of them (Fig. 6). Tef is a crop with high
requirements of workforce (for ploughing and for weeding) (Alemtsehay Tsegay et al. 2019), while
relatives are often not in the village and no money is available to pay casual labourers. Overall, the
weediness of the crops is also in line with this lack of time and manpower.
4.2 Reliance on cereals
The large share of cropped lands under wheat, barley or a mixture of both (hanfets) (49%) and next
under tef (26%) (Fig. 5) is in line with the farmers desire, more than other years maybe, to grow cereals
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
90
100
Maize Sorghum Tef Other cereals
(wheat, barley,
millet)
Legumes
(beans, peas)
Oil crops (Flax,
niger seed)
Potato
% good % medium % poor % failed
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(84% of all sown land), at the expense of legumes. To have one quarter of the land sown with tef may
surprise, as tef is often considered as a marketable high-value crop, though with lower yields. Most
probably, the large share of tef is related to the fact that it could still be sown up to the middle of the
rainy season as the crop easily grows on residual moisture after the rains have stopped (Mizan Tesfay
et al. 2017).
The good stands of wheat and barley (47%) as well as sorghum (Fig. 6) are in line with the priority
given to cereals for home consumption. Most probably, the little amount of fertiliser available (section
3.1) and the weeding activities have been concentrated on these lands.
Wheat and barley were sown in block (53%) consistent with crops on neighbouring lands (Table 1),
further indicating the high priority given to these crops.
Legume crops such as beans or peas are nearly absent in our sample (5% of the lands that had been
effectively cropped Table 1), even in the traditional legume-growing areas such as the uplands
around Hagere Selam (Fig. 10), confirming again the high priority given to cereals.
4.3 Lean crops
Similarly to potatoes, the 4% maize cover, in an area that is overall not very suitable for maize except
for Samre district (Table 2), indicates a willingness of the farmers to grow a lean crop. This reflects
their resilient behaviour towards a crisis, as they have experienced war, droughts and locusts plagues
multiple times during their lifetime or that of their elders. Hence, knowledgeable farmers always save
part of their land for "a ready-made crop to be used easily and rapidly as a meal", called bsul ekhli.
These are crops that do not need much processing, no milling, no baking and not being served with
sauce. Maize is the most common bsul ekhli, and farmers typically try to grow it at least on one small
plot (in a lower, i.e. warmer place, or near the homestead). The advantage of maize is that it can be
consumed right away: just pick it when it’s ripe, and boil or roast it. In extreme cases, the cobs may be
picked at kernel milk stage and consumed raw (Ofori and Kyei-Baffour 2009), possibly with some salt.
Potato is both a cash crop and a lean crop.
Formally recommended stress-resistant hybrid maize varieties such as the open-pollinated Melkassa
1 have been developed in Ethiopia to give yields in three months (Araya et al. 2021, CIMMYT 2013).
For more recent hybrids (Daniel Tadesse et al. 2014), the farmers may not have had its seed at hand
given the largely dysfunctional agricultural extension services. Yet, as a subsistence farming
community, Tigray farmers are very good at keeping their seeds (Teshome Hunduma, Norwegian
University of Life Sciences, pers. comm). Farmers will have saved seeds of open-pollinated varieties
(Melkasa 1) or localvarieties such as qeyih elbo and tsa’ida elbo and have resown them in this
planting season. Indeed, Tigrayan farmers developed their own maize varieties over the years from
seeds originally obtained from research centres (Alem Redda 2021).
4.4 Failing sorghum and maize
In normal conditions, maize and sorghum are planted early in the year, provided rains are good. The
6% cropped with maize and 4% with sorghum (Fig. 5) indicate that farmers could however hardly use
the spring rains for sowing these crops with a long growing period though the 2021 spring rains were
sufficient for planting (Nyssen et al. 2021). The stand-alone growing of sorghum, with the neighbours
growing other crops (Table 1), is remarkable. We are used to seeing sorghum in Tigray occupying wide
areas homogeneously (Fig. 7). The absence of block cropping here indicates that only few farmers
dared to come out with their oxen and plant this high-yielding crop in spring, when Eritrean and
Ethiopian soldiers were marauding Tigray’s countrysides (Fig. 8). An additional reason is that the crop
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was not particularly attractive this year, as its harvest comes a month later than that of other cereals
(Fig. 3).
