Can Technology Help Transform Agriculture in Ethiopia?

Kaethe Engler, IBM Germany
Kaethe Engler, IBM Germany

I grew up on a farm in Germany where my family raised cattle, horses and sheep, but I had never seen anything like the scene I recently witnessed at a cattle market in Adama, Ethiopia. The market was a sprawling collection of huts and outdoor pens crawling with all manner of livestock. Farmers, traders and buyers sized up the animals and dickered to make deals. It seemed like chaos to the untrained eye.

In fact, it was more like a puzzle to be solved. Two IBM colleagues and I who are members of the Corporate Service Corps team in Ethiopia were visiting Adama to learn how livestock markets in Ethiopia work. Our goal was to be able to make recommendations on how information technology could help them work better.

The Adama, Ethiopia cattle market
The Adama, Ethiopia cattle market

IBM isn’t known for having expertise in agriculture, but part of the company’s commitment to Africa is being willing to listen to the local people, understand their needs, and produce technology-based solutions that improve local businesses, economies and society as a whole.

Agriculture is of vital importance in Ethiopia. It accounts for 48.7% of GDP, 85% of employment, and 90% of exports.

IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, a pro-bono philanthropic program modeled on the United States’ Peace Corps, sends teams of a dozen IBMers to places around the world for four-week visits to help local leaders solve problems. I’m part of the first CSC team to visit Ethiopia. Since IBM doesn’t even have an official office here yet, our team is like a group of goodwill ambassadors in the country.

In a way, this is a listening tour. My CSC colleagues and I interviewed dozens of government officials, academics, representatives of non-profits and participants in the livestock economy.

The author (third from left) with the rest of the Ethiopia Corporate Service Corps team
The author (third from left) with the rest of the Ethiopia Corporate Service Corps team

In Adama, we spoke to a trader and a farmer. I was surprised to learn that neither of them knew of the existence of a Livestock Market Information System (LMIS) that has been functioning in the country for three years. The system was designed to improve the transparency and efficiency of the markets. These interviews taught me a lesson: Just because you build something useful, that doesn’t mean people will know to use it. I’m in marketing & communications at IBM, so, in a way, it was gratifying to know how important that work can be.

Our first few weeks here have been an intense learning experience. Everything is new – the striking countryside, the bustling cities, the friendly people, and the diverse cultures. (There are 80 ethnic groups in Ethiopia.) We had the incredible experience of visiting the National Museum in Addis Ababa to see the fossilized bones of Lucy, the oldest human remains, from 3.2 million years ago. Ethiopia is the cradle of humanity. It was from here about 150,000 years ago that homo sapiens began the migration that eventually covered the globe. We all have our roots in Ethiopia.

My team’s goal before we leave the country is to recommend a series of improvements to the LMIS. I’m working on that project with colleagues from Australia and China. Together, we’re developing recommendations for improvements to the measurement, analysis and reporting structure for the LMIS. This is one of several projects being undertaken by the Ethiopia Corporate Service Corps team.

I look forward to a time when a farmer in a remote part of Ethiopia can check livestock prices, interact with potential buyers, and handle government paperwork – all on a mobile phone. In fact, technologies that bring connectivity and transparency to markets via mobile phones could have a powerful ripple effect all across the developing world. Anything we IBMers can to do help produce that outcome will be time well spent.

Kaethe Engler is an industry marketing expert with IBM Germany.

Related Resources:

IBM Develops Plan to Enhance Ethiopia’s Trade and Streamline Governance

IBM Expands Across Africa

IBM Corporate Service Corps

This post originally appeared on the Citizen IBM blog.

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