Transforming Livelihoods: It Starts With the Land - Transcript

Megan Gilbert: Hello, everyone. My name is  Megan Gilbert and welcome to Transforming Livelihoods: It Starts With the Land. Here at CRS, we have a bold vision for the next 10 years. Our Vision 2030 strategy focuses on five main areas. We’re just going to explore one of those areas today, which is transforming livelihoods. So, what does that mean? We want to ensure that the people we work with in our programs have a sustainable way to make a living.

I have two guests, Shaun Ferris, who is the regional technical advisor for East Africa at CRS, and Desalegn Akati, who is a program manager in Ethiopia. Desalegn is one of the agricultural livelihoods team members in our Ethiopia office, which is the largest country program that CRS supports. He lives in Addis, the capital city of Ethiopia. He has over 13 years of experience managing food security and agriculture programs.

But I’m going to start with Shaun. Shaun joins us from Nairobi, Kenya. Shaun, if we want to transform livelihoods, it all starts with the land and rain.

Shaun Ferris: First of all, just to say a very warm welcome from Nairobi. As Megan said, this is something which is fundamental to all of the production of food right across the planet. And it’s really looking at this idea of how do we help farmers to manage soil and water systems more effectively? It can take up to 500 years to produce just an inch of topsoil.

But if that farming system is not done really well, it can take a season to lose the topsoil. So we see around the world situations where many farmers are on highly degraded land and their yields are decreasing year by year.

So, what we really want to be able to do, is to take new ideas, new technologies to the farming community and get them to manage their water systems and their soils really effectively so that they can produce sustainably this year and for the next generations.

So, 1984, a community in Ethiopia, who suddenly the world found out that they were in a very dire situation. But what actually had happened there? There’s a few things going on. One, there was a lot of conflict in the country at that time. Also, the farmers had been working very intensively on that land and the land had become very degraded.

At that time, they also had a really strong, severe drought. And it was that combination of shocks, which came together, which meant that people literally ran out of food and there wasn’t time to get food to those communities. And I think, you know, the world really suddenly woke up and thought, you know, we should be learning about these things, we should have systems that tell us about these things, and we need to be able to respond to this sort of thing; but we also need to be able to set up systems so that people don’t get into this kind of problem in the first place.

So, this was the situation which I think triggered a lot of humanitarian and development work right across the world. It’s certainly why I joined an organization like CRS. So, if we go to that same place now, you will see a totally transformed landscape. And that’s the sort of thing that you can do if you work with a community, if they’re living without conflict, if they’re working with all the partners on the land, but they’re also using really good farming systems.

Whilst that looks a bit like a field, it’s actually really well terraced, meaning that the water is controlled as it comes down that mountain side. There’s trees on the top to protect against erosion. There’s new varieties in there, which are drought tolerant, there’s shrubs being planted along the contours, which is basically slowing down the water so that is it’s able to hold that water in the soil and that will keep the crop going until you get to your final harvest.

Now if you do that well, you produce a really flourishing landscape, and that’s something that you can set up from generation to generation. You know, we have spent a tremendous amount of time working from project to project. Some of these are two- to three-year projects. And then, you know, I think the agency suddenly said, “Actually, if we’re going to design for the future, we need to have a totally different vision here. We need to be working with communities, not just on these two to three years cycles. We want a long year, ten-year approach to working with communities.”

So, what we’ve done with the new strategy, which fits perfectly, I think, with the agricultural system, is to be able to set up processes and investment sort of project type ideas, but stringing them together, so that we can really generate new types of methods to work with farmers, and they can also build out their community structures and strategies.

A lot of this came from a response to Pope Francis’s call for action in Laudato Si, which basically looks at stewardship of the land. And what we’ve done then is to develop a long-term strategy, really looking at how can we reduce poverty, how can we avoid hunger on the farms, and how can we scale this idea of land restoration. Whatever we do has to be very people centered. They have to totally own this process. And they have to see changes, you know, within two to three seasons, where they can say, “We want to buy into this and not only do we want to do it, we want others in our community to take on these new approaches.”

