Lost alternatives

Amare Mekonnen


I grew up listening to fairytales like everyone else in my neighborhood. I heard people saying “Ethiopia is the breadbasket of Africa.” Our elementary geography teacher repeatedly told us other nations of the world were envy of Ethiopia’s abundant natural resources.



I can guess many children at different parts of Africa grew up in the same fashion. Listening to fairytales on how their precious land, Africa, can feed the rest of the world. Well, what could a little boy who grew up listening to such stories possibly wish for? A fairy godmother who can turn his country into a land of milk and honey.


That was how we, Africans, received the 2009 World Bank report: “Awakening Africa’s sleeping giant: prospects for commercial agriculture in the Guinea Savannah zone and beyond” with open arms. We didn’t want to spend time examining it thoroughly, at least most of us. It was a dream come true.

The large scale investors were our fairy godmothers. We haven’t thought about the curse but the blessing. East Africa was up for it, and Ethiopia announcing to have 3.5million hectares of “unused” land in its different regions available for large scale commercial farming, leads the pack.
The Gambella region in Southwestern Ethiopia was one of the regions designated as high agricultural potential area ready to try out what experts call “Development by Dispossession.”
It is true that Africa is blessed with abundant resources.

The Gambella region is ideal for commercial farming, both irrigated and rainfed. It has abundant water resources with big rivers; Alwero, Baro, Gilo, and Akobo, with average annual runoff of more than 20 billion cubic meter. It has a mild gradient and fertile soil with organic content of nearly five percent.

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Also, the region is blessed with diverse flora and fauna. The varied ecosystems range from afro-montane forests to extensive wetland areas maintaining a healthy hydrological system. The estimated stock of fish in the region ranges between 15,417 and 17,308 tons per year. Of this amount, 19 are commercially important fish species. According to the region’s livestock development master plan study in 2007, the region has up to 140,061 cattle; 50,647 sheep and 57,633 goats.

The region also witnesses the second most abundant wildlife migration in Africa. Annually, more than half a million White-Eared Kobs (Antelops) move between the Gambella region of Ethiopia and that of South Sudan. Tropical forests are sequesters of hundreds of millions tons of carbon dioxide per year in the region. Various studies indicated that there are numerous commercial timber species growing in the region.The eastern range of the Shea Tree (also known as “God send tree”) ends in Gambella, thus Shea butter production could represent a profitable business. Shea trees yield a highly nutritious nut that is frequently processed into butter for cooking, medicinal purposes and cosmetic industry.

What does all this mean in economic terms?
It means, by virtue of the diverse natural resources of the Gambella landscape numerous opportunities for sustainable development can be found. The region could become a mosaic landscape by integrating and optimizing the different land use options while maintaining its ecological resilience.

Gambella’s water resources and potential for agricultural expansion were recognized decades ago.Without ruling out commercial farming the region can support the long lived subsistence farming by providing alternative livelihood options. One possibility is establishing women cooperatives that collect Shea fruit and produce Shea butter for market. As of 2008, total Shea nut production in Africa was estimated to be about 600,000 tons, 350,000 tons of which were exported, for a total market value of 149 million U.S. dollars.

Tourism development is another area of intervention. Sensible tourism development could eventually turn Gambella into a prime tourism destination, representing yet another form of sustainable development. The Serengeti-Maasai Mara Ecosystem generates over US$100 Million per year from the wildebeest migration (1.3 million animals). The White eared Kob in Gambella is part of a migration of at least 700,000 strong. Abundant White-eared Kob in the region also provides opportunity for game ranching.

The fish resource in the region provides opportunity for aquaculture which in turn could contribute to the country’s food security.
But Gambella is far from what it could have otherwise been. At best it presents a good opportunity for other regions in Africa to examine if clearing forested land for huge agricultural investment is a necessary step to undertake to ensure sustainable development.


We should assess and evaluate the resources that we are losing; it helps us to be sure that there are no other viable sustainable development options that could have been considered.
It would be a tragedy if alternative land use options that are currently bountiful in Africa are lost forever.

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