Returnee Agricultural

Crop and Land Assessment

Dr. Robert Shank

UN-EUE Field Officer

13 October, 1994

Background information

Repatriation to the Humera area began in June 1993, with the arrival of an estimated 12,000 refugees from the Saffawa camp in eastern Sudan. The returnees were settled in three settlement areas outside the northwestern town of Humera. The largest settlement, Ada Bai, has a returnee population of 7,200; 2,200 returnees joined a local population of 720 in Mai Kadra; Rawayan was the smallest settlement with 2,600 returnees and only a small local population. In February 1994, 2,255 refugees were repatriated from Umrakoba camp and settled in Rawayan. In addition to returnee settlements, there is also considerable private investment in commercial farms in these areas.

When the repatriation operation was started, the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) was the chief implementing organization for the entire returnee population. The Relief Society of Tigray (REST) provided medical supplies and monitoring services. Since January, assistance, implementation and monitoring responsibilities have been split between the regional bureau of the RRC (the RRB), REST and ERO. The RRB has responsibility for assistance to the original group of 12,000 returnees from Saffawa, REST provides assistance to the new repatriants from Umrakoba and ERO at Kokit in Region 3. UNHCR, which has provided funding to all three organizations for reintegration services, has opened a field office in Humera for monitoring and coordination purposes.


Estimated crop production on returnee farms varies from average (6-8 qt/ha) to none in the three REST settlements in Humera, and good (10 qt/ha) to none in the three ERO settlements in Kokit. The late arrival of the rains in June, heavy rainfall in July and shortage of tractors for discing have affected the crop status this year. (The 40 Hiwot company tractors plus the 110 private tractors needed to disc 92,000 ha at two ha/hour would be equivalent to 30 days at 10 hours/day.) Although more concentrated on sesame and cotton production, private investor farmers and the Hiwot company farms were also affected by erratic rains and their crop production prospects appeared similar to those of the returnees. It can be assessed that the cropping season and production prospects have been more favourable in the Shehedi area than the Humera area, although returnees in both areas will still need food assistance due to general crop failures.

In some parts of these areas, the land allocated to 1993 and 1994 returnees is inappropriate. The land is either too far from the settlements or is susceptible to crop failure due to poor soil and water interactions.

Land allocations for investment purposes is ongoing but government authorities need to be encouraged to move investors to hinterland areas and allocate the land located near the villages to returnees. This may require compensation to investors for clearing and infrastructure facility development. A strategy for the re-allocation of land to returnees is being discussed.

Agronomics of crop production in the Humera-Metema lowlands

The common sorghum varieties used in the Humera area are listed in Table 1. During the field trip it was seen that due to tractor shortages for land preparation, the shorter season variety of "Cora", which has lower yield potential, was the most commonly used by both returnees and investors. Late planting was also common among investors with some sorghum fields only knee-high to early flowering. Also, at the time of this assessment, local agriculturalists thought that late planted fields still had yield potential even though further rainfall was not expected.

Uniformly low seeding rates indicated low capital for seed purchase or an aversion to divert grain from sales. Also, the presence of head smut in returnee farmland at Ada Bai and Kumer, but not the commercial fields, indicates an awareness of seed selection and chemical seed treatment on the part of the private investors.

Crops and insecticides

In the areas visited, actellic grain insecticide was available for treatment of stored grain but as the expiration date was not known this variety may not be effective. Also, the Guna storage facility, containing several hundred quintals of sesame seeds, was infested with weevils.

Of the three sesame varieties grown in these areas, all are white seeded but "Jemarok" has the highest yield potential. "Kefif" is considered as having the shortest maturity whereas "Tegil" is the most commonly cultivated. Generally, it has to be noted that sesame is not tolerant of poorly drained soils.

Hand-cutting sesame is a laborious task that provides good potential for cash labour. Four hundred hand-sized bundles of hand-cut sesame make 1 hilla; three to five hillas are common per hectare, with two hillas yielding one quintal. Labourers are paid 10 birr per hilla and can cut three to five hillas per day. Sesame hillas dry for two weeks, after which the pods burst open with the help of gentle threshing. The seeds are then collected in cloths.

