Abera Tola is head of the Synergos Institute, a global non-profit organization that helps solve complex problems with regard to poverty, inequality and marginalization by prompting collaboration between government, private sector and civil society. Formerly head of Oxfam Ethiopia and the region, Abera is known for his work in an international campaign taking up the cause of poor Ethiopian coffee farmers. Abera earned his first degree in management and public administration from Addis Ababa University obtained his second degree in leadership from Harvard University. His main engagement now is in the area of agriculture, especially with the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) and the Ministry of Agriculture. Nevertheless, he also sits on the Board of Elilly International Hotel and chairs the board of Oromia International Bank. Asrat Seyoum of The Reporter sat down with Abera to discuss the problems and prospects of the agricultural sector in general and things to be expected from the GTP II for these sectors and challenges facings primary export crop of Ethiopia, coffee, in particular. Excerpts:
The Reporter: As head of the Synergos what are things that you are involved with at the moment?
The Synergos Institute was actually formed pursuant to the agreement that was inked between the former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the Melinda and Gates foundation. This agreement primarily gave rise to what we call the ATA. From get go, everybody had high hopes for ATA since it brought together a number Ethiopia professionals in the diaspora to contribute to the agricultural sector. In essence, the agency is qualitatively different from the ministry as it focuses on capacity building. Initially, a study was conducted by McKenzie to indentify the major gaps in the sector. And the study revealed that the sector suffers from bottlenecks in cooperatives, soil and the supply of input, pesticide and technologies. So, ATA was formed to augment this sector in these areas. So, it was important that ATA is established as a government agency whose board is direly chaired by the PM. Hence, we had one challenge that is to assimilate this new breed with the existing institution. This is where Synergos comes in. While contemplating this challenge we came across Synergos which New York-based institutions specialized in bridging such gaps. What this institute does is devise the strategy for the transition of an institute into a new system. But our approach is not only about the transition of the institution or the change in the system; rather we focus on the individual who makes the institute. Without the individual the transformation of an institute or a system is pointless. As an example, we saw a similar gap in the application of PBR system in public institution: the system is changing but what about the person? So, to change the individual we have two approaches. One is the traditional way which is via giving capacity building trainings. But the new approach is getting the person on board on the transformation wheel. They should transform internally and ask if this is what they believe in and want to do. After that we can go to the system; we ask if that person has transformed and that it can bring about the system change that is desired. The other one is what we call bridging leadership. Here we have noted that Synergos is conducting a government work and its budget sliced from money allocated for the agricultural sector from the foundation. Now, in the past four year, we have seen real results in assimilating ATA with the ministry. You see, we have young and vibrant professionals at ATA who came in direct clash with the existing institutional culture at the ministry. So, it was very tough to bridge this gap.
In fact, the question of labor division between ATA and the ministry has been quite a pickle between the two for some time. How far have you gone in bridging this gap?
Yes, this was our primary responsibility as Synergos. So, we had to bring both parties to the drawing board and figure out what was causing the clash and how to solve it. In this, we indentified, for instance, that one of the issues was whether ATA was operational or not. We then established that ATA is not operational; its job is to build the capacity of the ministry. Indeed, out of good faith, wanting to deliver results, some in ATA were flirting with the idea of going operational. This is understandable given the high expectation and pressure and demand it has from as high as the PM. Difference in culture between the ministry and ATA created a condition where some in ATA were wanting to get into the action by themselves. These things were more visible in the Extension Program and Research departments. But, what should happen is the job is supposed to be done in collaboration and ATA is supposed to augment the capacity of the ministry. So, this has to stop; and had to go back and refer to the rules and responsibilities of both institutions. At the end, we established a joint team to clear out all ambiguities. Apart from, responsibilities, we had to clear out the clash in planning and overall objectives of the two institutions. This is what we call an alignment. But, alignment needs were not restricted to the two institutions; within the ministry itself there was a greater need for alignment for instance between departments; and, of course, between the federal ministry and the regional Agricultural bureaus. So, to bring about the synergy we use theoretical package called Theory-U, which is developed by MIT.
But, this is a common feature in most government, private sector agencies and largely in the market: that is coordination failure. Any plans to expand outside of agriculture?
Yes, but our budget is what restricts us. But, I can appreciate the extent of the problem. For example, working with MoA, we were to look into the synergy between the federal ministry and the regions. So, what we did first was that we took the four regions—Amhara, Oromia, Tigray and SNNP. When we see their overall objective and mindset with regard to this sector, we found out that the ministry and regional bureaus were miles away from one another. Although both were parts of the national plan—GTP I—they were on different level with regard to their plans and mindset towards the same sector. Fundamentally, the issue of direct account ability very difficult. Regional bureaus were accountable to regional governments; hence, their primary priority of regional professionals lay not with federal ministry. There is also huge capacity variation; surprisingly some of the regions housed professionals who have an immense capacity. There are a lot of issues which can cause a potential conflict. So, for the GTP to make any sense they needed to come together and plan. With regard to GTP II, I can surely say that such issues have been resolved partially. Now they are planning together and this will go far in terms of delivering results in this sector. So, as to replicating this to other institutions, we have taught about it but still the issue plays greater role here. Nevertheless, we can offer some assistance if we are approached by other institutions.
