Chris Haslam/Flickr

Women and landless youth benefit from Ethiopian government land investments

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

The regional state of Tigray, Ethiopia is famous for huge successes in agriculture following the well-known famines of the 1970s and 1980s that ravished international news.  It’s not surprising then that the government of Tigray, a region home to a growing population of over 4.5 million farmers, continues to promote food security through improved production and expanding land use for agriculture.

Around 3,000 people answered the call to take part in the terracing work, Abr'ha Weatsbaha, Tigray Province, Ethiopia
Chris Haslam/Flickr

The caveat is that agricultural cultivation has been a major cause of land degradation in the hilly region, making continued growth challenging. The region has no more arable land that can be distributed to the rapidly increasing population, especially the current generation of landless youth.

Investing in the only available land left, degraded hillsides, is no longer a choice but rather a must.

In order to better guide these investments, the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems project Harnessing Floods for Enhanced Livelihoods and Ecosystems Services, is working in close collaboration with the Tigray Regional Government to provide scientific support in evaluating the government’s investment programs that have been rehabilitating land and allocating it to landless youth.

Over the past five years, the Tigray Regional Government (TRG) has piloted policy and investment programs to rehabilitate steep degraded hillsides into productive land, mainly through bench terracing. Success from previous programs to improve water and soil degradation lay the foundation for the current policy and pilot investment programs to use the rehabilitated degraded landscapes as a source of livelihood and economic development for landless youth. This investment is imperative for the region, if it is to uproot poverty and share Ethiopia’s aspirations to be a prosperous middle-income country by 2025.

The program has been particularly successful at targeting youth and women. In any investment intervention, 50% of the rehabilitated land is first allocated to young women; the other half is distributed equally among male and female youth through a lottery.

Early success

There are already some bright spots for the policy and pilot investments.

In the Embahasti sub-basin located some 60 kilometers south of Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray. The hillside bench terraced land (about 15 hectares) is collectively owned by 15 female and 10 male youth organized into an association led by a chairperson and a treasurer. They have two fundamental agreements:

  1. they share cost of production and net income equally
  2. 30% of the net income is kept with the treasurer for routine operation and maintenance of the bench terraces as well as investing in new cultivable land and agronomic measures.

In the past two years, the group has managed to meet its livelihood needs and even saved 14,000 birr (about 700 USD). 

The bench terraces also had a positive impact on reducing the frequency of destructive floods and intrusion of coarse sand into the 273 hectares flood and rain dependent lowland agricultural land benefiting 245 famers.


There are, however, some strong opponents of the policy and pilot investments. Although, not yet supported by solid evidence, they argue that bench terraces will have significant impact on reducing the floodwater supply, which is the life support system for the hundreds of thousands of vulnerable communities in the adjacent arid lowlands where the average annual rainfall is less than 200 mm.

Opponents also fear the potential catastrophic damage that would be caused if the bench terraces, which are built by cutting and filling the soil, fall; this would result in flooding down through irrigated fields.

Before scaling up this pilot investment, the Tigray Regional Government (TRG) has committed to an in-depth scientific study to explore these challenges.  TRG has agreed to work in close collaboration with the Harnessing Floods for Enhanced Livelihoods and Ecosystems Services project which will be evaluating the pilot investment program over the next 18 months.

The project will assess:

  1. the effect of bench terraces on floodwater supplies for lowland communities (using HEC-HMS modelling)
  2. the effectiveness of alternative investment options on both the environment and on income generation (using RiOS and Invest)
  3. the economic inclusion of all stakeholders, identifying the winners and losers and suggesting optimum trade-off measures to mitigate conflict between upstream and downstream communities

Thanks to the openness of the TRG and the research for development focus of WLE, we have a unique opportunity for researchers, academics and policy makers to work hand-in-hand and produce evidence to support successful investment models. 

The WLE Research Programme on Harnessing Floods and Ecosystem Services encourages and welcomes varied and enriching opinions from all interested scientific and policy-shaping individuals and institutions.