Cotton is a high potential cash crop but its cultivation has so far been limited to investors with access to capital for purchasing insecticides. The Hiwot Company controls 3,000 ha of cotton fields this year. In comparison, returnees only grow small plots in their garden for domestic use.

Other sources of food

Adapted home garden crops Other food sources

Major Minor Unused From market

Maize Tomato Millet Onion

Pepper Duba (Pumpkin) Squash Lentil

Leaf Cabbage Okra Soybean Rice

Gourds Chickpea



In summary, the chosen seed varieties and agronomic and husbandry practices of the returnees are not always suitable but are also not substantially different from that of investors. Availability and cost of inputs affects farming and much training and extension is needed if returnees, implementing agencies and commercial farm managers are to maximize productivity and profits. However, if UN agencies utilize their inputs effectively and, through their implementing partners, demonstrate to returnees the extent and potential of improved practices, production can improve.

Partial Budget for Mixed Crop Farming in the Humera-Metema Lowlands

Unlike the highlands, which have integrated crop and livestock farming, mechanized farming involves additional costs and risks of delays in planting if the tractors are not available when needed. During the field trip, the following observations were made regarding farming practices in the Humera and Metema lowlands:

1) The late arrival of returnees and the delay in land allocation did not allow enough time for adequate land clearing in some areas, resulting in late seed-bed preparation in most fields.

2) Use of the shorter season sorghum variety in the Humera area reduced yield potential by as much as 20%. An additional 20% of yield was affected by smut infested seed stocks.

3) Some land allocated to the returnees was unsuitable for reliable cropping. Also, as returnees were not familiar with their land and sometimes did not have access to agricultural inputs, fertilizer was not usually used in low fertility areas.

4) Returnee farmers who obtained seeds on credit often have to sell their crop at a lower price at harvest time to repay the debt. However, commercial farmers usually have to option of storing their crops until prices improve.

5) Although probably more costly, consideration should be given to purchasing more productive vanities of seeds in the coming year.

6) The high demand for farm labour during certain seasons helps support the returnee households but, unfortunately, can also reduce productivity on the returnees' own land if sufficient time and effort are not devoted to the farmer's own plot.

Farm practices and production levels are affected by a combination of factors. These include discing costs, seed prices, access to fertilizer and chemicals and the availability of labour.

Expected Crop Yields and Food Needs for Returnees to the Humera-Metema Area

A tour of the returnee fields and adjacent commercial fields was conducted to evaluate crop yields and the food security prospects of the returnees. It was reported that returnee crop yields in 1993 were low in comparison to commercial farmers. From observations made this year it can be concluded that 1994 yield levels will vary from no yield up to that of commercial farms. This is due to the combination of the type of land allocated to the returnees and/or this year's weather conditions.

REGION 1 (Tigray)

Region 1 returnees were assisted by REST, which gave 1994 returnees land on the basis of one hectare per adult family member and one hectare for two or more children, which is one to three hectares per household. Returnees were given cash grants (up to 1,500 birr) and REST assisted farmers to obtain farm inputs on a loan basis. Fertilizer was not used and discing was done only once. Plant stands were low throughout the returnee areas indicating either low seeding rates, low seed germination or a combination of both. General observations made of settlement crop situation are as follows:

Settlement Land Allocated Land Needed

Head of Family Hectares Head of Family Hectares

Ada Bai 1947 3258 593 1253

Rawayan 1765 2988 70 149

Mai Kadra 723 1361 112 186

Two fields allocated to the returnees were planted with the shorter season, and more common sorghum variety of Cora. One was 7-10 km from the village and had been cultivated before; the other, situated 20-25 km from the village, was newly planted with minimal clearing. The second field was reported to total 370 hectares of which only 190 were utilized. Both areas were not weedy in spite of the low plant stand. The newly cleared field was definitely lower yielding and should have been disced twice. In this field, the smaller seed heads and yellowed plants indicated low soil fertility and these areas should have been fertilized. Although the variety Cora usually has tillers (many stems from one plant), the late tillers were not developing substantial seed heads in the newly planted field.

