From Small Village to the Global Stage: Ethiopian Women Farmer to speak at World Food Prize
37 years old mother of four Birtukan Dagnachew came to Addis Ababa, to collect her visa from the USA Embassy. This year, this tough farmer from a small town Mechare, around 36 Kilometres from Woldya city, is invited to the United States, Washington and Iowa states to deliver a key note at World Food Prize, which is also known as the Nobel Prize of agriculture. She is also going to meet makers and breakers of the global agriculture including senators, researchers and other influential figures. In her stay from October 9-21, she will share her experience as a women farmer in Ethiopia.
Birtukan is the winner of Female Food Heroes award from Amhara region last year. The award, annually organized by a local NGO Forum for Environment (FfE) with a financial support of Oxfam America, recognizes and celebrates the achievement and challenges of women food producers, and their significant contribution for food security and the general GDP of the country. Last year, Birtukan won the competition from Amhara region for her incredible success, in an area known for draught, famine and shortage of water.
While she was in Addis to collect her visa we had a short talk with her about her upcoming trip and her expectations.
Q: how did you become a farmer?
I did not become a farmer by choice. I was born in a time and a place where farming is the only visible option for everyone around me. I was born in a small town called Mechare, around 600 Kilometres from the capital Addis Ababa to the north. I did go to school for a while; however, my parents decided I should get married at fourteen. That was also the destiny of every girl in my village.Every since I could remember I have worked on a farm, first with my father and then with my husband. However, I never really considered myself as a farmer. In fact, now I think about it, it amazes me how women do most of the work on the farm, and only men get the title of a farmer. In 2000, when my husband passed away, I had a tough decision to make. My husband and I have four children, three boys and a girl. We were also taking care of his aging parents. When he was alive, life was difficult because he owned a very small plot of land. In addition, we live in an area where there is frequent drought and shortage of water. When he died, things got a lot worse.
Though I have never considered myself as a farmer, I had to start figuring ways to feed and sustain my family. Otherwise, I was going to lose my children, since the boys will probably migrate to small towns, and I had to give my daughter to a husband so that she will have someone to take care of her. That is what usually happens to children without a strong family. I did not want to let that happen.
Q: As you rightly said only men are believed to have the capacity to plough by ox. How did you manage to solve that problem?
I negotiated with men in my neighbourhood to plough my small land with ox and they will share the product with me. While they only plough the land, I did the rest of the work. I also started planting trees, which the agriculture extension workers said would improve the shortage of rain we were experiencing. In addition, I was impressed by the advice I got about planting coffee and different kinds of fruits. I never knew that was possible in my area. Therefore, I used my backyard to plant 200 trees of coffee, banana, papaya, orange and so many other types of fruits. The outcome was beyond my expectation. I started selling these fruits and for the first time in my life, I had some savings. My children also, start going to school and knowing that someday they will become valuable citizens empowered me to keep working hard on my farm.
Q: What is difficult about being a women farmer?
Farming is a very hard work. I do not think there is a right word to express the excessive physical labour small holder farmers invest on their land. If people knew what it takes to bring their food on their table, I think they would start appreciating smallholder farmers more. When you are women, you want to keep yourself beautiful, because that is the culture. A women farmer cannot do that. We are on the field performing a manual labour at least 12 hours a day, and always we are exposed to the sun, the wind and the rain. I would say that is one of the toughest things for women farmer.
Q. What do you produce now?
I have many fruits like orange, banana, papaya. You name it I have it. I also have 200 trees of coffee. This year my harvest is maize and wheat. I work hard because we do not have enough water and I have to conserve water and manage how it is used. However, I do not complain because I am able to send my children to school.
Q. You are travelling to Washington and Iowa next month to deliver a key note at the World Food Prize. What do you think the USA would be like?
I do not really know. I was born and raised in a small village. I got married at 14 and I did not travel anywhere except Woldya city which is near to my village. I go there for a market sometimes. Recently, I have also built a house there. But honestly I don’t like to stay there much.
Q. Why is that?
I am not really a city woman. I am a farmer and I have to be close to my land and my plants. I worry something happens to it if I am not around. I also did not like Addis Ababa much. It is too crowded and noisy. People say Washington is much more crowded and the buildings are taller and the cars are a lot. Ask me when I come back and I will tell you how I felt.
Q. In general, are you excited about your trip to the USA?
Yes, I am very much. It is an honour for me to travel there and speak about my experience. I am a little nervous if I have to be honest. However, I am preparing my speeches and with the help of the almighty, it will turn out to be ok.
Q: Good Luck and thank you Birtukan
* The interviewer Seble Teweldebirhan is a media and digital campaigner at Oxfam America and a gest author at HornAffairs.com. We would like to thank her, on behalf of HornAffairs’ readers, for providing us the transcript of the interview.