Hope and heartache in drought-stricken Ethiopia

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When Lindsey Cowan went to Ethiopia in early February, she expected to find subsistence farmers eking out a meagre living on lands that haven’t seen rain in the past two growing seasons. She expected to find poverty, famine, and drought.

But she didn’t expect to find joy amidst it all.

“Everyone was running around with tattered clothes, and you could tell some of them hadn’t eaten in days. But they were so happy to see us,” said Cowan, an Edberg-based agronomist.

“We’re not nearly as happy here as they are there, and we have so much. We can just go to the store and buy whatever we need whenever we need it, but they don’t have that luxury.”

Cowan joined eight other Canadians on a 10-day journey through the impoverished country as part of a “learning tour” with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank — a national aid organization that provides training and food assistance in developing countries, in part, through community growing projects.

“The goal of the learning tours is for Canadians to see what’s happening with the funds so that they can tell people when they come back what the Canadian Foodgrains Bank is doing,” said Andre Visscher, the Foodgrains Bank regional representative for southern Alberta.

“The tours are really to bring the story back to Canadians and to make them aware of food security issues and small-scale farming.”

In Ethiopia, an estimated 18 million people are in need of food aid as the country faces its worst drought in 50 years. And with over three-quarters of Ethiopia’s population directly reliant on agriculture to survive, foreign aid has become a critical necessity for the country.

“The Ethiopian government is trying to help out with food distribution, and organizations like the Canadian Foodgrains Bank are doing the same,” said Visscher, who was also on the trip.

Ethiopia hasn’t seen any significant rain during the past two growing seasons.
Ethiopia hasn’t seen any significant rain during the past two growing seasons. photo: Lindsey Cowan

But the organization doesn’t just supply food aid to countries like Ethiopia — it also leads projects that will help make food production more sustainable.

“We saw lots of projects that the church-based organizations are doing over there, ranging from irrigation projects to conservation agriculture projects,” said Cowan, who helps lead a Foodgrains Bank growing project in Edberg.

“They were teaching the farmers about zero till and leaving a bit of mulch on the soil to keep in some of the moisture. One farmer was using mulch over top of his soil, and he was going there every day to pick the weeds. The weeds that he picked, he would go and feed them to his animals.”

It was “hard to see” farmers working so hard for so little, she said.

“They’re still working with oxen and hand plows, and there’s basically no machinery there whatsoever. It’s all animals or by hand,” said Cowan. “Here, our drills are 60 feet wide, and they’re seeding everything by hand. It was shocking to see.”

For Visscher, the experience was an emotional one.

“People there are very thankful for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. It really makes a difference in their lives,” he said. “We’ve all heard stories that foreign aid isn’t that effective, but when people are hungry and they need food, there are ways of helping them. Food security is what it’s all about.”

Growing projects in Canada are a major source of funding for these overseas efforts. Last year, Alberta’s 34 growing projects raised about $1.7 million. (Those funds were matched on a four-to-one basis by the federal government.)

“Growing projects are a community event. The whole community gets together and grows a crop together, and the proceeds go to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank,” said Visscher.

“(Project organizers) are often leaders in their community, and they feel it’s important to do something for other people in the world by participating in a growing project.”

For Cowan, the trip to Ethiopia drove home the real value of the work she does as part of Edberg’s growing project.

“We’re doing the work, and it makes you feel good that you’re doing it, but you don’t really fully grasp exactly where it’s going to or if it’s even making a difference,” said Cowan.

“But by going on that trip, I saw that everything we’re doing is helping them out. We’re not just giving them a handout. We’re giving them a hand up. We’re teaching them how to help themselves instead of just handing out food.”

For more information on growing projects, visit foodgrainsbank.ca. (A map of growing projects can be found in the Get Involved section.)

About the author


Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.



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