Since you are involved in the preparation of agricultural GTP II, what do you say this new plan will bring to the table, which is different from GTP I?
In fact, it is ATA which is directly involved in preparing the plan; but I can say that GTP II in terms of agriculture has four main pillars: production productivity, natural resources, food security and institutional capacity building. Now, as far as the first three components are concerned they will be executed via the ministry with the help of ATA. But, if we see the institutional capacity building component, we, are Synergos, will have a role to play in terms of enabling them to implement the plan. For instance, we were asked by the ministry to assist on the Human Resource strategy that would enable it to meet the targets set on the GTP II. So, here we will support the implementing agencies to meet their targets. For me, if you ask me what makes GTP II different, it is that even the ministry is looking into itself asking what it needs, in terms of human resources of for instance, to implement the plan in the next five years. This is a strategic approach which was quite different from the first GTP. In line with this, we have also hired a consultant to evaluate the overall institutional capacity of the ministry to implement the plan. Once we have our findings, we could easily fill the gaps indentified. This approach, in my view, is qualitatively different from GTP I.
Another peculiar issue in this sector is the failure of the large-scale mechanized farming sub-sector in the last five-years. What do you think is the loose end in this regard?
I think the primary issue is about making the hard choice; is it wise to allocate our meager resources to large-scale farming? Or should we use this resource to improve production in the smallholder sub-sector. The mechanized farming experiment in Ethiopia dates back to the Imperial time and was aggressively pursued by the subsequent government including this one. But, I don’t think these efforts have borne fruit in terms of ensuring our food security. So, in my view, the rational choice is investing in the smallholder farmer to improve its productivity. Experience in this regard shows that improving productivity of the land and the farm labor will take a country a longer way in terms of ensuring food security. In view of this, we at Synergos and ATA have started a strategy called commodity commercialization cluster to improve productivity in smallholder farmers. What this strategy entails is selecting a certain commodity that is produced in one locality and investing heavily on that commodity to improve its productivity and production. This means we focus on one commodity in one geographical area at a time; and we invest on it with an exclusive goal of improving its productivity. Apart from that, we also explore the option of how this commodity can go to processing and value adding. In this regard, we have so far identified some 16 commodities for closed clusterization which include commodities like wheat, malt barley, chickpeas, sesame, maize and the like. So, what we are doing is identifying all the stakeholders surrounding a commodity devise a strategy which is not exclusively about improving productivity or production volume; but also a way of making the commodity enter the chain of value adding and processing. So, the stakeholders would include farmers, input providers, commodity buyers, finance institutions and processers and so much more. Now, we are preparing detailed plans about each specific commodity which incorporates each possible factor that would affect the production, sales and processing of individual commodity. If that is the case, it means that the private sector has complete set information to participate in the agri-processing business instead of being involved in the large-scale production; in the process creating sustainable market for the smallholder producers. This is a common approach elsewhere.
Your involvement with the coffee sector dates back to your Oxfam days. And you were in the middle of the eye-breaker coffee international campaign dubbed the “make trade fair” campaign. Can you take us back to those days and recap how this campaign was started?
When Oxfam first launched the campaign it was not all about coffee but regarding the overall unfair trade interaction between the developed and developing world. The global trade system was putting developing nations at great disadvantage since they were largely price takers. There were a number of commodities which were campaignable at the time. So, that is why Oxfam started the campaign. But, the campaign was largely ideal; the North was criticized for exploiting the South in the unfair global trade exchange. When Oxfam brought that campaign to Africa, more specifically to Ethiopia where I was the country director, I was troubled because it did not feel like it was well-founded and credible. Coincidentally, that was the time when there was drought in Ethiopia and the price of our coffee was plummeting in the global market. I saw an opportunity to use this credible condition to make sense of the campaign. Then I did a research entitled “Crisis in the Birthplace of Coffee”, which was widely accepted by both my organization and others. Then Oxfam decided to make coffee and condition of Ethiopia the face of the campaign. And, the campaign was vigorously supported by PM Meles and he told us that he will stand by the campaign. We then called the first international coffee conference in Ethiopia where the major roasters (Nestle, Starbucks, Proctor& Gamble) and members of the media come to attend. This was good opportunity for us to show the guest the actual condition on the ground and we arranged field visits to two sites which are known for their coffee production—Jimma and Yirgachefe/Sidama. We wanted them to see firsthand what the life of the coffee farmer looks like. Then when they came back we hosted the coffee conference where we made these companies to speak for the coffee farmers themselves. To add to that, the opening remark of PM Meles was exceptional: it went one to be quoted many times throughout the campaign on fair trade. This had huge impact on our coffee sector for years to come. From that point on, not only have the price of our coffee started to revive but also our coffee was internationally recognized.
