Israeli company focuses on Ogaden and Afar lands

By Yonas Abiye |

October 27, 2012

Looking at a wide portion of Somali or Afar regions, one might be tempted to call it as an unproductive or non-loam soil because of the hottest temperature and the acacia trees as well as thorny prosopis juliflora (derogatorily otherwise known as Woyane tree).
Meanwhile, in the eye of anyone from Israel, this is a funny view. For them, Somali or Afar areas are like a virgin and fertile land.

For Ethiopian pastoralists, whose livelihood depends on animal husbandry, agriculture had almost ‘zero position’. For them livestock are everything. Most of them have a belief that there is no life without livestock.

Though the Ethiopian government, as a national development strategy, had attempted to introduce the agriculture system to pastoralist areas, most of them seem hardly manageable to accept agriculture as an alternative means to their livelihood. Their life is always mobile.

Within these prevailing facts and challenges an Israel company, Agropeace, came to Ethiopia two years ago to engage in the country’s large-scale agriculture mainly focusing in the mass production of biofuel plants and floricultures as well as crops, unlike most local as well as oversees investors who do not dare to engage in such ventures in the region. This is obviously seem that many of the investors, if not all, prefer putting their money near fertile lands of the country around Addis Ababa and in the nearest and relatively modest towns.

Meanwhile, Agropeace looks determined to grow more in one of the country’s hottest and remote areas of Somali region such as Shinile and Gad districts.

In fact, for a longtime, ploughing lands or having agriculture practice has been an unusual, or unpreferable business in Shinile and Gad localities which are not very far from the town of Dire Dawa.

Having secured nearly 2000 hectares from the Somali region four years ago, Agropeace launched its first pilot project by producing maize and caster seeds. Since such kind of agri-business has not been common in the pastoralist’s areas, for Agropeace it was a challenging mission to gain the support of the local residents.

According to the existing tradition of most pastoralists, every plot of land belongs to their communal property where they feed their cattle no matter the title deed given to them as is common in other parts of Ethiopia. As a result, the Israel company had not received positive welcome from the resident pastoralist communities from Shinile as well as Gad.

So, the company had to work hard to get the goodwill of the pastoralists. Eventually since water shortage is the serious problem of the, Agropeace first built around six wells and delivered water to the community for their livelihood and to their livestock. Next, in its first year the company produced tomato, green pepper and maize and distributed it to the community. This was also coupled by teaching them a new trend of agricultural production on how to produce it and create employment opportunities.

Recently, the company organized a two-days field trip where its major shareholders from the US and the UK, along with the Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia, as well as local officials visited the project sites in Shinile and Gad.

Briefing on the progress of the project, the founder of the company, Zir Brosh, told visitors that “the project is very promising. So far, from this pilot project, we have learnt that the area is very fertile and suitable for castor, any crops and vegetables so that we are able to grow year round. “

Yohash Zohar, the general manager of Agropeace Ethiopia, said that despite some challenges the company faces as an initial development cost the company is profitable in a short period of time.

“This project, I believe, will be a benchmark for Ethiopia and will attract many other foreign investors,” he told The Reporter.

“We truly believe that the drier regions of Ethiopia such as Somali and Afar regions can actually be the bread-basket of Ethiopia,” he said, adding that with the right development and usage of underground water they (Afar and Somali regions) can produce more cash crops probably for all other parts of Ethiopia together.

He also explained that the advantage of investing in the Somali region is also advantageous, logistically citing its proximity to the Port of Djibouti.
“It makes a lot of sense to invest in such areas,” Zohar said.

According to the general manager, the company is investing a total amount of 20 million dollars for its 2000 hectare project, out of which 70 percent of the investment loan is acquired from Development Bank of Ethiopia (DBE) while the rest is partly financed from Agropeace, development partners as well as from the income generated from the project itself.

He told The Reporter that the company aims to start exporting in 2013 for the first time, starting with some 2000 tons of castor seed that is estimated to be roughly worth about 2.5 million dollars.

So far, over 350 hectares of land has been cleared for castor production.

“In Israel we have a lot of experiences in developing deserts and turn it into productive agricultural farm. Once you have enough water and use it with kid gloves, it will be advantageous because being very dry is an advantage. When you have water for irrigation, you can absolutely control how much water you can use for your farm.”
For the company, infrastructure development is a bottleneck challenge that has already forced it to incur core investment costs.

Anteneh Gelaye, chief operation manager of the project, explained that such a kind of investment is the first project in the area.

Anteneh told The Reporter that at that demonstration site, Agropeace has carried out pilot project and has seen satisfactory results particularly in castor seed, soya bean, groundnut as well as maize.

“Though this areas is semi-desert, for example, last year using Israeli technology we grew an American maize seed. And we have harvested about 80 quintals from a hectare while is 30 quintals in normal case.”

The Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia, Belaynesh Zevadia, hailed the company’s project saying, “I’m happy about this promising achievement. They did a great job.”

She also told the company, “I hope in a couple of years, you would reap good production.

“There is a jewish saying that goes “If you save one life, you will save the world”, Belaynesh said after she saw the water wells the company provided for the local residents “I was born in Gondar and grew up in Addis Ababa before leaving for Israel when I was 17. I didn’t know we have such kind of place. Now I’m proud of being Jewish. I’m proud of Ethiopia. Please keep saving more lives.”

Similarly, the vice president of development DBE, Tadesse Oge’e, praised the company for its project.

“Your commitment to invest in such kind of area is very fantastic while most investors prefer to invest in Addis Ababa and surrounding areas. We are ready to support this project and continue to support it.

Issayas Kebede, from Ministry of Agriculture, on his part said, “This is the kind of development that Ethiopia seeks. When you lose, we lose, when your gain we gain.
For a long time the area was known as one of the country’s smuggling corridor and black market zones.