An estimated 15-20% of seed heads in both fields were infested with head smut which means that 50-75% of the grains are replaced by smut balls and the remaining are either infertile, producing no seeds, or have reduced seed weight. The smut spores are borne with the seed and the fungus grows in the next crop plants causing reinfestation. Although there are resistant varieties, there was little smut in the investors fields with the same variety due to a combination of seed selection and Thiram seed treatment, which costs only 2-4 birr per 10-15 kg of seed/hectare.

The total yield in the two fields is estimated to be 3-5 qt/ha for the newly planted field and 7-8 qt/ha for the other, older field. Commercial fields in the area commonly yield 5-8 qt/ha, although weedy and late planted commercial fields with a lower yield are common. It should be mentioned that the entire village has been moved to a new location and as a result, sorghum areas within the villagers' home gardens will yield double that of communal fields due to better fertility levels and husbandry practices.


Returnees in Rawyan were given two fields, one of which was a part of the former state farm about 10 km from the village, and the other about 40 km to the west near the Sudan border. The state farm plot appeared to have been planted with two varieties. The Cora variety, though thinly planted, was tillering and should yield 5-7 qt/ha with no indication of smut. However, the second variety, possibly Saffra, was not tillering. Although this variety produces a larger seed head, it will yield only 4-5 qt/ha. The former state farm field is good for the returnees due to proximity to the village and good drainage, which makes it suitable for sesame or other crops.

The second field is in the west of Mai Kadra, across a swampy drainage area and is reported to be between 700 - 1000 hectares. It was farmed in the past by Sudanese who came across the border for farming - but only when conditions for agriculture were suitable. The returnee farmers reported that the rain in this lowland area started late in June. Subsequently, heavy rains impeded germination and growth after planting, resulting in large areas being waterlogged. Consequently, except in some fringe areas, the plant stand was close to zero and no harvest is expected.

Although the administration took the returnees' need for land as an opportunity to re-establish their authority over this particular section of land, the poor drainage of the area can render it unsuitable for traditional crops. However, there is no sign of salt accumulation, no indication of infertility (surviving plants were developing) and probably with extensive agronomic help flood and waterlogging, resistant crops such as rice could be grown. However, until the experimentation is completed, subsistence farmers such as returnees should be given low-risk cropland.

Mai Kadra

The representative for the returnees rode with us to see the field, one hour distance by walking. However, after travelling more than 10 km by car he concluded that it could not be reached by road. He said that it is a good field and that an average yield is expected.

REGION 3 (Amhara)

Region 3 returnees were assisted by ERO, which attempted to prepare a package of one hectare of land per family regardless of family size. By preparing three fields for sorghum, sesame and cotton, it was intended that each family would have 0.5 ha of sorghum for food and 0.5 ha of sesame/cotton for sale. Due to the heavy rains, only sorghum was planted. ERO paid for inputs, arranged for discing and helped the returnees perform minor land clearing. Seeds were purchased and DAP fertilizer was applied, as Urea, which was in the original plan, could not be obtained before the roads became impassable. The individual returnee families were assigned to weed and maintain the one ha plots.


Three fields of 64 ha, 30 ha, and 19 ha were planted with sorghum and appear to have prospective yields of six, ten, and eight qt/ha, respectively. In Kumer, the plant growth was better than the fields in Humera area due to higher fertility and better growing season (better rainfall distribution, longer growing season and lower evapo-transpiration). The yields would have been better but, again, 15-20% of the plants were smut infested. The seeding rate could have been higher and had Urea been applied, yields could have been double.

In addition to the communal fields, each family was allowed to construct a tukul (hut), which are common in Kumer. Some of the areas were previously grazed/cropped and were planted by the settlers themselves as home gardens. The quality of sorghum in these 'home gardens' varies from stunted and yellow on rocky shallow soils to tall and excellent on deep, manured soils. Further development of the area surrounding each tukul and in the large, lightly used grazing areas will greatly enhance the sustainability of the returnee programme in this area.

Village 7/8

In the original plan of resettlement schemes, 500 ha was allocated to each village for cultivation. Residents claim to be using up to 5 ha each on a shifting cultivation basis. Nevertheless, the administration was able to convince the residents to allow 110 ha (82.2 ha of sorghum and 27.8 ha of cotton) to be allocated and planted by the 1994 returnees.