So, in the next 10 years, we’re going to try and take this idea to 6 million people and get these strategies to work in over 1.6 million hectares of land. So, we’re working on a whole process here where we are looking at what researchers are doing, what farmers are doing, what different organizations are doing around the world, and we’re taking the best of these different technologies and packages, and putting them together so that when we work with communities, we can offer them a really strong strategy to do their land restoration.

So, we’re looking at different ways in which people can clearly improve their productivity and their access to food. But we’re also tying that in with markets and income. Because what we have seen in the past is that many of these land restoration methods have been done in the absence of markets. And people simply cannot continue to invest in things unless they’re getting a good return. So this is very much a business-led strategy with proven technologies, and we want to get people to rethink how they use their farms.

Dry land regreening is a methodology that we’re using in places where the deserts are taking over these flat dry land areas. So, in West Africa, this is a method that we’re using in very large areas. And farmers are also doing this already on their own. You can see there’s a very clever system in that the leaves have fallen off all of those trees, just at the time that the maize or the corn is growing. When the corn is harvested, those trees will put back on their leaves again. So, it’s those type of systems that we’re trying to generate and scale.

And if we’re looking at, let’s say a hilly area, we will do the watershed restoration. So that’s something that we’re developing in the more hilly areas like Malawi. Water-smart agriculture is a technology that we’re using in Central America, which is losing, lacking a lot of these maize-legume sort of cropping systems. And we’re also looking at these areas where if there is a rainforest, and that rainforest has been degraded, we’re looking at these multi-story agroforestry systems that have got high value crops, sort of nestled inside them, so that farmers are starting to rebuild and replant tropical rainforest, but with a market linkage.

And I’m just going to give you a couple of examples of what happens when you start to do this. In Ethiopia, this was a highly degraded soil. There’s very little vegetative cover. When water hits that landscape, it just takes the soil off the surface. And you cannot produce crops on that kind of landscape. But, if you do the right replanting, if you do the erosion control, two to three seasons later, you’re looking at a completely different landscape. It starts to have very diverse plants. It starts to attract back all sorts of wildlife as well. But you also have the soil coming back and that’s where you can start to plant your crops on a regular basis. And then we plant in the right crop mixes to hold that soil and water together on the landscape.

Another case where one of the teams was working in Afghanistan. And that was a situation where the water system started to fail. During their period of conflict, the water channels were destroyed. It was very difficult to hold the soil then on the land and irrigate it correctly. And so whole communities started to leave and go back to the towns.

So again, when the teams came in, they did these landscape analyses, they started to put in these terraces, they planted trees across those terraces. They rebuilt the irrigation systems. And within literally two to three years, again, you were moving from a situation of zero food, people leaving, to a situation where you’ve got flourishing crops, people returning to the land and not just getting the food, but also generating excess that they can sell into the markets, bringing in livestock as well. And that becomes a resilient community. And that’s really what we’re aiming for in the future. So, with that, I’ll hand it back to you, Megan.

Megan Gilbert: Thank you so much Shaun. And that’s what’s so exciting about this. You see those dramatic differences and you’re talking about really transforming lives, transforming livelihoods. So let’s take a look at Ethiopia. I’m going to bring in my colleague, Desalegn, who is joining us from Addis, the capital of Ethiopia. Desalegn, you’re very familiar with agriculture because your parents were farmers. Can you talk about what it was like to grow up on a farm in Ethiopia?

Desalegn Akati: I was born in rural area and then I grew up in rural area and on farming, especially on crop production and the livestock rearing on a small plot of land, which my family have. And I know how much land is very important from my childhood to up to now, where we’re technically unsupported. So yes, it is very challenging for farmers, including my father and mother, and the land we have is very small in amount, which just lays on one hectare of land and which is fragile.

Most of the land we have is unproductive due to, from generation to generation, it is plowed and degraded and the soil fertility. So, I know how much land is very important for lives and the livelihoods of Ethiopia, which is more than 83% of Ethiopian population is depend on agriculture, crop production and then livestock.

Megan Gilbert: Oh, clearly. I can only imagine when you have such a small plot of land and any bit of it becomes unproductive, the kind of impact it must have on families. I imagine it’s really important to you that CRS is doing this type of land restoration in Ethiopia. So can you talk about what that means?

