Ethiopia is a major lentil producer in the sub-Saharan Africa region. However, the area under lentil cultivation and production has been declining in recent years. There are several reasons for this – the use of low-yielding landraces, diseases, insect pests, frost, waterlogging, and poor cultural practices, including late planting. An ongoing long-term research partnership between ICARDA and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) has been reaping rewards over the past decade and enabling a brighter outlook for lentil farmers and the country. Yields have increased significantly, lentil production is climbing steadily, and the cultivated area is growing (Figure 1).

Under the ICARDA-EIAR research partnership focusing on food legumes (pulses), ICARDA has been providing improved germplasm of lentil, chickpea and faba bean to EIAR to test its adaptability to the local environment in farmers’ fields and to crossbreed with local varieties. To date, about a dozen high-yielding, disease-resistant lentil varieties have been released, 10 of which were selected from ICARDA’s elite germplasm by Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Center (DZARC), located in the Oromia region. Research has also focused on developing beneficial agronomic practices, including optimal seeding rate, timely weeding, early planting using ridge and furrow, and broad-bed and furrow systems to tackle the excess water problem common to vertisols (soil with a high content of clay). The technology package has doubled lentil production from 54,227 tonne in 2000–2002 to 110,913 tonne in 2012–2014, stemming mainly from an increase in average yield from 707 kg/ha in 2000–2002 to 1286 kg/ha in 2012–2014.

A cost-benefit study estimated the returns from research investment in developing 'Alemaya' at a net benefit of about USD 17 million and an internal rate of return of 44%.

A key factor in the scale of the research impact on lentil production in Ethiopia has been the strategy to disseminate improved varieties to farmers. Those participating in the program produced seeds under DZARC’s supervision, which were then distributed from farmer to farmer and promoted through field days. Some farmers went on to become the nucleus of ‘farmer research groups’ in different districts, further scaling up the benefits of higher yields and incomes. Several extension experts and farmers were trained in seed production and processing to avoid a shortfall in improved seeds. Many farmers have now joined contract-based village seed-production schemes, generating extra income for themselves.

The improved lentil varieties are not only high yielding, but also richer in iron and zinc content than traditional varieties; this is contributing to alleviating micronutrient deficiency in rural populations – a severe and common malady in developing countries.

Today, 20% of Ethiopian farmers grow improved lentil varieties from ICARDA’s crop-breeding program. Improved lentil technologies have doubled lentil production from 54,227 tonne in 2000–2002 to 110,913 tonne in 2012–2014, with a yield increase of from 0.7 t/ha to 1.3 t/ha.

We are using both formal and informal innovative approaches to ensure seed of improved varieties reach farmers and to realize the impact through creative partnerships.

Zewdie Bishaw, Head of Seed Unit, ICARDA

A new hope and healthier diets for smallholders in Ethiopia

Demekech Tekleyohannes, an Ethiopian farmer from Gimbichu, has seen her fair share of hard times. Ten years ago, a new strain of rust disease had infested and destroyed her lentil crops, her only source of livelihood. The local variety of lentil seeds used by the farmers had poor resistance to the new disease resulting from unusual weather conditions, an increasing problem with climate change in Ethiopia. Nearly 90% of the farmers lost their produce to the disease in 2005.

In response, the Ethiopian government, with the help of ICARDA, stepped up efforts to improve legume varieties using improved germplasm and varieties from ICARDA’s breeding program. When the new varieties with the highest yield potential were released by the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), most farmers were reluctant to sow them as they feared the crops would suffer the same fate.

Demekech was the first to step forward to sow improved varieties and managed to harvest nearly 1 tonne from just 30 kg of seeds. Her seed was bought by EIAR for multiplication and distribution to other farmers.

Legumes are now becoming popular with smallholder farmers in Ethiopia as the new improved varieties of legumes are producing three-fold higher yields for lentils, chickpeas and faba beans in farmers’ fields. Apart from boosting yields, these crops are making soils healthier and reducing expenses on fertilizers, while enriching rural diets.