In areas of heavy, tight clay soils that are flat but not swampy or poorly drained, it is important to complete discing and planting during the light early rains so that germination and root establishment occurs before the heavy rains. Well established plants can survive wet, rainy weather if the root system can get enough oxygen to support root activities. It might prove beneficial to row-plant on ridges or hill-plant to allow more soil aeration in the root zone. These areas and soils actually adsorb more water and can give better crop yields in dry years than the sloping fields on which rain water runs off.


A large number of returnees settled in Abdurafi were included in the ERO programme. However, the land allocated for the returnees, which is three hours walk from the village, must be cleared and therefore no land assignments have been made yet. ERO reported that even though the returnees were integrated into the community, there is not much scope for returnee farming activities and, as the village is situated on stony knolls, there is no possibility of home gardening.

Estimation of Food Needs

A rough estimation of food needs can be made by calculating the deficit in the minimal grain production required to pay costs and feed the returnees. Land preparation costs of 50-60 birr per hectare and seed costs of 10-15 birr were uniform on the Humera side. This means about two quintals of grain need to be sold in order to pay the loans. Another three qts/ha of grain per person is required for household consumption and three qts/ha should be allocated to generate cash income for the purchase of necessities. This means that cropland which yields less than 8 qt/ha will not sustain the returnee family until the next cropping season. The following is the estimated deficit in 1994 sorghum production:

Abi Bai 180ha not planted X 6qt/ha= 1080

190ha @ 4qt/ha deficit X 4qt/ha= 760

Rawyan 1000ha @ 0qt/ha X 8qt/ha= 8000

380ha @ 3qt/ha deficit X 3qt/ha= 1140

Abdurafi ??? ha @ 0qt/ha X 6qt/ha ???

Village 7/8 110ha @ 6qt/ha X 6qt/ha= 660

(discing and seed

paid by ERO) TOTAL DEFICIT 11,640

Note: There may be additional claims of unproductive or under-productive allocated cropland which were not visited

Credit Availability, Tractor Shortages, Marketing Structures and Price Determinations that affect Returnees

Returnee farmland on the Humera-REST side totals a mere 7,507 ha out of a total of 92,000. Also, assuming each adult or two children need three quintals for consumption, the remaining yield of three to seven qt/ha would be sold for cash. This means an estimated 22,500 to 52,500 quintals of grain will be marketed by the returnees. Considering the size and power of the commercial farming community in the area and the distance to markets, the smallholders will also need to organize themselves into farmer groups or co-ops.

Banks provide 11-15% production loans to individuals who have capital and guarantees. The Guna company provides loans free of interest but requires in-kind or cash repayment at prices set at harvest time. The Ambasel Trading House operates as a informal partner to Guna on the Metema-Humera side. Both companies operate profitably by adding the cost of transport (30-40 birr for the 260 kms to Gonder, 40 birr for the 285 km to Shire, 70 for transport to Mekele, 50 birr for transport to Asmara and 75 birr for transport to Gidarif in the Sudan). An overhead is added to compensate for the terminal market price. Also, the two companies pay more than private traders as they deal with larger volumes. Prices paid for sorghum vary from 70 birr for the Cora variety to 100 birr for the higher quality Saffra. Sesame prices varied from 160-200 birr/qt.

The Ethiopian Grain Trading Corporation, with a 700 ton capacity warehouse, purchased only the high quality sorghum variety (Saffra) for 80 to 90 birr/qt . A newly established farmers' association, which charges 100 birr/share and now has 480 members, (with one vote allowed per member regardless of the number of shares held) hopes to collect 100,000 birr in capital. The main goal of this association is to protect the fall in market prices by acquiring regular national and international market information from Addis Ababa. Also, they hope to obtain better fuel, tractor spare part price through collective bargaining. Several investors prefer to use private storage facilities or open tarp storage either of which enable them to delay marketing until prices increase.

