Doctoral Dissertation: Strengthening Food Security in Rural Ethiopia

Cochrane, L. 2017. Strengthening Food Security in Rural Ethiopia. Doctoral Dissertation, University of British Columbia. 

Abstract: Food insecurity in rural areas of southern Ethiopia is widespread; in recent years over half of all communities in this region have been reliant upon emergency support. However, food security status varies significantly from year to year, as the region experiences variations in rainfall patterns. Research is required to better understand how food security can be strengthened. To do so, this research was driven by three research questions. First, what makes smallholder farmers in southern Ethiopia vulnerable to food insecurity. Second, according to the literature, the adoption of programs and services is low, and thus a community-based assessment was undertaken to understand why. The third question reflected on the methodology – a participatory, co-produced approach, evaluating whether this form of engaged research enabled positive change. The findings suggest that vulnerability to food insecurity differs by scale. At the community level, access to irrigation infrastructure strengthened food security, and was the most transformative difference between the communities. Within communities, food security distribution was complex and few generalizations can be made. The participatory processes identified that research often makes invisible the purposeful and insightful choices farmers make. When surveyed, they are asked to provide generalizations about input use, crop choice and practices, when in reality each crop, input and practice varies. Similarly, some commonly used measures of vulnerability can also be expressions of security; aggregated averages obfuscate localized inequality. For some programs and services, adoption was found to be quite high – it was only when all services were analyzed as a package that adoption was low. However, not all programs and services served the food insecure households, and the reasons for this are explored in detail. The participatory, co-produced approach enabled unique research questions and metrics and added significant value to the research process, which may also enable long-term positive change to programs and services.

Full text is available for download here.

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New Publication: Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity in Ethiopia

Cochrane, L. and Gecho, Y. (2016) The Dynamics of Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity in Southern Ethiopia (p. 139-148). In Responses to Disasters and Climate Change: Understanding Vulnerability and Fostering Resilience, edited by M. Companion and M. Chaiken. CRC Press: Boca Raton.


  • ​Agriculture accounts for more than 40% of the Ethiopian economy, 85% of all employment, and is driven primarily by rural smallholders. Those living in rural areas face a range of short-term, seasonal, annual, and long-term vulnerabilities. This chapter analyzes the range of dynamic, and sometimes unpredictable, challenges in Wolaita Zone, southern Ethiopia. We explore how individuals proactively manage vulnerabilities and seek means to enhance their adaptive capacity. These findings demonstrate that smallholders are engaging in change, highlighting the important role of their agency in understanding vulnerability and resilience.

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New Publication: Debt & Rural Development (Ethiopia)

Cochrane, L. and Thornton, A. (2017) A Socio-Cultural Analysis of Smallholder Borrowing and Debt in Southern Ethiopia. Journal of Rural Studies 49: 69-77.


  • This paper combines qualitative and quantitative research methods in an exploratory study of borrowing and debt in rural southern Ethiopia in order to understand the complexities of the rural finance system and frequency of borrowing and debt in rural, smallholder settings. By comparing geospatial location in relation to access to infrastructure, markets and services within a single agroecological setting, we explore the ways in which these factors influence the frequency of borrowing, sources, amounts and interest rates involved, as well as the duration and extent of borrowing and debt. We find great variation amongst the communities studied, highlighting the importance of the localized nature of borrowing and debt and identify barriers and opportunities that will support the (re)adjusting of policies and programs that would enable smallholder households to overcome cycles of borrowing and debt, and build assets.
The full article is gated. But available here. Abstract and further publication details available via the link above. If you would like a copy of the article, send me an email.
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People of the Plow

James McCann's People of the Plow (1995) presents the agricultural history of Ethiopia from 1800 to 1990. While historical, it is also in many ways anthropological, particularly in the parts wherein the author draws on years of fieldwork. What I found particularly interesting in the book is the broader discourse within which the book is written, more or less in response to concerns of a failing smallholder agricultural system. For example, McCann opens the book in stating: "The subject of this book is the modern history of Ethiopia's agriculture and the paradox of how the land and farming system which has sustained Africa's historically most productive agricultural system can have fallen into deep fundamental crisis" (p. 4). While Ethiopian agriculture remains framed as being in crisis, it is currently discussed within the context of fertile lands being bought by foreign investors and how farmers can maintain the rights to their land. Arguably the smallholder crisis is greater, due to continued land fragmentation since the writing of the book, but the contemporary discourse is framed quite differently.

The book is not doom and gloom. In many instances, McCann argues that the discourse of the 1990s offered too simplistic a narrative, and that "…the agricultural system and the farmers whose ideas and strategies put it into practice have, over the past millennium, evolved a distinctive technologies, social institutions, and effective solutions to environmental problems" that require far more careful study (p. 4). What this book does remarkably well is to show that while some facets of the agricultural system have remained the same, it demonstrates how dynamic the agricultural system has been and how farmers have engaged with change over time. This feeds nicely into the discourse about farmers being unwilling or resistant to change; history attests to the fact that farmers do change, what this book offers is insight into why those changes take place. For example:

  • "…the kingdom of Kaffa shifted to plow agriculture in the seventeenth century not as a producer-based response to increase overall food production, but as a result of the royal court's preference for the prestige value of teff and cereals over qocho (ensete), yams, and taro, spurring elites to require tributes in cereals. Cereals were better for tax collectors since they could be stored, divided, and moved." (p. 47)
  • "The transformation of the coffee-maize complex to a full-blown maize monoculture resulted partly from an environmental factor (CBD) but more from policies in the political arena – fixed coffee prices, land reform, and villagization – which projected state power and urban priorities onto the rural landscape." (p. 190).

For those interested in Ethiopian agriculture, this book provides an important historical context. Yet, as McCann notes throughout the book, historical references are scarce and in many instances the author extrapolates from what exists, which is sparse. While this has limitations, it is a valuable resource nonetheless. For those less interested in Ethiopian history, the book offers unique into rural development processes, particularly on how agricultural change happens (and does not happen, for example mechanization).

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Logan Cochrane

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