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Ethiopia Table of Contents


Major Staple Crops


Fruit stall in Addis Ababa. Courtesy Paul Henze

Ethiopia's major staple crops include a variety of cereals, pulses, oilseeds, and coffee. Grains are the most important field crops and the chief element in the diet of most Ethiopians. The principal grains are teff, wheat, barley, corn, sorghum, and millet. The first three are primarily cool-weather crops cultivated at altitudes generally above l,500 meters. Teff, indigenous to Ethiopia, furnishes the flour for injera, an unleavened bread that is the principal form in which grain is consumed in the highlands and in urban centers throughout the country. Barley is grown mostly between 2,000 and 3,500 meters. A major subsistence crop, barley is used as food and in the production of tella, a locally produced beer.

Sorghum, millet, and corn are cultivated mostly in warmer areas at lower altitudes along the country's western, southwestern, and eastern peripheries. Sorghum and millet, which are drought resistant, grow well at low elevations where rainfall is less reliable. Corn is grown chiefly between elevations of l,500 and 2,200 meters and requires large amounts of rainfall to ensure good harvests. These three grains constitute the staple foods of a good part of the population and are major items in the diet of the nomads.

Pulses are the second most important element in the national diet and a principal protein source. They are boiled, roasted, or included in a stew-like dish known as wot, which is sometimes a main dish and sometimes a supplementary food. Pulses, grown widely at all altitudes from sea level to about 3,000 meters, are more prevalent in the northern and central highlands. Pulses were a particularly important export item before the revolution.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church traditionally has forbidden consumption of animal fats on many days of the year. As a result, vegetable oils are widely used, and oilseed cultivation is an important agricultural activity. The most important oilseed is the indigenous niger seed (neug), which is grown on 50 percent or more of the area devoted to oilseeds. Niger seed is found mostly in the northern and central highlands at elevations between 1,800 and 2,500 meters. Flaxseed, also indigenous, is cultivated in the same general area as niger seed. The third most important oilseed is sesame, which grows at elevations from sea level to about l,500 meters. In addition to its domestic use, sesame is also the principal export oilseed. Oilseeds of lesser significance include castor beans, rapeseed, groundnuts (peanuts), and safflower and sunflower seeds. Most oilseeds are raised by small-scale farmers, but sesame was also grown by large-scale commercial farms before the era of land reform and the nationalization of agribusiness.

Ensete, known locally as false banana, is an important food source in Ethiopia's southern and southwestern highlands. It is cultivated principally by the Gurage, Sidama, and several other ethnic groups in the region. Resembling the banana but bearing an inedible fruit, the plant produces large quantities of starch in its underground rhizome and an above-ground stem that can reach a height of several meters. Ensete flour constitutes the staple food of the local people. Taro, yams, and sweet potatoes are commonly grown in the same region as the ensete.

The consumption of vegetables and fruits is relatively limited, largely because of their high cost. Common vegetables include onions, peppers, squash, and a cabbage similar to kale. Demand for vegetables has stimulated truck farming around the main urban areas such as Addis Ababa and Asmera. Prior to the revolution, urbanization increased the demand for fruit, leading to the establishment of citrus orchards in areas with access to irrigation in Shewa, Arsi, Harerge, and Eritrea. The Mengistu regime encouraged fruit and vegetable production. Fresh fruits, including citrus and bananas, as well as fresh and frozen vegetables, became important export items, but their profitability was marginal. The Ethiopian Fruit and Vegetable Marketing Enterprise (EFVME), which handled about 75 percent of Ethiopia's exports of fruits and vegetables in l984-85, had to receive government subsidies because of losses.

Ethiopia's demand for grain continued to increase because of population pressures, while supply remained short, largely because of drought and government agricultural policies, such as price controls, which adversely affected crop production. Food production had consistently declined throughout the 1980s. Consequently, Ethiopia became a net importer of grain worth about 243 million birr annually from l983/84 to l987/88. The food deficit estimate for the l985/89 period indicated that production averaged about 6 million tons while demand reached about 10 million tons, thus creating an annual deficit of roughly 4 million tons. Much of the food deficit was covered through food aid. Between l984/85 and l986/87, at the height of the drought, Ethiopia received more than l.7 million tons of grain, about l4 percent of the total food aid for Africa. In addition, Ethiopia spent 341 million birr on food purchases during the l985-87 period.

Data as of 1991

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Ethiopia Table of Contents