Exploring the scaling-up of sustainable land management in the Central highlands of Ethiopia

Meskerem Abi Teka

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


In Ethiopia’s struggle to enhance agricultural production and attain food security, combating land degradation remains a huge challenge; particularly in the highlands of the country where the large majority of the population is dependent on subsistence agriculture for their living. Sustainable Land Management (SLM) is therefore crucial, and over the past decades, massive investments have been made in Ethiopia to promote and scale-up SLM practices. However, large-scale adoption of these practices by smallholder farmers has so far been limited. Nevertheless, there are examples of farmers who have spontaneously adopted SLM practices. These farmers – using their own knowledge and capacity – often adapt practices to make them fit to their particular farming system, and integrate them with other land management measures. The overall aim of this study was to analyze this process of spontaneous spreading (i.e. the adoption and implementation of measures by farmers on their own initiative) and learn lessons that could contribute to developing the way forward in scaling-up SLM in the Central Highlands of Ethiopia.

Chapter 2 deals with the comparison between stone bunds that were spread spontaneously versus stone bunds implemented by mass mobilization campaigns. The results show that farmers who spontaneously implement stone bunds prefer to construct them on farmlands located nearby the homestead, often with a poor to medium soil fertility status, where erosion is perceived as moderate to severe, and which have moderate to steep slope gradients. This means that stone bunds spontaneously spread mainly where they were most needed. Farmers with spontaneously implemented stone bunds perceive a reduction in soil erosion, increase in soil moisture, better soil productivity and higher crop yields on these farmlands. These positive effects are the result of the fact that stone bunds of the spontaneous adopting farmers are well-maintained and integrated with the use of fertilizer, compost and manure. The lesson learned from this chapter is that SLM activities undertaken by mass mobilization should become more integrated and participatory, as learning and testing innovations by farmers enhances adoption of SLM practices. 

Following up on the previous chapter, Chapter 3 focuses on the characteristics of farmers that spontaneously implement stone bunds and farmers who do not. Using Principal Component Analysis, the study identified five key-factors that explain the differences between farmers who spontaneously implement stone bunds and those who do not. These include readiness to change, available resources, social capital, type of family and commitment. The results show that farmers who spontaneously implemented stone bunds are: 1) young farmers committed to soil conservation, 2) intrinsically motivated dynamic farmers ready to change their future and improve productivity and food security, and 3) farmers with relatively limited productive resources such as farmland, labor and livestock, but with more willingness to improve their agricultural production, relying on available resources and social capital. This implies that government extension programs aiming to sustainably increase agricultural production and achieve food security of smallholder farmers in Ethiopia should be more focused on triggering farmers’ “readiness to change”, and foster their intrinsic motivation to implement SLM. Likewise, the results show that implementation of SLM relies more on farmers having a positive attitude and commitment, rather than having the resources available like labor forces and money. Hence, changing farmers’ mind-set through training and learning is crucial to foster SLM in Ethiopia.

Chapter 4 explores the effect of an adapted (more participatory and more integrated) mass mobilization training approach on farmers’ motivation to practice integrated farming. This study was based on the results of a one-year field experiment carried out in the Central Highlands of Ethiopia. The results show that the adapted training approach enhanced awareness of farmers, created intrinsic motivation for integrated farm management and fostered implementation of SLM practices in the field. It also reveals that farmers who followed the training are better able to plan for future drought mitigation and are more aware of the possible effects of drought on their farming activities. The results imply that agricultural extension programs that aim at scaling-up of resilient farming to watershed and landscape levels should start with capacity building by means of participatory training methods, and by empowering and motivating farmers for integrated SLM.

Chapter 5 focuses on the policy and institutional environment of Ethiopia required to speed-up the scaling-up of SLM. It identifies perceived limitations at the national, regional and local level hindering the scaling-up of SLM practices, and finds that these relate to the process of policy formulation and implementation, the available institutional capacity, and collaboration between institutions. Particularly limiting are the top-down approaches used for planning, implementing and monitoring; these neglect farmers’ knowledge and their priority needs. However, lack of capacity within institutions to scale-up SLM practices is another crucial issue: decision-makers have very limited knowledge about SLM practices and measures, while extension workers and officials do not transfer their knowledge and have to deal with high staff turnover. Furthermore, there is often poor coordination, collaboration and communication between different institutional levels, which also hinders a more effective and structured scaling-up of SLM practices. Changing the policy and institutional environment of Ethiopia is therefore urgently required, by means of creating supportive policies, building the institutional capacity, and strengthening institutional collaboration and networking.

Chapter 6 presents a synthesis of the previous chapters. It provides answers to the research questions, and discusses the major findings of the study. It also presents the extension and policy implications, scientific contributions of the thesis, and suggestions for future research. The main insight from this thesis is that a shift towards a more participatory and integrated approach for SLM is urgently required to genuinely tackle land degradation in the highlands of Ethiopia. Participatory approaches empower farmers to make decisions themselves and enable them to invest in diverse SLM practices that they think can solve their priority problems such as low soil fertility. Likewise, promoting SLM technologies in a more integrated manner contributes to increased food production, and diversified production and higher incomes. Furthermore, Chapter 6 presents the general conclusions drawn from the findings of the study. The chapter concludes that:

  • In order to sustainably enhance the productive capacity of smallholder farmers and increase their food security, more focus on training and enhancing farmers’ intrinsic motivation to improve their livelihood is necessary.

  • More focus on participatory planning and learning in the mass mobilization strategy is crucial, as this improves farmers’ sense of ownership of SLM practices and increases their motivation to participate in conservation activities.

  • The strategies for scaling-up SLM practices in the central highlands of Ethiopia should shift towards more integrated soil fertility management, rather than focusing mainly on physical conservation practices.

  • Government investments in creating an adequate enabling environment for scaling-up SLM are urgently required, as many limitations at institutional level currently hinder the spreading and effectiveness of SLM efforts.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Oosterveer, Peter, Promotor
  • Kessler, Aad, Co-promotor
Award date12 Jun 2019
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463439435
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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