Dr. Phiri on mitigating agricultural challenges, mobilizing resources to reach out millions in need

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Chimimba David Phiri (PhD) is Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Subregional Coordinator for Eastern Africa and FAO Representative to the African Union (AU) and to the United Nations Economic Commission for Afric (UNECA).

Before joining FAO Subregional Office for Eastern Africa, Dr. Phiri was the Subregional Coordinator for the FAO Subregional Office for Southern Africa, which supports 16 countries predominantly in Southern Africa, for five years. In addition to this role, he served as FAO Representative to Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Botswana.

Dr. Phiri joined FAO at its headquarters in Rome in 1991 as Policy Economist in the Economic and Social Development Department. From 1998 to 2008, he served in the Cabinet of the FAO Director-General, where he was involved in the policy direction and overall management of the Organization. In September 2008, Dr. Phiri was appointed Chief of the Policy Assistance Support Service in the Technical Cooperation Department. In this position, Dr. Phiri was the focal point for FAO’s support to the African Union and its NEPAD program, and he chaired the Organization-wide Task Team for such cooperation.  Yared Nigussie of Origins Business sat down to discuss about FAO’s efforts to reach out millions in need of assistance and more; excerpts;


With the increasing risk of famine in the Horn of Africa due to severe and prolonged drought conditions, urgent life-saving and livelihood assistance is needed to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, according to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

As the peak of the crisis fast approaches, FAO launched a revised Rapid Response and Mitigation Plan, which exclusively focuses on four drought epicenters across the region: Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

The time frame for the new plan has been extended from June to December 2022 with the aim of preventing deterioration in food security conditions in the region, saving the livelihoods and therefore the lives of almost five million rural people across the four countries.

FAO is appealing for a total of $219 million. So far, the UN Agency has mobilized around $47 million, leaving a gap of $172 million, according to a data from FAO’s website.

While the funds received thus far will provide life-saving livelihoods assistance through cash and livelihood packages, including animal health and infrastructure rehabilitation to approximately 700, 000 people, millions more can be reached if the plan is fully funded.

With regard to the emerging needs of Ethiopia in mitigating agricultural challenges in the region, Dr. Phiri said that FAO have a lot of challenges in the country, and climate change is one of them.  So, there is drought right now in the Somali, part of Oromia and part of the South regions.

 “And we’re afraid that it looks like this drought is also going further to reach to reach a far as we speak. So, this is a big problem. This drought, of course, is a part of a regional drought that is affecting several countries in the Horn of Africa—that will have impacts in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and Somalia,” he said.

But we also have major problems of plant pests and diseases, he says, adding that the problem could be related to climate change. As climate changes, the number of new pests that are coming to Ethiopia and the region are also increasing.

Conflict is another challenge.

Dr. Phiri said that it’s a major challenge because instead of people concentrating on agriculture and their daily activities, they’re running away from the conflict. In fact, some lose livelihoods and lives in the in the process. Hence, the conflict is a big problem. “We’re taught by our UN colleagues, International Organization for Migration, that there are 5.6 million internally displaced people in Ethiopia, as of April 2022—It’s a big number,” he describes.

He went on to say that he had a chance to pay a visit to Gode in the Somali region, where we saw firsthand some of the internally displaced people because of climate related impacts, particularly the drought and they lost all the livestock that they had, unfortunately, and because of that, there was also rising levels of malnutrition, particularly among children. “It was a very sobering experience to see our fellow human beings in such a state,” he stressed.

There are also structural challenges; and these ready to access to agricultural inputs. One of them would occur when you’re in a conflict situation. During such periods you’ll have very limited access to agricultural inputs. But in general, in Ethiopia inputs are not always found in sufficient quantities, even without the conflict, said the Sub-regional coordinator.

There have also been problems with extension services. Significant post-harvest loss is a big challenge. Farmers grow their crops, but maybe 30 or more percent of their crops is lost to post harvest losses. So, in other words, they cannot get that crop. We have rising food prices. “In Ethiopia, we already witnessed a soaring food inflation even before the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Now, with the Ukraine conflict things have just become worse.  These are real challenges for Ethiopia to solve,” as Dr. Phiri puts it.

Speaking of FAO’s efforts to mitigate these challenges in the country, he explained that, “The first one has to do with the emergency situations that we have in during the conflict, how to support conflict areas or conflict-prone people.” “And we have been working on this.”

