Near Mount Jerer, south of the capital Addis Ababa, there are wide fields of wheat waving in the wind. It is quiet and deserted. Yet, when a stronger breeze bends the grains towards the horizon, the silhouette of a man is revealed. Tilahun Regassa, dressed in jeans, t-shirt and a vest sits on a small stool reading a book. What looks like a leisurely activity, is actually part of his work. Tilahun is one of six agronomists at the Dutch company Solagrow. The wheat field is part of the company’s demonstration plots near Hidi in Oromia region. “I mainly work here, where I experiment with different vegetables and cereal crops,” he explains.

Besides testing new varieties, Tilahun also advises farmers on aspects of production management. Using the right seeds, handling them well and planting them correctly can lead to great improvements in yield. “We have to make them aware of this and also the fact that Solagrow seeds mature earlier than the local varieties,” he says. He puts down the book and takes out a piece of paper. “With my colleagues, we make a plan every two weeks who is going to visit which farmer,” he says while pointing out his schedule for the next days: a trip into town for market research and daily visits to farmers’ production sites. “We help farmers from the moment of planting to the moment of harvesting. We comment on their practices but also listen to solutions they come up with themselves,” he says.

More seeds

During those field trips, Tilahun also hands out little sachets of seeds to the farmers. They include the improved varieties that he and his team have tested on the Solagrow premises. Gaining trust from the farmers takes time though. “Gradually they are changing their life, e.g. they start planting the seeds on one acre and then they move on to two and three acres and so on,” he explains. In case the yield is disappointing, farmers are quick to blame the seed supplier. “If we get a complaint, one of us [agronomists] goes to the farmer and suggests planting an extra demonstration plot. Then we will see,” he says. As mentioned before, the handling of seeds is crucial. Often sachets get opened, mixed with local seed varieties or left in the sun for hours with a potential loss of up to 30% in quality.

Tilahun picks up the book again. It is a theory book on plant science, the focus of his bachelor degree. This month, he was selected to give a presentation in front of the management team. It is his chance to add knowledge from his own experience and report his observations from the fields. With Solagrow as one variable in the agricultural equation, he believes that food security can be achieved in Ethiopia. “I hope that once we are established we can start one day with the production of high quality seeds here,” he says turning another page of his book.