Building the future


SNV is a 50-year old international development organization based in the Hague, Netherlands. It works in 38 developing countries worldwide and has been working to improve agriculture practices, water and hygiene, and renewable energy in Ethiopia since the 1970s.
Johannes Theodorus (Jan) Vloet, Country Director of SNV, spoke with Capital’s Aderajew Asfaw about the country’s agriculture sector and the challenges.
Capital: What are the main areas of focus for SNV?
Jan Vloet:
SNV is active in three sectors; agriculture, water and sanitation, and renewable energy. In agriculture, we are involved in four programs; livestock and diary, beekeeping, horticulture plus foods and vegetables, and lastly pulses, cereals and oil seeds. In each of these programs we have small and large projects and work together with government institutions, local and international NGOs, local service providers, the private sector and all ranges of actors. The agricultural program we have is designed in line with the Ethiopian government’s Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP). There are two main goals in all of these – one is commercializing smallholder farmers and linking them to markets, to processors, to exporters, etc. The other one is ensuring food security. This is indirectly linked to the safety-net program of the World Bank and the government of Ethiopia and we support food security in the country through our agricultural activities. But the bulk of our focus is on commercializing smallholder farmers. We do that by promoting a value chain approach from the producer to the consumer comprising of a whole range of actors – the farmers, traders, finance providers, processors, exporters, and so on. We are mainly involved in the middle of the value chain.
Business is a very strong element in our approach. We do that because we think that if you have a solid and sound business environment, that business will pull farmers into the market, into the economy and into the value chain.
Capital: What difficulties have you encountered?
We are not a traditional charity organization. Some part of the government still sees us as a charity organization providing handouts and directly helping farmers. I think as Ethiopia is changing, development organizations also need to change, and SNV is changing. Perhaps the government should recognize us in the new role when we provide the needed support to institutions, unions and governmental institutions to help foster the economy here in the country. SNV engages local capacity builders because, as a capacity building organization, we have to make sure that local partners or service providers are capable of providing business services to the chain actors whenever they require it.
For example, in the agriculture sector what we envision to achieve is increasing the income of farmers, expanding employment and improving food security. As SNV, we believe that poverty reduction and sustainable development is achieved through empowering individuals and/or institutions to deal with their own issues – whether they are existing ones or ones that are emerging. If you empower them, they can overcome whatever challenges they face as they have the right capacity and capability to deal with those challenges. That is why we are working closely with local capacity-building service providers.
As a value chain development approach, we first focus on the market: which products are in high demand and who are the buyers. So once we make sure that there is an existing or potential demand from the market perspective, we advise all the value chain actors at various levels to produce what the market requires in terms of quality, quantity and price.
Once they know that, they produce what is required. In addition, when they produce what is needed, they have to have a long-term business relationship with chain actors – with private companies, small processors, retailers and traders. When they have those business linkages, they will not just buy and go, but they will also provide them with other embedded services, be it technical support for the producer group, financial or any kind of support required by those smallholder farmer groups.
Capital: Do you have mechanisms in place to avoid overlapping with other international organizations?
What is really important for us is that there is national ownership of such coordination. For example, in the bee-keeping sector we work very closely with the Ethiopia Apiculture Board, which is an established institution owned by various stakeholders including members of the private sector. The government is also represented on the board. And under the auspices of the Apiculture Board we are currently talking with other organizations active in the bee-keeping sector in order to align projects, avoid overlapping and work efficiently by learning from each other. We should, and are avoiding, a situation in which it becomes a kind of conversation between external organizations. Local ownership of such dialogue or coordination by the Ethiopian Apiculture Board and other sectors, like the Ministry of Agriculture or regional bureau, is very important for us. Because in the end, Ethiopian organizations should carry on what needs to be done.
Capital: What’s your take on the government’s attitude to the agricultural sector?
In contrast with the past, the current emphasis is on commercializing smallholder farmers, which is a prominent part of the government’s agenda, and is a point which we all support. But we do that, not only by working with farmers, but by also linking them with the private sector. The private sector plays a critical role of pulling the farmers into the value chain and market economy. And I think working with the private sector, creating more regulated space, meeting standards, having best agricultural practices in place, etc., all that needs to be introduced.
Of course, the government has designed the GTP. It also participates in the design of industrial strategy and the market economy. And a lot of attention has been given to smallholder farmers in particular. But the private sector needs to become more involved now.
We have tried to do that by linking the various parties. For example we have started an innovative program called the Cooperative for Change, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where we are helping cooperatives and unions become more market-oriented. There have been cooperatives and unions since the time of the Derg regime, but to some extent, they are now better organized and oriented as input providers to the farmers. What we are trying to do together with the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) is to make these cooperatives more market-oriented by helping them establish contracts with big companies.
Capital: There are about six farmers for every urban resident of Ethiopia, as 85 percent of the population is involved in agriculture. Yet, food has to be imported from abroad due to “under-production”. Why?
The production capacity of the country needs to be increased. On top of that, the links to the market need to be improved. It could be a matter of bringing new crop varieties and making sure that these varieties penetrate the market.
For example, the majority of malt-barley for the breweries is imported from other countries like Australia, whilst the potential to produce it here in the highlands and to directly provide it to the breweries is quite ample.