Desalegn Akati: Yeah. Land restoration is very important, as I mentioned, you know, if land is degraded and then the productivity is very low and the yield is very low and that people couldn’t able to eat the amount of food they need and food gap will happen. And then in the course of time to malnutrition, and so people are suffering malnutrition and the deep poverty, as well as hunger.

The other one is 70% of Ethiopian population is youths. And youths are landless in Ethiopia because, in Ethiopia, the land policies, the youth policy, you cannot own land. So, most of the youths are, depend on their family land, which less than one hectare, and they couldn’t even able to support the family, which is some part of it is unproductive. If that one is restored and rehabilitated, youths can be engaged in all farm activity and generate income.

Currently, CRS we are working on that in some area of Ethiopia so that if the land is rehabilitated and youths are engaging in that income generating activities, if the soil fertility is improved, production increase and food security will be improved. So those, for those two main reasons land restoration very important for each of them, Megan.

Megan Gilbert: It’s extremely important when you think about the young people and those people who need food. So, it’s obvious now to see how critical this is for everyone in Ethiopia to have this land restored. Now, Desalegn, you do this work all the time, and I’m wondering if there is a person you’ve met who has made an impact on you.

Desalegn Akati: Thanks Megan, yeah. There where we are working is very remote area, or especially in drought-prone area, where their lives and their livelihood depend on livestock. They don’t have veterinary service. And the youths in that area also have no jobs, as I mentioned before.

So, what we did with the project is we train youths, especially, on mobile service provider for veterinary service. Producers are getting service from this young lady and she’s treating goats, sheep. So, I’m very happy and proud of her and proud of that area. They are getting service. And there’s a youth who are working, she’s generating income. Megan, back to you.

Megan Gilbert: Absolutely, because they need the veterinary service for their animals. And then you have someone who can meet that need and then make a living at the same time. It’s really inspiring when you see all of that come together. So thank you for sharing that story with us. Desalegn, you talked about growing up in Ethiopia and how important land restoration is for the people who live in Ethiopia. What are some of the challenges Ethiopia faces?

Desalegn Akati: The land we have is very degraded land, and drought is very problematic. The soil fertility is very low. Disease and the pests are problematic in area. As you hear from news currently, the desert locust, which is affecting the eastern part of Eastern Africa. So those are a number of challenges occurring in Ethiopia.

Megan Gilbert: So, what are some of the ways that CRS is addressing this issue, particularly in Ethiopia?

Desalegn Akati: We are doing a number of interventions, because those are a number of challenges we cannot solve them with a single solution. This is one of the terracing, we are doing in coordination with the government, local government, and implementing partners.

CRS is working with youths also, they’re engaging and we are forming group of youths on that area, and they are improving their lives through cattle and dairy systems, through beekeeping, those are the area we are working.

We are working check dams so that soil and the water also can be maintained and the area can be rehabilitated and water can also be harvested. And so that people can plant their vegetables. And downstream also, the water that the farmers are productive and since the soil and the water cannot take away by erosion.

And the other one is we are doing small-scale irrigations. And so that in drought prone area, the farmers can use alternative farming through these small-scale irrigations.

Megan Gilbert: Thank you so much Desalegn for sharing that. Shaun, I want to go back to for just a moment. We mentioned how this is a really bold strategy for us and we have these ambitious goals. As you look forward to the next 10 years, what are you hoping that we accomplish? What are you hoping for?

Shaun Ferris: Well, you know, what is exciting about this new approach is that we are learning from farming communities because that’s where we have our programs and we’re taking the best ideas and mixing and matching those ideas with technologies around the world.

So, I think the first thing is, we’ve just got to be really good at learning and sharing information. I think the other thing is, before we used to do a strict project and we would start it, implement it, and then close down. What we’re doing now, is we’re saying, “Well, hang on. How can we actually work with people in quite new ways to say to them, we want to work on these particular areas for really long-term projects?” And this means that, it’s not just about us doing well, it’s about setting up partnerships, coalitions.

We want to be working with strong farming organizations. We also want to be working with the local government to see how they can use their skills and their investments that they’re making. We want to be working with national governments. And alongside that, of course we want to bring the private sector, you know, at all its different levels into this kind of mix so that we can start to reinvest in farming communities that previously were not linked into markets. We bring them in, that reinvestment sort of attracts—if it’s done well—attracts more income over time. And so, it really is this idea of learning, prototyping, getting it right, and then taking ideas to scale with a whole set of actors. It’s about how can we drive momentum and really movements around the world.