Apart from this, there were also two major setbacks in the Ethiopian foreign trade sectors, which involved two multinational companies— Nestlé and Starbucks—and the Ethiopian government. Can you recap for us some of the issues there?
You see, the “make trade fair” campaign had given some sort of legitimacy to the Ethiopian government. But, after this campaign, another challenge was a debacle with a company called Nestlé. The issue was that this company has bought a meat processer in Ethiopia which used to be owned by Germens during the time of the Emperor. When the Derg assumed power, and ordered the nationalization of the private companies, the government offered to pay the company owners the cost of setting up the meat processor. Nevertheless, the case dragged on until the current government assumed power. Although the current government made the same offer, they Nestlé refused the settlement claiming that the payment should be made on the current market price of the property and exchange rate. This brought the total payment that is demanded from 8 million dollars to 160 million dollars. And, the company took the case to the international court. So, we were approached by the Ethiopian government and we decided to launch a campaign by Christmas in the 14 major cities around the world. We got the message out that Nestlé is demanding payment in a country where drought is affecting millions of people. This worked like a charm and the company soon relinquished its claim. The Starbucks ordeal is also something we stumbled up on by chance when I was at the Oxfam. After successful campaigning around coffee for a few years, we then, together with the government, decided to register some of our coffee brand in the U.S. We registered Yirgachefe and Harar successfully but were told by the patent office that Sidama coffee has another owner. Later on, we were told that it was Starbucks. At first we at Oxfam struggled to decide what to do with this information. For one, we were afraid that it might have an impact on the Ethiopia coffee exports since Starbucks was a very big company. Another tough challenge from our side was that the board of Oxfam was struggling to approve a campaign against a U.S company since Oxfam is run by U.S resources. This was a difficult dilemma but finally our argument was stronger and we got the campaign approved. Since it was a very sensitive issue for the Ethiopian coffee sector, we worked very carefully under the direct leadership of the prime minister. And, as everybody knows, we prevailed at the end and got the right to our Sidama coffee.
But the real question is if we have actually finished our job in terms of registering our indigenous. Brands it is not only about coffee but also other crops.
No we have not; that is still an issue for us. But, I can tell you that one of the outcomes of that campaign was the establishment of the intellectual property rights office. As to how strong this office is, I can’t really comment because I did not know. This, in fact, is the responsibility of this office. At the end of the day, we have to manage these resources properly; it is a national treasure. And sometimes, mistakes which are done in this regard could be highly costly for the nation. Although I do not know much about teff, I believe that there are big mistakes which were committed on our side. I believe that it was the responsibility of the biodiversity institute to consider the ramifications when allowing the Dutch to get access to our teff seeds. So, this office has to be strong in the coming years.
The past five years were particularly bad for the Ethiopian coffee sector in view of its export earnings. Some say the problems started when coffee was included in the ECX trading floor. What your take on this?
In my view, the coffee and tea authority has been doing well in directing the coffee sector for many years. I think, the authority had no shortage of professionals and has been doing an excellent job in managing this strategic sector. Apart from that, the country had built a number of institutions around coffee for my years. So, in my view, we had the best combination of institutions and professionals. If you ask me, I believe that we should have been better off strengthening those existing institutions and professionals. So, I was disappointed when government- owned coffee facilities were privatized for the sake of privatization. Above all, what was more painful for me was including coffee with the ECX trading floor. I objected to this at the time saying ECX should focus on the grain trade. The biggest problem was the institutional capacity; coffee had a very long institutional history. How can it be replaced by the trading floor overnight? Another one is that there is always a price to pay when you disturb the stakeholders in such an established commodity trade. For instance, if you look at simple things like traceability of coffee, this affects some of the biggest buyers in the world. On the other hand, whereas ECX is an anonymous trading floor which makes it difficult to trace the origin of the coffee.
Now the government is again going for the sort of institutional arrangement that you talk about to manage the coffee sector. Do you think it will revive the coffee sector?
Yes, I support the reestablishment of the coffee and tea authority; but the main issue is what it is planning to do. If it was for me to choose, I would like it to do two things. The first is the development aspect focusing on quality, productivity and research. But, I don’t think that is enough; I believe it should also manage the trading part as well. This is because I believe that the institutional memory is still alive and no institution can do a good job in managing this sector without having say in both development and the trade.