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Planting Seeds of Hope in the “City in the Clouds” to Boost Its Agriculture --Stories from the Phase-III Technical Assistance Project of the High-level Agricultural Expert Group

Source:Farmers’ Daily Date:2023-01-05

Eritrea, an eastern African country in the northernmost part of the Horn of Africa, is geographically important since this key-shaped country is a gateway to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Most parts depend on rain-fed agriculture, as there are dry season and rainy season throughout the year and the rainfall mainly concentrates between June and September. Arable land only takes up 4.28% of the total land area and most areas are dry. Despite harsh natural conditions, agriculture remains a pillar industry in Eritrea, employing over 80% of the population in farming and animal husbandry. In order to boost its agriculture, Eritrea has made increasing input in agricultural production. 

On November 29, 2021, at the Eighth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), nine programs were put forward, including the poverty reduction and agricultural development program. China-Africa agricultural cooperation is an important part of this program. Within the new China-Africa Cooperation Framework, guided by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA), the Ministry of Commerce, the China International Development Cooperation Agency and other competent authorities, and supported by the Chinese Embassy in Eritrea, the Center of International Cooperation Service of MARA has successfully launched the Phase-III Technical Assistance Project of the High-level Agricultural Expert Group (the Expert Group) to Eritrea. Within the project, three senior agricultural experts were sent to Eritrea between February and March, 2022 for a two-year technical assistance mission. Up to now, the assistance work has been carried out in an orderly manner in various fields. Initial results have been yielded and are highly recognized by relevant parties. 

Comparative Demonstration for Better Varieties 

Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, sits on the Hamasen Plateau 2,400 meters above the sea level. Looking down at the city from high above the sky, the sea of clouds shrouds the city, making it a well-known “City in the Clouds”. The city in November feels cool and comfortable, as the temperature here ranges from 15to 23. The Expert Group has been working locally for nine months. They set up demonstration sites in Mahano, Akria and Adikeye, demonstrated the planting of apple seedlings, broad beans, red kidney beans and rape introduced from China, and conducted comparison experiments with local varieties. 

According to Liu Yunmin, head of the Expert Group, the comparative demonstration experiments have yielded initial results. At the apple demonstration site, the 190 Chinese apple seedlings are growing well, from 1.8 meters to 2 meters tall on average. The tallest one has reached 2.3 meters. At the bean demonstration area, the broad bean varieties from China have produced plump pods with large and fat seeds. At the demonstration site of oil-bearing crops, the rape varieties from China are already bearing fruit, with branches fully covered with pods. Compared with the local varieties, the Chinese varieties have the advantages of short growth period and high yield potential. 

 “They must stand the tests before we can tell whether they are good or not.” Liu Yunmin said. China and Eritrea are immensely different in climate and production conditions. Therefore, adaptability is a priority for the Expert Group when they introduce varieties from China. Specifically speaking, they need to compare the performance of Chinese varieties and local varieties in disease resistance and yield with the same climatic environment, planting conditions and management techniques, so as to understand the adaptation of Chinese varieties and find ways to improve the local varieties. 

On November 15, 2022, H.E. Arefaine Berhe, Eritrean Agricultural Minister, and Cai Ge, Chinese Ambassador to Eritrea led a team to visit the demonstration site. The 78-year-old Minister was lavish with his praise for the plump pods of Chinese broad beans. He peeled a broad bean, tasted the pods himself, and invited the Ambassador and the Counsellor to taste them. The Minister spoke highly of this demonstration model and expected to gradually promote it throughout Eritrea the next year. 

Chinese Fruit Seedlings Successfully Planted in Eritrea for the First Time 

Lack of varieties is one of the restrictions for agricultural development in Eritrea. In Eritrea, an egg is as much as five yuan. For ordinary people, even if they can afford the high price, they have few choices to make. Wang Li, a member of the Expert Group said, “Most of the apples sold in the local market are imported from Turkey and other neighboring countries. A kilogram of apples is sold at 140 nakfa, about 70 yuan. We can hardly see big apples. Most apples are as small as a fist, and the taste is not quite pleasant.” 