The returnees, both individually and collectively, need to be made aware of the opportunities available to them and the consequences of dealing with banks, Guna and EGTC as well as the possibility of buying into the Farmers Association. Individually, they may feel isolated and certainly they will not be able to get tractors for discing only one to three hectares. Also, for loans or in negotiating marketing agreements, preference is given to larger investors. However, if returnees had the benefit of being represented by a co-op or spokesperson they could exercise comparable influence.

UNHCR should assist REST and ERO in developing cooperatives to benefit the returnee farmers. These cooperatives should be involved in the purchase of inputs, development of smallholder cropping technology and collaborative marketing. Organizations such as Voca could provide REST and ERO with excellent set-up and training for these farmer cooperatives. Also, there is an immediate need for establishing a cooperative operated oil press and a cotton gin in the Humera area.

The presence of returnees could be an asset to the investor farmers as traditionally there has been a migration of farm labour into the area. In addition to planting, weeding and harvesting, returnees could also be employed for other mutually advantageous work. Construction and maintenance of roads by food for work would facilitate the marketing of both returnee and investor crops. Land clearing, cotton picking and sesame harvesting require seasonal short-term labour. Transporting workers from outside is less efficient than utilizing those already in the villages.

In summary, considering that a good marketing strategy could increase returnee crop yields and income, smallholder marketing schemes and participation in farmer associations should be encouraged among the returnees, not only for the purchase of inputs but also for the sale of products. In an area where there are many large investors, unity of the smallholder through cooperatives and farmer associations is essential for protecting the rights of the returnees.

Land allocation, re-allocation and prospects for the 1995 returnees

According to local inhabitants, there is 500,000 hectares available for lowland cropping along the Sudan/Ethiopia border. This may include both the Humera and Metema areas and may not account for rainfall catchment basins that are subject to flooding. Nevertheless, at the present time allocations to private investors and returnees in the Humera wereda cover 92,000 hectares and are continuing. Expected crop yields in the wereda are 500,000 quintals of sorghum and 200,000 quintals of sesame. Cotton was grown only by investors with enough capital to secure insecticide through cash payment. This includes 3000 hectares grown by the Hiwot Company.

Although cropland appears to be extensive on the way to Humera, local administrators claim there is a general shortage of land in this area. Allocations continue on the Humera side but vast areas were reported to be vacant on the Metema side. On the way from Humera to the east towards Ada Bai or southeast towards Hiwot, or on the way south towards Abdurafi or southwest towards the border, 99% of the land is cultivated cropland. However, due to the distance from urban labour, road conditions and land clearing problems, large areas on the perimeter after Ada Bai and between Abdurafi and Shehedi have not been utilized yet. Investors are now allowed only enough capital for 30 hectares instead of the previous 80 hectares. Returnees are required to crop at least 20% of their grant within the first year after allocation.

In Shehedi, local administration officials are currently discouraging further expansion until the issue of the 1990 Welo returnees (768 heads of household) from the Gode State Farm is resolved. This population are camped on the river 2 km east of Shehedi and are assisted by RRC-ERO but have not been given land as yet. Large areas of available land are reported approximately 52 km south of Shehedi (five hours by tractor) and 35 km north of Metema (four hours by tractor), where there are villages equipped with minimal essential services (both are near large perennial rivers). These tracts of land are both located in weredas outside the Shehedi district.

The areas cited would not add up to the 500,000 hectares mentioned but other, more remote, areas have not been considered. For instance, 22-25,000 ex-soldiers were settled on 7000 ha of land around a former military base. There is a cement airstrip and some buildings with a good river on each side of the area. It is not clear, however, whether the 7000 ha is all cropland and the reliability of production is uncertain but the cropping was evident from the air.

Re-allocation and the shifting of land from one contractee to another must be considered for the returnees and should also be considered for other residents who do not own land. Returnee farmers requesting more than one hectare of land for subsistence farming should be given priority over investors who aim at increasing their profits. The administration officials seem to be sensitive to this issue, although they are waiting further instructions from higher officials. The question is not how to compensate investors but how to avoid discouraging investment which came first to an area. Obviously investors are interested in the land which is cleared and amenable to tractor farming, which becomes more difficult and less profitable when the fields become irregular and forested. This is not the case for settlers who need small treed plots for fuel and construction with intervening grassy areas for animals. This is why the perimeter areas and particularly the Shehedi area is suitable for settlers.

