COVID-19 implications threaten the Ethiopian sesame sector

Published on
June 9, 2020

Rapid assessments carried out by Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and Ethiopian partners show that the functioning of the Ethiopian sesame sector is under serious threat due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Ethiopia has taken strict measures to prevent a large COVID-19 outbreak in the country. These measures hinder the mobility of seasonal labourers, who are critical to the country’s sesame production. This leads to a reduced area of sesame cultivation, affecting future export revenues and having a great impact on the country’s economic situation.

‘Basically, our assessments show serious challenges of avoiding further spreading of the COVID-19 virus, while saving the agricultural season as much as possible’, says Anteneh Mekuria Tesfaye, who coordinates the rapid assessments in Ethiopia in collaboration with colleagues of the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation (WCDI).

Basically, our assessments show serious challenges of avoiding further spreading of the COVID-19 virus, while saving the agricultural season as much as possible
Anteneh Mekuria Tesfaye

Tesfaye works with Flo Dirks of WCDI for the Sesame Business Network support programme. Dirks: ‘We consulted a broad range of stakeholders through a short survey and in subsequent focus group discussions. This revealed the most pressing issues that the sesame sector is facing now, their impact, and identified necessary actions. The Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) and the Amhara and Tigray Regional Agricultural Research Institutes support us as partners to reach a wide diversity of stakeholders and thereby come with a message based on insights across the sector.’

The production season for sesame is about to start, but with serious constraints. Tesfaye: ’Because of uncertainties about market demand, labour availability and costs, farmers are expected to reduce their area of sesame cultivation. As sesame is the second agricultural export commodity, this will further deprive Ethiopia of already very scarce foreign currency earnings.’

On the other hand, farmers are expected to maintain or expand the area for cultivation of sorghum and pulses. This is welcome as both food production and import are expected to be under stress this year. Tesfaye: ‘With our partners, we are therefore closely monitoring land preparation and crop planting activities, both of smallholder and investor farmers.’

Labour as pressing issue

It is around the labour issue that serious questions come together. Tesfaye: ‘Without labour the sesame and overall food production will seriously decline and over a million people (smallholder farmers and labourers) will suffer from reduced income. On the other hand, the mobility of workers may result in spreading of the virus, both in the lowlands and highlands. That’s why we are working hard to support our partners to take measures that balance both health and prosperity.’

Country-wide agricultural issues

WUR currently initiates rapid assessments of multiple sectors, including fertiliser, horticulture, pulses and dairy, in multiple low and middle income countries. Combining insights and alerts from different sectors will point to issues that affect the entire food system, as well as show how impacts in one sector can make the situation worse, or better, for another sector. The implications of less mobile agricultural workers, for example, needs to be understood for all sectors so that country wide programs can be set up with wider collaboration. Combining insights will also enable stakeholders to respond better to short-term emergency situations while tackling more structural issues that affect food security, health and prosperity.

The rapid assessments of the sesame sector are carried out on a monthly basis and are widely shared with Ethiopian partners that can take immediate action (governments, research institutes, financial institutions, farmers’ organisations and others). ‘If anything, we hope that farmers and labourers can work on the land in safe conditions and that stakeholders work hard to enable this together’ concludes Tesfaye.