In order to get the Eritrean people have big crisp and sweet apples, MARA donated 210 apple seedlings produced from Baishui County, Weinan City, Shaanxi Province to Eritrea. The seedlings had to arrive in Eritrea before the end of June as they needed to be planted before the start of Eritrea’s rainy season to ensure more chances of survival. 

“Generally speaking, the export of fruit seedlings must go through a range of procedures such as approval and quarantine, and it normally takes 4 to 6 months from application for approval to customs clearance. But this time, due to the urgent need,  MARA secured a green channel for us to expedite the approval process.” Liu said. 

With the concerted efforts of all sides, Chinese apple seedlings were smoothly transported to Eritrea in June. Another difficulty came. As apple seedlings could not last for a long period of time, it is necessary to finish planting as soon as possible. According to Wang Li, the apple seedlings arrived at Asmara’s airport at noon local time on June 2 and finished customs clearance at 3 p.m. By 10 p.m. on the same day, the Expert Group had completed all the work, including apple seedling planting and irrigation. 

The reason why they could finish the planting so quickly is that they had done sufficient work before the seedlings arrived. “We improved the soil in the demonstration site ahead of time. We also drilled a well and mobilized more than a dozen workers to dig 300 pits with a length, width and depth of 1 meter. We prepared for nearly two months from site selection, earth-moving to pit-digging.” Wang said. 

Thanks to the Expert Group, over 98% of the Chinese fruit seedlings survived and are growing quite well. Of course, this is not the end of introducing varieties. In the future, the mature fruit trees will continue to be used for variety cultivation. Through promoting these varieties, they are expected to become local dominant varieties, enrich the fruit market in Eritrea and bring big and sweet apples to local people. 

Technical Training Boosting Agricultural Development 

Another restriction for agricultural development in Eritrea is the backward agricultural technology. Zhou Cheng, a member of the Expert Group, found at work that local farmers had not mastered the field management technology of rape. For example, bird netting, a technique used to prevent bird pecking certain areas through erecting nets over rape fields, has been effective in preventing bird pest. Chinese experts introduced the anti-bird net into local areas and selected the same variety of rape field for the experiment. Compared with the rape field with artificial bird repellent method, the rape field with anti-bird net was more productive, time-saving and labor-saving. Farmers are very surprised and eager to get training on such a technique from the Expert Group. 

At present, the experts mainly give two types of training in Eritrea. One is the field demonstration and hands-on training. Experts first teach and demonstrate a series of field management techniques, such as sowing, weeding and fertilizing, disease and insect control, flood control and drainage, drought resistance and irrigation, and then the farmers carry out practical operations. The other type is centralized training. The main target trainees are local agricultural officials, experts and technicians. These trainees will provide guidance to local farmers after they learned techniques from the Chinese Expert Group. 

“The field demonstration and hands-on training is targeted for individual farmers,” Zhou said. “But the group of professional technicians we trained to guide local farmers can help deepen and broaden the technological extension.” Over the past few months, the experts have held six training workshops in Eritrea and trained over 120 people. 

All three experts of the Expert Group have participated in the assistance program in Africa for many times. Among them, Liu Yunmin has been engaged in such work in different African countries for nearly 20 years. When asked why he chose to work in Africa for so many years, he said, “After I finished my first year’s assistance project in Nigeria, I returned to China. In the second year, I went back to Nigeria, and found that the lad in the countryside who learned from me to grow pineapples got married, had children, and built a new house, and his family changed substantively. He told me that the project gave him all these, and it was China’s agricultural technology that changed his life. His remarks strongly motivated me to continue participating in foreign assistance work in the future.” 

As a Chinese saying goes, it’s better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish. Both the Chinese seeds and seedlings have now taken root and sprouted in the “City in the Clouds”, and will grow and flourish with the joint efforts of the two peoples 

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