How do we make that happen? How do you create the linkages between the cooperatives and the breweries? How do breweries and malt factories make sure that they get the right variety [with the right quality and purity] of malt-barley? Farmers have to learn such things. Cooperatives have to learn that too. The right contacts have to be established. We have also seen this in bee-keeping. Table honey didn’t exist until a few years ago, and now it is there in the market.
In many parts of Ethiopia people work in isolated, very traditional ways of production, where the bulk of the production would be for one’s home consumption or just for their immediate neighborhood. And I think the market orientation, especially of cooperatives and unions, has yet to improve. You need to organize them, you need to make them aware of the opportunities and I think it can be done. A lot more can be achieved in this country.
Capital: Many people are worried that prioritizing exports is adversely affecting the local market. What’s your view?
I think it should be an “and” approach. Yes, we should export to generate much-needed hard currency and work towards import substitution to meet local demand. I think if there’s only one place where you can produce a certain product and that place is currently being used for another equally important purpose and if there is nowhere else to go, then you would certainly have a problem. But there are so many places where you can promote production.
For example, we have been promoting the increase in production volume of apples in the Chencha area. The question is; is Chencha really the only place where you can grow apples in Ethiopia? It certainly isn’t. How do we make sure that any concerted effort with other actors and the departments of agriculture in the different regions will result in the promotion of the production of apples in their back gardens and small orchards for smallholders to satisfy local demand? Does it mean that you cannot export? No, you should also export. The scope and the potential are enormous here. I think it should be an “and” solution and it shouldn’t exclude one from the other. 
Ethiopia’s agro-ecology is suitable to produce various fruits, vegetables, cereals and so on. If you look at the area from Dallol to Ras Dashen, it is located 600 meters below sea level up to 4,000 meters above sea level. With this entire diverse climatic zone, with all this potential, we can produce a lot. 
Capital: How successful has your organization been in its work over the last 20 years?
What SNV is doing now is very different from what it used to do 20 years ago. We have learned a lot from our experiences and practices. We have made contributions through numerous projects. One good example is the project we started seven years ago, from 2006 to 2011, when we introduced a pilot value-chain work in Ethiopia. Nobody was doing it at the time and nobody was speaking of value chains when it came to commodities. I think we made a contribution towards that.  As the country develops, new issues emerge and we must adapt and move along with the new agenda.
At the moment, we are working together with CARE International and a number of other partners on a climate-smart initiative, an initiative aimed at making the rural safety-net program of the Ministry of Agriculture work better. For example, how can farmers stay put and continue producing during shocks due to climate change, increased rainfall or changing rainfall patterns, drought, etc.?
So we have been working on one issue, helping to introduce it, testing it ourselves, building sensible programs around it, and sharing it with other organizations, even as we move forward to address new issues. That way, you see the organization evolving and moving along. Giving evermore responsibility to organizations we work with has led to changes as well. Whereas before we had a lot of international staff, now the majority of our staff are Ethiopian professionals. There are a few short-term experts who come from outside. So there is a new way of doing things which you cannot compare with what SNV Ethiopia was doing 20 years ago.  Therefore, as the country is growing and moving to middle income status, SNV is changing along with these developments.
Capital: How is the country’s apiculture industry doing?
When we started the honey value chain in 2005, honey was mainly set aside for respected guests and was used in traditional brews like tej. The industry started almost from scratch, but of course we cannot claim that we are responsible for everything, because there are also many other actors involved. Now, people are exporting honey to Europe, Japan and the USA.
Exports have now reached around 500 tons of honey. We are aspiring to further increase this to 1,000 tons or more. So, export honey by volume has increased, and new products like bees wax are being exported, leading to the tremendous growth of the sector. Ethiopian bees wax is very pure. It can be used for a number of purposes such as the cosmetics industry.
Internationally, the demand for organic honey is also growing. The availability of the stuff in traditional markets like China and Turkey is decreasing. So we think there are ample opportunities for Ethiopia to enter the market in a big way. But for that to happen, the sector needs to be organized.
For example, to qualify for the European market you have to fulfill certain standards including health and safety, and good agricultural practices are required. Annual monitoring for quality needs to take place. That has been happening for a number of years now, and Ethiopia can continue exporting honey, while previously it couldn’t. 
Capital: What are the challenges?
There are quite a lot of challenges, but the major challenge not only for us but that everybody else is facing as well, is how you scale it.  To reach large numbers, you have to scale your innovative practices. That can only be done by working with existing institutions. How to get everybody together? How to get people collaborating? There are many competing priorities in government.  One time you have your people working on renewable energy, and at another time, they are taken off that project to do something else.  Therefore, setting priorities and working on those priorities at times is difficult.
The other challenge is that there are quite a limited number of private companies are involved in the agriculture sector given the size of the country and its population. For example, there are only 20 private companies involved in the production of honey, three or four in fruit, very few oil seed processors, particularly for domestic oil production, and so on. We need to be able to engage many more private companies.
What we have learned over the years is that we have to make institutions work in Ethiopia so these local/national organizations which would take responsibility for driving the development within the portfolio of the GTP are able to do so. I think as SNV we are contributing to that by choosing  to focus on particular value chains which have been neglected, on those we think have a lot of potential to pull a lot of farmers into the market economy in order to export, but also to produce for the local market. Our approach is slightly different from other NGOs, because we exclusively focus on advisory services. This is not always understood but that is our core activity and that is what we believe in. We should not replace Ethiopian organizations but help strengthen them in their role.