Fig. 7. With the exception of a few already harvested plots with wheat, all lower croplands of Miheni
village (Addi Azmera, Inderta) were under sorghum at harvesting time in 2019 (Photo J. Nyssen,
26/11/2019). At this location, the FMA spring rainfall, which is determinant for sorghum planting was
normal in both years (64 mm in 2019 and 59 mm in 2021) and MJJ summer rainfall was normal in 2019
(299 mm) and severely wet (419 mm) in 2021 (rainfall conditions according to AMS terminology;
Svoboda et al. 2002).
Fig. 8. Tigrayan farmer ploughing in the midst of unploughed land in May 2021. Photo RFI (2021).
13
For three of the seven lands with maize, it was grown in block (Table 1), which is common practice in
order to easily protect the crop from predators (particularly qinfiz, i.e. porcupine or Hystrix cristata)
and theft.
Most of the maize lands were in poor shape or the crop even failed. Sorghum is doing a bit better,
maybe also because it is more drought-resistant (Fig. 6). The poor status of all crops is most probably
related to war-related stress on the farming communities leading to poor management. In order to
succeed maize or sorghum growth, miguemas ploughing after emergence, an indigenous technique
that enhances growth by root pruning and crop thinning, is absolutely necessary (Nyssen et al. 2011).
Farmers may not have had sufficient manpower, time or oxen to carry out this supplementary
ploughing. Many maize and even more sorghum farmlands are not part of a block in the rotation
system (Fig. 9), what makes them sensitive to climatic, predator and human interference, potentially
leading to poor stand or failure (Nyssen et al. 2008). In normal conditions, maize and sorghum are
planted early in the year, provided rains are good.
Fig. 9. Participation of the studied farmlands in traditional block rotation. Most croplands are out of a
homogeneous block, which indicates that farmers had little time or opportunity to agree with their
neighbours for the crops to be implemented in block. A potential weakness at harvesting time will be
that ripe crops would be exposed to strong winds, roaming livestock and wildlife or theft. The small
cereals, i.e. wheat and barley mainly have been cropped in blocks.
Our field observations (section 3.1) show that all crops are late, even though farmers without family
help or other resources were supported by the Tigray government and the community in their
agricultural activities. Such late ploughing has particularly affected maize and sorghum.
The lower share of maize (Fig. 5) is also explained by the fact that none of the studied districts is a top
maize producing area. Yet, in the Samre district 12% of the croplands was occupied by maize in 2019,
against 7% of its observed croplands in 2021 (Table 2).
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
90
100
Maize Sorghum Tef Other cereals
(wheat, barley,
millet)
Legumes
(beans, peas)
Oil crops (Flax,
niger seed)
Potato
% in block % out of block % surrounded by fallow
14
Table 2. Top maize producing districts in Tigray in 2019
Rank
District
Maize planted
area (ha)
Grain productivity
(tonnes/ha)
Share of total
cropped area (%)
1
Kola Tembien
11,358
3.1
39
2
Tahtay Qoraro
6,502
3.8
35
3
Tanqua Abergele
9,065
2.4
32
4
La'elay Adiyabo
11,157
2.5
29
5
Medebay Zana
5,916
3.4
25
6
Tahtay Maychew
3,857
2.6
24
8
Tselemti
6,978
3.5
19
9
Mereb Lekhe
5,479
2.7
19
10
Weri'i Lekhe
4,061
3.1
19
11
Saharti Samre
4,215
2.0
12
12
Asgede Tsimbla
6,245
3.8
11
13
Welkait
4,320
3.1
8
Source: Tigray regional Bureau of Agriculture (2019). Notes: Ranked by share of total cropped area;
woreda names correspond to the pre-2020 district delimitation; corresponding current woreda names
are self-explanatory on Fig. 11, with WeriI Lekhe corresponding to current Endafelasi, Edaga Arbi and
Emba Sieneyti
4.5 Crop diversity
Fig. 10. Share of crops planted in the studied districts. The absence of sorghum in Inderta, a traditional
sorghum district, is striking. Share of fallow is high in Hintalo, Kilte Awula’ilo and especially Tsa’ida
Imba.
Both the quantitative (Fig. 10) and qualitative field observations (section 3.1) showed that in terms of
crop diversity, Tsa’ida Imba is the best; there are many crops such as rainfed potato, sorghum, maize,
wheat, barley, lentil, flax, commonly grown almost in each village. Expectedly, the two plots with
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
90
100
Samre Hintalo & Addi
Gudom
Inderta & Mekelle Dogu'a Tembien &
Hagere Selam
Kilte Awula'ilo &
Wukro
Tsa'ida Imba
Maize Sorghum
Tef Other cereals (wheat, barley, millet)
Legumes (beans, peas) Oil crops (Flax, niger seed)
Potato Fallow with weeds or grass
Fallow (no vegetation at all)
15
rainfed potato were in Tsa’ida Imba district (Table 1). Indeed, the district is very well known for potato.
