Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia (EUE)

United Nations Support Office, Awassa (UNSO)

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EUE-UNSO-Field Report SNNPR No. 4

Green maize for Addis ­

Local impact on family food security 

Assessment Mission: 25 ­ 27 June 2003

By Dechassa Lemessa, UN-OCHA-Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia

1 Background

Walayta zone of SNNPR (Southern Nations and Nationalities Peoples Regional State) is situated 385 km south of Addis Ababa. It is divided into seven woredas surrounding Soddo, the main town of the zone. Walayta is one of the most densely populated zones of the country and one of the food insecure areas of SNNPR. Even in normal/good years, a large proportion of the community is unable to feed itself. The main hungry season in most parts of the zone ranges from February to May depending on the volume of food stock of households. 

Population pressure, which is the main factor for serious land shortage, crop diseases (mainly bacterial wilt of enset), livestock disease (tryps) and human diseases (mainly malaria) represent the major socio-economic constraints to the community. Furthermore, untimely onset, erratic distribution and untimely cessation of rains are common and major constraints in the food production system of the area. The zone receives a bimodal type of seasonal rains: belg (February-May) and meher (June ­September).

The main staple food crops grown in Walayta zone include; false banana (enset), maize, sweet potato and other root crops. Commonly maize is intercropped (planting at least two types of crops at the same time on the same plot of land) with haricot beans, the latter being a companion crop. By practicing intercropping, farmers try to minimize the risk of harvest failure. 

Maize, which is the main focus of this study, is planted in April in the lowlands as opposed to the midland areas, where it is usually planted in February/March. The planting and harvesting season varies, based mainly on soil type and agro-ecology related variants. Farmers who have access to wet land areas (water logged/swampy nature) have relative advantages and opportunities of production and are in a better position to reap reasonable harvests even if precipitation is scarce and moisture stress is otherwise high due to the erratic nature of rains. 

The study area Damot Gale woreda is dominated by a midland agro-ecological setting where maize is planted in February/March and harvested as green maize by May. In the same woreda, in areas along the Addis-Soddo main road (including Warite Balaqa and Shanto kebeles) green maize starts being sold as of May. Green maize is ready at the time when teff is planted, which in practice often means that fields with green maize are cleared for sowing teff.


2 Study area and controversy: Sell-out of food security at dumping prices  

Every year farmers in SNNPR sell out green maize at dumping prices and there is an ongoing controversy over the question, whether farmers, by doing this, undermine their own future food security. The argument is based on the fact that many of the same farmers, who presently sell out their unripe product, suffer from chronic food shortage and may face hunger in the months ahead. 

This study examines the rationale behind the farmer’s action and tries to find out whether their action makes sense or is detrimental to their own food security. The quick study from this practice was conducted in the last week of June 2003 in Damot Gale woreda of Walayta, one month after people there, mainly women and girls, started with the large scale sale of green, cooked and roasted maize along the road. 

Market and field visits as well as group discussions were made together with farmers, both male and female, and with woreda agronomists. There seems to be a common consensus that a mechanism should be established, which helps farmers to keep their product to feed themselves, rather than selling it at a dumping prices and later on becoming dependent on relief food - which unfortunately is the practice at the moment.

2.1 Abundance of green maize does not improve food availability for the needy

In numerous places along the road green maize is currently being sold in large quantities. A major trading hub for green maize is Shanto market, 5 km off the main road in Damote Gale woreda. Huge piles of green maize are loaded onto small traders’ trucks, with destination Addis Ababa and its roadside markets. The price for 5 or 6 cobs of green maize at Shanto market is one Ethiopian Birr (ETB), half of what green maize costs in Addis. 

In a time span of only three and a half hours the mission observed 10 trucks filled with green maize travelling from Boditi via Shashemene to Addis. At the same time when green maize is shipped out in large quantities, bags of dry maize are transported in the other direction in the form of food aid. 

The same woreda where the study was conducted is currently host to three therapeutic feeding centres (TFCs) (Boditi, Buge and Ade Damote) filled with emaciated and malnourished children. Large segments of its most vulnerable population only survive thanks to dry rations by the government and targeted supplementary food distributions by MSF/Switzerland. This shows that while abundance fosters business, it does not at the same time also improve availability of food for those who would need it most for plain survival.  


2.2 Small landholdings major problem

Double cropping is one way of increasing food production in the area. In Walayta the average land holding is 0.5 hectare. If a farmer wants to increase food security he must grow as many different crops as possible (table below) on the same plot of land. This is only possible by intercropping. In practice this means that a farmers must harvest maize when it is still green in order to free the same plot of land for the next crop, mainly Teff, which is planted during the meher season in August.

Until now there exists no comparative cost benefit analysis for harvesting green and fully ripened maize. However, farmers say that the income to be obtained from dried maize is better than that of teff. Although teff is more valued than maize, the productivity of maize is much higher than teff. Maize is also a staple food in the area while teff is used by and large as a cash crop. If maize could be kept until the maize price reaches its maximum in the lean months, it probably would generate substantially more profit than the sale of green maize and teff combined. Aside from that it would help to increase food security by improving individual household stocks.


