Gosaye Degefa, a smallholder farmer living in Asella in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, mainly grows food and malt barley. The local varieties that Gosaye was using were highly vulnerable to diseases and gave poor yield, barely enough to feed his family.
Last year, Gosyae became one of the progressive farmers in Asella who participated in a project where a team of scientists from the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and ICARDA disseminated improved malt barley varieties to smallholders and along with the seed, training in related crop management practices. The varieties developed from germplasm provided by ICARDA’s barley improvement program are part of the team’s research activities targeting the new booming demand for malt barley by a rapidly growing market for malted beverages in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is spending over US$20 million annually on malt barley imports, offering a huge income opportunity for the country’s subsistence farmers. Local malt production meets less than half of the current malt demand. ICARDA’s scientists are working with EIAR, with support from USAID, to develop and disseminate barley varieties with traits such as high grain yield and superior malt quality, and tolerance to drought, disease and insect pests. From 13 varieties developed thus far, two improved varieties, Miscal 21 and IBON174/03 were successfully piloted by the industry and farmers for malt production last year.
Gosaye and other participating smallholders saw their yields more than double from 2 tonnes per hectare (t/ha) to 5 t/ha, gaining a big jump in their incomes. Gosaye had surplus to sell for malt production purposes and today is even able to save money in the bank. While the boost in production is allowing malt factories to increase their production capacity and reduce imports.
Like Gosaye, about 4.5 million smallholder farmers grow barley in Ethiopia every year with an average productivity of 1.7 t/ha, one of the lowest yields in the world. The stakeholder partnership of smallholder farmers, scientists and beer producers is now opening new doors for improving possibly millions of livelihoods while reducing Ethiopia’s expensive malt barley imports.
This could herald a big change for subsistence barley farmers. Ramesh Verma, ICARDA’s lead barley breeder calls barley a “climate change crop.” Barley is known for its resilience, able to provide stable yields even under extreme conditions of water scarcity, drought, low and high temperatures, and soil salinity. As ICARDA’s mandate crop, it has been a key component of crop-livestock systems research in marginal drylands where impacts of climate change will be particularly harsh in years to come.
With rapidly growing economies of South Asia and East Africa, there is increasing consumerism, and along with that an expanding market for beer, health food and other malted beverages. ICARDA’s malt barley research aims to connect subsistence farmers in drylands to these market opportunities. “With this new value chain opportunity, we are targeting roughly 200,000 ha in each East Africa and South Asia region,” estimates Verma.
The improved malt barley with high productivity can build resilience of farmers in the highlands of Ethiopia. “Shifting to these varieties will help farmers avoid risks with old barley and wheat cultivars which are being affected by rusts and other foliar diseases”, says Verma. The straw yield will also increase from 3 t/ha to 7.5 t/ha which is key for livestock feed.
Given the opportunity in malt barley for brewery, food and feed, a three year project, supported by USAID, is now focusing on deployment of malt barley technologies for sustainable food and nutritional security, and market opportunities in the highlands of Ethiopia.