Michael Hauser • Update

Ethiopia – better decisions to improve soil health

Many soils in Ethiopia are fragile and in critical health. We therefore started developing a decision support tool to help targeting soil health support to where its most needed.

Policymakers and development agencies in Ethiopia have made large investments in improving soil health across the country. But without sound criteria to guide these investments, the impacts are uneven at best and ineffectual at worst.

The focus on soil health has increased as demands rise for agriculture to create more food and more income. Ethiopia’s strategy to grow and transform the economy demands a lot from agriculture, partly laid down in the second Growth and Transformation Plan of the government. As a result, farmers are expected to improve farm productivity. But without safeguarding soil health on farms, Ethiopia’s vision for agriculture is at stake.

The government and aid agencies operating in Ethiopia allocate a significant share of their agricultural budgets to the improvement of soils. But these investments won’t bear fruit, as my colleague Tilahun Amede and I argue, largely because there are no agreed criteria and decision-making processes in place to guide investments. That needs to change.

In realms beyond but also including agriculture, the absence of decision-making criteria leads individuals or entities to follow their own logic or vested interests, which often leads them to allocate resources to immediate needs rather than medium to long-term strategies. But rebuilding soils and enhancing soil health is a long-term investment. And this investment requires a structured process.

Decision support

In 2019, GIZ (Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit) and ICRISAT launched a study and initiative for better decision-making to improve Ethiopia’s soil health. One of the pillars of our work is a decision support system that helps guide policymakers, administrators, scientists and donors toward more targeted and appropriate resource allocation that will improve soil health across the country.

This research is not an isolated study. It falls well in place with like-minded initiatives, such as support to the Ethiopia Soil Information Service or the Ethiopian Soils Research Institute. But the system that links these initiatives together, and supports criteria-based decision-making, has so far been lacking in Ethiopia.

To address this issue, we began by crafting a simple multi-criteria decision support tool meant for use by 7-15 people tasked with making investment decisions. Through the tool, participants define soil health and soil fertility-related objective – rigorous, and participatory so that the process becomes structured and transparent and results in decisions become realistic, with the potential to be effectively and efficiently implemented.

The tool is scalable, it works at the level of a farm, village, woreda (a lower level administrative division), regional and at the national level. A central proposing underpinning the tool is that indicators are central to the development, implementation, monitoring of policy frameworks in Ethiopia, and therefore soil health improvements.

Response

The response of stakeholders to the tool was overwhelmingly positive. First, the tool helped to counter the dissatisfaction amongst many experts frustrated with the current state of resource allocation to address soil health. Second, the emphasis on soils as multifunctional living entities turned out to be key, too. Soils are critical for producing food, harbouring biodiversity, and sequestrating carbon. Paradoxically, these functions are given little to no consideration when the government and aid agencies make investment decisions, despite their critical role in the functioning of ecological systems at large.

Second, the co-design of the decision support tool helped fine-tune its operations. This process also created ownership for the tool amongst key partners, including the Agricultural Transformation Agency, the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Resources and Regional Governments of Amhara, Oromia and Southern Regions.

Certainly, a decision support system won’t prevent a party from using it in support of their own vested interest. Practitioners and policymakers during the core design process, therefore, emphasized that governance procedures are as important as the technology.

What next

Despite being a prototype, the decision support tool is ready to use at a pilot-level.

In the next step, we will further refine the tool and test it at various levels in real-world settings. If properly monitored, these experiments provide valuable data for improving Ethiopia’s soil health support, and also creating better returns on investment where soil health resource allocation is concerned.

Importantly, the use, delivery and usability of the tool must be improved. Ideally, it will run on mobile apps in future. This will allow further co-design to take place with important Ethiopian stakeholders.

Crucially, it must not be assumed that the decision support tool works independently of people. It is imperative for decision-making entities to become aware of governance issues while using the tool. A clear protocol will help to overcome these governance barriers.

Improving the health of Ethiopia’s soils is a necessary goal to support its growing population and economy, and that improvement must come from targeted investments. The developed decision support tool is a first step in the right direction.

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