Planting and harvesting time of major crops, grown in the study area and Walayta zone in general

Crop type
Planting time
Harvesting time
Sweet potato*
October (main produce)
May (for sustaining planting materials)
Irish Potato
Haricot bean*
February/March (maize intercropped), as a main production
July (for planting material)

*double cropped (harvested twice in a year).


2.3 Wholesale dumping due to credit pressure 

For planting teff in August farmers need cash to buy fertilizers and seeds. This forces them to sell maize. In order to survive during the lean months, farmers also take loans from friends or relatives for which they have to present collaterals. Collaterals include valuable and productive assets including growing crops as well as livestock. The loan/credit is bound to an agreed and fixed time of repayment as well as to interest payments. Farmers accepting loans on this basis are expected to liquidate their assets on time, which in most cases is the time when the crop in the field brings some income. In most cases, green maize is the only sellable product in May and must therefore be used to repay credits. If a loan taker fails to liquidate his/her loan on time, interest rates will be compounded which increases the burden on the debtor. 

2.4 Polygamy and AIDS: Culture comes at a high price 

Culturally, when a relative dies, particularly from his or her family-in-law, funeral costs must be shared and maize is taken to the deceased’s house for the ceremony. It is an absolute must to repay such cultural favors in the same way and amount for the same purpose. Due to seasonal changes in production and price, this can become an expensive exercise for some. With the rapid expansion of HIV/AIDS, costs encountered from this cultural practice increase continuously and with it the vulnerability of the community. Polygamy is another factor that accelerates the decline in household wealth. It increases the risk of infection and HIV/AIDS-related death, which in the end means more maize donations for a growing number of funerals. 

2.5 Gender competition increases sale of maize

Within households husband and wife have different priorities for needs that have to be satisfied through the sale of green maize. This often leads to competition between the “partners” and in consequence to increased selling of the only disposable commodity. Males need cash for purchasing productive animals and liquor women need money for the purchase of household items (salt, sugar, soap etc). 

Porcupines and human thieves rob the fields during the night, this also puts pressure on the maize growers to cash in maize as soon as it is sellable.  

It is also apparent that the farmers have accepted hunger as a common episode during certain times of the year in their area, even in “normal” times. A farmer in Shanto kebele responded to the question why he sells maize when he knows that hunger is looming in the future: “I know hunger as much as hunger knows me”.  The farmers know the effects of food shortage, including death, but presently have little choice other than risking their future for the benefit of the present. Motto: “eat today - die tomorrow”.

3 Conclusions and recommendations

The rationales put forward by farmers for selling out green maize are understandable albeit the practice puts their future prospects considerably at risk. Sale of the (mature) product at the moment when market prices are at their height could make a considerable difference of income generated from the same crop. 

Crop producers often do not have the option to keep their produce until the prices improve, since many of them must honor commitments. If they did not sell green maize they would be forced to sell other assets ­ small animals and, when worse comes to worst, even their oxen or essential food for consumption. Farmers, however, dislike selling productive assets like shoats, cattle and chickens. In bad times they sell what fetches the best price at the time and is least important for future survival. The sale of green maize is often the only alternative to the sale of chickens, shoats or even cattle. 

Availability of credits is important for poor rural communities like the one in Walayta. But timing of loan repayment should not be linked to green maize harvests. It should also not be dictated by creditors. Repayments of credits provided by government and NGO programs should be negotiated in favor of the farmer in a way that he can repay his dept at a time when he benefits from a favorable market price for his produce. 


In times of drought and food shortage farmers should be provided emergency seeds free of charge and without any precondition in hard hit areas, whether they are indebted from previous credits or not. The current practice that farmers, who have old agricultural credits, do not receive new ones should be abolished. 


Institutionalizing subsidies in kind, in the form of seeds, fertilizers and animals (possibly by means of vouchers and fairs) could be a way to increase the food security among impoverished farmers, which should be seriously studied. Subsidizing farmers is definitely cheaper than providing relief food. It would also revive the farmers’ ability to survive by their own efforts and reduce their dependency in the long term.  


The practice of polygamy is a major threat to food security since it increases the risk of HIV/AIDS. The disease kills not only productive family members. It also increases the burden on relatives, who have to donate large amounts of valuable and limited food for funerals. Information drives aimed at cultural change and focused on sexual behavior, should be considered by the relevant partners.



This report is provided for information purposes only and is in no way to be considered as a comprehensive assessment of the situation in SNNPR.

The designations employed and the presentation of material in this document do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever of the UN concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.

March 31, 2003


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1.Dechassa L (1999). Field situation Assessment: North Omo Zone (Walayta), SNNPR. UN OCHA EUE Field Assessment Report, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

2.Dechassa L (2003). Situation update for Walayta Zone, SNNPR. UN OCHA EUE Field Situation Assessment Report, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.