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From Wheat To Pasta: A Very Italian Solution To Ethiopian Poverty

Spaghetti produced from the wheat of local farms is served in the restaurants of Ethiopia, which discovered pasta during Italian colonial rule but only now are developing an entire economy around it.

Future Ethiopian pasta
Future Ethiopian pasta
Emanuele Bompan

OROMIA — Here's the vision: Ethiopia is on its way to becoming one of the world's major producers of spaghetti and other types of pasta, helping the country pull itself out of long entrenched hunger and poverty.

Rescuing a country with pasta? Only the Italians could come up with such an idea! Indeed, the "Agricultural Chains in Oromia” project is the brainchild of Tiberio Chiari, technical director for the Italian Foreign Ministry's agriculture development arm (IAO). The goal is to turn locally and often individually grown durum wheat into a vast source for the final production of everything from bucatini to ziti.

"In order to create the supply chain, we must take care of every detail, connecting producers to traders and farmers to businessmen," Chiari says.

The Ali Valley is situated in Oromia, one of Ethiopia's largest regions and home to some 27 million people. Here, the only sound is often the golden sea of wheat swaying under the blue sky of the Bale plateau, one of the highest in Africa. Gamine Amin, 30, sows and harvests everything by hand in a region where industrial agriculture is virtually non-existant.

Amin's plot of land is no more than 2.5 acres, which is true for some 95% of Ethiopian agriculture today. And yet, the soil in this area is perfect for grain, with lots of nutrients and plenty of water. Staring at this blessed valley, which is more reminiscent of Tuscany than most parts of Africa, it's difficult to believe that Ethiopia has suffered such terrible famines.

The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is already a key supplier of coffee beans, sugarcane and cotton. Nevertheless, its food security is based largely on the supply of two staple products: a simple cereal used to produce the injera, (standard soft bread), and grain mostly from soft wheat.

When supply of one of these two strategic reserves drops, hunger is usually not far behind. In recent times, wheat production has most often been put at risk. "The ear of wheat suffers from an epidemic of rust, a fungal disease that has affected most of the crops," explains Genene Gezu, local coordinator of the Italian project.

Chiari is fully aware of the gravity of the situation. "Monocultures are easily exposed to diseases because of the lack of diversity in their genetic makeup. If a plant is affected by rust, all will be potentially exposed."

Colonial roots

This is where the success of the project “Agricultural Chains in Oromia" begins. Selected durum wheat, with a more varied genetic makeup than the tender one, helps to ensure the resilience of crops. This process minimizes the risk of contagion.

There is proof of success in a resilient alternative to rust and how it has learned how to increase yield. For instance, rotating chickpeas and legumes helps to preserve a rich soil and high seed quality.

Still, the simple improvement of the product and the study of its varieties wasn't enough. It's necessary to involve the whole pasta industry in order to increase the output value, bringing benefit to local producers.

"Until recent times Ethiopia imported a large amount of grain from Turkey," explains Fabio Melloni, director of the technical office of the Italian aid group in Addis Ababa. “The country is experiencing a real cultural boom for pasta, a tradition inherited from the short and unsuccessful Italian colony."

Pasta is easy to find in Addis Ababa, the capital, and consumption is spreading to smaller cities. It is served with tomato sauce or meat, as well as with typical dishes such as doro wot (chicken with berbere sauce) and tibs (meat and vegetables).

Food fair

Thanks to the project, 15,000 tons of grain (up from just 500 at the end of 2012) are produced in Ethiopia today, mostly driven by the private sector.

In December, over 1,000 people gathered at the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa to attend the event "Wheat, Flour & Pasta," which brought together food entrepreneurs from all over the country. The goal was to promote the development of the wheat industry and to taste the dishes prepared by Addis Ababa chefs.

"Today there are about 15 companies who want to use whole wheat flour for pasta production in Ethiopia," Chiari says. "We believe this will help wheat production continue to improve. This project is a source of inspiration. The market will do the rest."

Is there a new model for development tucked into this Italian project? "Today it makes little sense to do one-off projects," Chiari says. "Just think about the size of this country, the third biggest in Africa, with 94 million inhabitants. We need to work on the overall know-how and strategic direction of the country, promoting the supply chain as an integrated system. Working on the whole value chain can lift people out from the spiral of poverty."

One plate of pasta at a time.

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