Consumers of the wider area pay more for its potatoes due its quality; small traders announce it as
Sinkata potato.
Fig. 11. In every district, more than 50% of the croplands were in poor shape by the end of August.
Overall, there is a strong dichotomy in the dataset, with little room for “medium” crop stands.
4.6 Farming system resilience
Our field observations (section 3.1) show that the agricultural and rural development offices were not
functioning. Hence, development agents were not present to advise and help farmers. The Tigray
farming communities were on their own in 2021, yet, during this crisis, their ability of self-organisation
seems remarkable. Despite harassing and killing of farmers, looting of their assets, and in line with an
earlier study (Nyssen et al. 2021) we can confirm that the farmers competed in ingeniosity for
circumventing all kinds of obstacles for ploughing their rainfed lands.
The large cropping in block (40% of the sown lands, hardly less than what would be observed in
peaceful years), in concertation with the owners of neighbouring lands (Table 1), shows that
community relations have been kept intact. This is in line with earlier observations on the resilience
of indigenous farming systems, where informal social structures exist, as mentioned already in
February by Mulugeta Gebrehiwot (cited in Nyssen 2021); block-wise crop rotation works perfectly
also in absence of government support.
The fact that 9% of the lands had been fallowed (for reasons mentioned), but still ploughed once
(tsig’e) to enhance infiltration testifies of the good land husbandry by Tigrayan farmers.
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
90
100
Samre Hintalo & Addi
Gudom
Inderta & Mekelle Dogu'a Tembien &
Hagere Selam
Kilte Awula'ilo &
Wukro
Tsa'ida Imba
Good Medium Poor Failed
16
Fig. 12. Share of “promising” lands (i.e. lands that were not left fallow, and with medium to good crop
stands Fig. 11) among the studied farmlands, which would allow to yield a reasonable harvest.
During this crisis, the farmers’ self-organisation and struggle for survival led to 20 - 50% of the
farmlands being promising (Fig. 12); these are lands that were not left fallow, and with medium to
good crop stand land that would allow to yield a reasonable harvest. Nevertheless, the crops will be
late and some rains should fall until the end of September to sustain crop growth.
The average conditions made it very difficult to plough the lands of Tigray, whereas many individuals
additionally may have lost their ox or everything else. The idirtraditional social security system
(Maxwell et al. 2010) may have led to most farmers sharing all they have including the use of their ox.
However, the plight seems beyond that. So many oxen have been taken, and the few oxen that remain
may not cover the ploughing needs of the whole village. In some villages there may be no remaining
oxen at all (Nyssen et al. 2021).
5. Main conclusions
Collecting field data in very difficult conditions has allowed us to evaluate the status of cropping in
part of the Tigray region of Ethiopia, by the end of August 2021. We have observed that local farming
communities are remarkably resilient, also in times of conflict and instability. Relying on indigenous
knowledge and local practices, farmers have shifted to the production of crops that need minimal
effort and resources.
17
However, there have been very few lean crops planted (maize, potato), and we estimate that only 20-
50% of the farmland will produce a reasonable yield, which is well below what is required to sustain
the local population in a subsistence farming economy. We have no reason to believe that in other
districts of Tigray, the situation would be significantly different, except for Western Tigray, where
many more lands have been left fallow, due to ethnic cleansing of the population (Nyssen et al. 2021).
This study tends to confirm OCHA’s statement on 2 September 2021 that only 25% to 50% of the
normal cereal production will be available this year as the agricultural planting season has been missed
in many parts of Tigray(OCHA 2021).
Acknowledgments
This study could be carried out thanks to support from the local farming communities. Mekelle
University, College of Social Sciences and Languages provided a vehicle to carry out the fieldwork. Due
to the blockade of Tigray, there is shortage of fuel. However, thanks to the command post of Mekelle
city, and through a formal request from MU’s Department of Geography, priority was given to this
research and we were allowed to buy fuel from one of the fuel stations in Mekelle. We also thank
driver Melaku Desta, Every Casualty Counts. We thank colleagues Kindeya Gebrehiwot, Mitiku Haile,
Tesfay Gebremicael, Lutgart Lenaerts, Teshome Hunduma, and Seppe Deckers for useful exchanges of
thoughts.
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