The second is a response to the drought that is happening in eastern and southern eastern Ethiopia. So, we have been supporting people who are displaced from Amhara, Afar, Tigray regions that were affected by the conflict in northern Ethiopia. “We had asked partners for about $30 million last year to support the population in the northern Ethiopia, we received some $15 million, which was about half of what we wanted at that time.”

The amount of money we received is not nearly enough, he discloses. But now, obviously, we have increased the needs of funding for northern Ethiopia to be close to $45 million. “We’re hoping that development partners with having resources will be able to support us,” he says. That said we are still providing a lot of resources, particularly seeds and fertilizers to the north and other regions to support production, particularly in this Meher season in Ethiopia. FAO is already providing some support. A good example is that we’re now providing fertilizer worth about $11 million, which is the resource at our hand in the moment; even though fertilizer expenses for Tigray alone would need about $96 million. “But we’re discussing with resource partners with a view to reach in a considerable amount of the fertilizer that the conflict-prone people need,” he assures. We’re also supporting in seed multiplication in northern Ethiopia.

Global partnership to ensure food security

On the issue of provision of supports from different agencies and programs that are providing for developing countries for instance, the Group 7 (G7) leaders have pledged to spend $4.5 billion to address countries that are suffering from the effects, particularly by  the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

“We’re still not aware of where exactly the pledged finance will be provided to and the target nations that will receive the support,” Dr. Phiri said.

But FAO expects several countries in Africa will be recipients of this financial support.

We also have the African Development Bank (AfDB), which has put together a portfolio of $1.5 billion to support countries that are susceptible by high food prices. I understand that Ethiopia is one of the beneficiaries of this program, he noted.

FAO is also working at a level here to see how it can support several countries in this region get out of the aforementioned very difficult situation. “While FAO believes intensely in the need for international trade, also are aware of the pitfalls of relying entirely on the international market. So, to the extent that countries can produce more food for themselves, it would be a good thing,” he recommends.

“I really applaud the efforts of the government of Ethiopia, in particular, it seems as if the government for so what would happen because they already started a big program on irrigated Wheat production in this country,” he said, adding, “FAO is very keen to support similar programs in Ethiopia and elsewhere in the Horn of Africa to increase food production.”

The World Bank is also planning a similar program to support countries that have been affected grossly.

FAO has further proposed a food import facility for countries that have been most affected. This is still under discussion but the point is I think there are many institutions that are working to support developing countries, says Dr. Phiri.

“My biggest worry is that we have had these knee jerk reactions in the past, whenever we have problems, say in 2008 food price increased, there are a lot of initiatives that come about and money spent,” he opined.

But then when it looks like it is not sustainable, because in the end, a few years later, another crisis comes and then a lot more money is required. “Consequently, I think we have to see with the countries to make sure that whatever they do is sustainable.” In this regard, they do not react when there’s a problem. But they should anticipate that there are always going to be problems. Increasing agricultural production and including crops as well as livestock productivity is a very important element of that framework to ensure sustainability not to mention the diversification of production as well as database diversification of livelihoods.

Small scale farming: is it productive or not?

The agricultural policies of most African countries like Ethiopia stress capitalizing on small scale farmers to produce surplus.

Dr. Phiri was requested by Origins Business whether small scale farming can revolutionize and modernize agriculture.

The simple answer is yes. It depends on how small. It depends on what those farms are doing or those small scale farmers are doing,” he responded.

There’s a book titled “Small is beautiful”, and the author refer to the importance of small scale agriculture and wrote that it can be very productive when the agriculture sector is provided with all the structural incentives that they need to produce not only to produce, but to market and if there is a link to value addition. In other words, the quasi-industrial work to make sure that they do not sell only primary products, but they can add value either on their farm or through the value chain, he further pointed out his argument.

The more complex answer is that there are some small farmers that are really farming, not as a business, but farming as a way of living. Those were unlikely make much impact in terms of improving themselves or their lot. And a good example of this is the fact that the most undernourished people in the world happen to be the farming communities, said FAO’s Eastern Africa Coordinator. It means that either they don’t do what they’re expected to do or they do not have the facilities around them that can make them grow. Therefore, smallholder agriculture has been known to be productive, and in sometimes helps the small farmers’ transition into full scale commercial agriculture—this is rare but it happens. Given the right conditions, smallholder farmers can be productive, especially if they do so—if they farm as a business. If the farm as a way of living they cannot even afford despite farming to get enough produce for themselves and their families, then that would pose a problem.

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