A little town with a glimmer of hope in the fight against hunger

Demberie and one of her children in front of their home. Photo by: Lys Arango

During the 1980s, northern Ethiopia was immersed in one of the worst humanitarian crises in history: “A biblical famine in the twentieth century,” says Michael Buerk, reporter for the BBC while documenting those scenes of death and despair in the refugee camp.

In northern Ethiopia, where a large part of the population fleeing war and hunger took refuge, lies the town of Hamusit. Today it faces reoccurring droughts, but it has systems and projects in place to combat it.

In this town, Demberie, her husband, and five children live in a small white house. Kibru, her eldest son, remembers how his life has changed in recent years: “Before we had to walk with the cattle all day in search of grass, but now, with the fodder we produce at home, it is no longer necessary. I spend that extra time now attending school.”

Kibru talks about the hydroponic project that Action Against Hunger has implemented in the Waghimra region (hydroponics is a method used to grow plants using mineral solutions instead of soil), that has a population of 540,599, which is 91% rural and mixed farming. Fodder availability is one of the main constraints affecting growth, health and milk production and reproduction of potential livestock.

“In many cases, farmers in Waghimra do not possess or cannot access land that is acceptable for fodder production using outdated agricultural methods,” says Gebris Ayalew, head of the project in the region. Most of the land is used for food crop production, which in addition to chronic water shortages and poor irrigation infrastructure, has historically led to large livestock losses.

hydroponic system
Kiros attending his hydroponic system. Photo by: Lys Arango

To combat the challenges in this drought-prone area, Demberie’s family has built a hydroponic system based on wood and plastics on which it is growing grass. “This technique has allowed them to produce high quality and low cost fodder in a short period of time that is highly nutritious, thus increasing their resilience, since it plays a very important role in the sustainability in the economy,” Ayalew explains.

Demberie and her whole family has been involved in the whole farming process. Demberie takes care of fetching water early in the morning. Upon returning, her husband, Kiros, waters the plants and her eldest son Kibru, who has already milked the goats, goes out with his parents for a walk to the river. At 10 a.m. he is back at home and spends the rest of the morning catching up on homework until noon, which is when he starts school. Then, Kiros is responsible for removing the fodder and feeding the goats while Kibru is at school.

“With this food, the goats have improved their reproductive health and increased their milk production, which we use to feed our children, along with selling some in the market,” explains Kiros.

In the afternoon, Demberie attends a women’s meeting in the village, where they talk about maternal health, child health and nutrition. Another woman participating is Shewagu Beyene, who also benefits from this meeting. She is a single mother of two children and has launched her own berbere business (berbere is a type of dried chili that accompanies almost all Ethiopian dishes).

Shewagu and her daughter: Photo by: Lys Arango

Shewagu has not had an easy life. She married at the age of 14, and after the birth of her first child, she divorced and traveled to Addis Ababa to find work. Things did not go as planned, so she returned to Hamusit, and a couple of years later she was pregnant with her second child. With the birth of her daughter, her situation got even worse and she had very little to survive on. When she heard about the Action Against Hunger project, she signed up without thinking twice.

“I obtained a loan of 5,000 Birr (approximately $220 CAD) and three sheep. With that money I was encouraged to start my own business and things went well. In two years, I have managed to save up to 20,000 Birr (approximately $875 CAD) and my sheep have reproduced, now I have five,” says Shewagu.

In this process, she has been guided by Action Against Hunger, which had trained her in certain business skills, such as basic accounting. But also, the women participating in this project has become her support group.

A women support group in Hamusit. Photo by: Lys Arango

“We have a social credit system,” explains Shewagu. “We meet every Saturday to exchange information and see how our businesses are going. In addition, we give 40 Birr monthly (approximately $1.75 CAD) which we save for emergencies such as helping new mothers, or a family member who falls ill.”

Shewagu, who never thought she could get out of the situation in which she was submerged for years, is now an independent woman full of optimism and happiness.

“I have regained hope!” exclaimed Shewagu. A hope that has already bathed the entire town of Hamusit and is gradually spreading throughout the region in the tireless fight against hunger.