A number of possible solutions are foreseen for the problem of land allocation in the area. One investor was given the opportunity to farm two allocations this year without the 20 birr/ha rental payment to the government. Next year he will abandon one area, continuing on the land further from the village. Although the government objective is to profit directly from the rent of land, the government may need to allocate these funds to land clearing and road construction in order to encourage further investment and development. Some of this work could also be done through food for work.

A second solution involves the creation of satellite farmer villages around the presently growing urban centres, particularly Ada Bai, Abdurafi, and Shehedi. The returnees and modern villagers now appreciate the social benefits of larger urban areas including health services, secondary schools and market opportunities. The people of Ada Bai have moved the town location 2 kms from its original riverside site to an area which consists of a town square with a growing shopping area in the centre and the town extending out from the square. The established health clinic is now 2 kms away and the borehole is still more than one km away in the opposite direction. In order to place the farmer closer to his field and pasture, smaller satellite communities could be established, which utilize urban schools, clinics and water points while offering other social services on demand. Larger congregations of people create problems of sanitation, fuel supplies and transportation.

In summary, it can be assessed that there is still adequate land to accommodate 25,000 to 30,000 returnees and prospective investors. Work is needed, however, to get the government to give priority to returnees and some innovation and intervention to get investors to give up land near the towns and roads. But the incentives can go the other way as well if the farmers are given programmes that are beneficial to their welfare. Local officials say they are guided only by the investment policy and are waiting for the national land use policy guidelines.

Table 1. Agronomic characteristics of common food sorghum grown in the Humera area.

Variety             Saffra         Cora              Deber              Moged          
 Yield              Highest         Good              High              Good           
 Seed               light           white            dull                light         
colour           brown                             white              brown            
 Plant              tall            medium            tall              medium         
 Maturity          long-            short-          very long-         short-          
                 season           season           season             season           
 Injira            best            acceptable       preferred         acceptable       
 Comments        no tillers       most common      very susceptible                    
                 even at low      due to tractor   to leaf                             
                 seeding rates    shortage at      blight-gives                        
                                  land prep time   light seeds                         

Table 2. Partial budget for the common crops grown in the Humera-Ebar area.

  Crop                  Sorghum                Sesame               Cotton              
Fixed Costs                                                                             
Discing               50-60 Birr/ha         same                  same                  
Seeds                 1-2 times=            10 kg/ha @            30kg/ha @             
                      100-120birr           110-220birr/          140-180birr/          
                      10-15 kg/ha @         qt=11-22 birr         qt=40-50 birr         
                      =4-23 birr                                                        
Variable costs                                                                          
Fertilizer            0-50kg DAP =          None                  0-50kg DAP =          
Weeding               0-70 birr             Same        maybe 2   0-70 birr             
Chemicals             0-50kg Urea =         times                 0-50kg Urea =         
Storage Cost          0-70 birr             3.5 birr/ha    to     0-70 birr             
                      300-400birr/     ha   control               same                  
                      + food                termites and    oil   2 litres/ha           
                      None                  suckers               malathion to          
                      ??                    ??                    control aphids        
                                                                  flies=70 birr         
Return when                                                                             
sold at   Harvest     40birr/qt for         110birr/qt for  3-5   3birr/kg for          
Next Planting         5-15qt/ha =           qt/ha =               1000kg/ha =           
                      200-600birr/ha        330-550birr/ha        3000birr/ha           
                      120birr/qt for 5-15   220birr/qt for  3-5                         
                      qt/ha =    600-1800   qt/ha =                                     
                      birr                  660-1100 birr                               
 Profit (loss)                                                                          
when sold at          146-546 birr          265-485 birr          2930 birr             
Harvest    low        (483-83) birr         (146)-16 birr         2220 birr             
input       high      546-(83) birr         595-114 birr                                
input                 1746-1117 birr        1035-554 birr                               
Next Planting                                                                           
low input                                                                               
high input                                                                              

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    Editor: Ali B. Dinar, (aadinar@sas.upenn.edu)