Megan Gilbert: That’s why partnerships are always so key to CRS and what we do because we can’t make this transformational change just on our own, is that we need to work together to make this happen. Shaun, can you talk about how we’re funding this work?

Shaun Ferris: Yeah, so I mean, I think with anything like this, no one area of funding is going to complete the task. So, we are looking at really getting different types of investors, different types of income streams from a whole range of different people. So, of course we have support from general public donors. I mean, that is a very important part of our work. We’re also getting, I think, more investment from impact investing ideas, where people are starting to think about, that actually looks like a sensible business case, we know that it needs some support, but we will make some philanthropic investments alongside some commercial investments.

And I think, you know, if you’re a small investment investor or a large investor, everywhere in the process, there’s somewhere where you can play a role and make a huge difference. I think everybody knows things like the savings and loans part of our work. You know, that’s an incredibly important part of our agricultural strategy because we want farmers to be good at managing their money and we want them to be good businesspeople. Now, again, in the past, we used to have one part of the work that was been doing savings, another part doing agriculture, and other part doing nutrition.

What we’re doing really now, is integrating all of those things and looking at a long-term plan with that, but making sure that the community is really in the driving seat and they’re also investing as well. I’m always amazed at how much money the farming community put into these things. You know, they are saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. I think we’re aiming at generating something like over this 10-year plan, we’re trying to mobilize $3 billion of money from the farming community, right? Now, that’s a staggering amount of money, but that is what they are doing and putting into the mix, and anybody else that can contribute and help us with that, it makes a massive difference.

Megan Gilbert: You know, it is a business. Sometimes I think some people, you know, don’t really think of farming that way, but it is a huge, huge business all over the world—not just in Ethiopia. I have another question for you, Shaun. Are there any innovative ways to address the harsh environmental conditions themselves?

Shaun Ferris: Absolutely. So, I mean, really, as you were just saying earlier on, if you have very intense rainfall and it runs off the landscape or the, you know, the hillside, it actually takes all the soil with it. And as Desalegn was saying, the people downstream, they get flooded. So, you get this kind of double effect of the people up in the hills, they’re losing the quality of the soils. The people downstream are getting washed out. If you can actually slow the water down, literally, on the landscape with ditches, with trees, with contours, with terracing, then basically your soil becomes a sponge and it holds the water. And that allows you to produce long term.

If you add irrigation into that as well, then you’re extending the season, you’re bringing more money into that community. They can reinvest in better cropping systems, you know, more labor on the land, keeping the water, maintaining the soil fertility, doing the right farming systems, linking people to markets, getting the financing right, all of these things have to come together and they have to be done by the community, understood by the community, and in the end led by the community. We have this magic opportunity to make a huge difference. But we need to do that in a way where we can make the investment and then step back and others take it on and scale. And that’s really what we’re trying to do.

Megan Gilbert: There are a lot of moving parts and there’s a lot to organize, but it’s really exciting to see that work because it’s already happening and we know that we are going to be able to do so much more. We are almost out of time, but Desalegn, I just wanted to bring you back in one more time. Is there anything that you want to add about your hopes for Ethiopia?

Desalegn Akati: Thanks, Megan, again. My hope is just our future is bright because the initiation we are doing this almost showing some hope. So, at least if we could do some land restoration and people have at least eat and bounce back from shocks and distress, and in the course of time, transform their lives and livelihoods.

And so the people of Ethiopia is hardworking. And if we show a big contribute to that so that they can secure their food and youth of Ethiopia, which have landless and jobless, at least for the next generation so that they can contribute to Ethiopia as well as to the world. And that is my hope, Megan. Thanks.

Megan Gilbert: We do believe that the future of Ethiopia is bright because all of the work you are doing, Desalegn and Shaun. Thank you so much for sharing that work. Thank you for doing that work. And thank you to all of you who support our work. As you can see, this is all a partnership. We all need to work together and we all need to do what we can to make this happen.

If you would like to learn how you can be part of the work that we do, you can go to You will find more information about transforming livelihoods and the other priorities of the Go FAR campaign. Until next time.