Exclusive Interview with Khalid Bomba, CEO of the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA)

"The ATA is a unique organization that’s meant to be a catalyst [for change], it’s not meant to be a bureaucracy that lasts forever. Rather, it’s meant to serve its purpose for a short period of time."

Khalid Bomba, CEO of the ATA, recently sat down in an exclusive video interview to answer several questions about the role of Ethiopia’s new transformation agency—the first institution of its kind in Africa. During his interview, Bomba discusses the value of research partners, such as IFPRI, and introduces some of the exciting projects the ATA has underway in Ethiopia.

What is the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA)?

Over the past decade, Ethiopian agriculture has gone through a period of rapid growth. For example, the agricultural sector has grown by double digits in the last eight years. Only in the last year did the growth level drop to about 5 percent. Despite this rapid growth, the structural issues that constrain the agricultural sector have not been addressed holistically. The ATA was created to work with partners, particularly the Ministry of Agriculture and the regional bureaus of agriculture, to address the structural issues and ensure the gains made over the past decade are sustained, expanded upon and will lead to middle-income country status by 2025.

The primary role of the organization is to really step back from the day-to-day activities of the agricultural sector and think about the profound big changes that need to occur across the entire system—from seeds, soils, farmer organizations, research, extensions, and key crops—and really think about what kinds of things could happen in 3 to 5 years to make profound and transformational changes. That is the unique difference that the ATA brings to the table. The organization does not replicate what the Ministry of Agriculture does, which is vast across the entire sector, but rather works in partnership with the ministry to think about the catalytic transformational issues that must be addressed.

What is the nature of the ATA-IFPRI partnership?

The relationship between IFPRI and the ATA is one that predates the creation of the ATA itself. IFPRI was a primary partner in the diagnostic study that was initially done at the request of Prime Minister Meles [Zenawi] to the Gates Foundation. At that time, the Gates Foundation identified IFPRI as an important organization that could help do the diagnostic studies in key parts of the agricultural sector. These diagnostics, which included the seed sector, extensions, soil, and irrigation among others, led to the creation of the ATA.

Since that time, the partnership with IFPRI has actually expanded and become deeper to support the work of the ATA when it comes to specific research areas we felt were critical to understand more deeply, but did not have the capacity to undertake as a new organization. As such, the partnership with IFPRI allows us to identify these critical areas of research and work with researchers who have expertise in these areas, which help inform the recommendations that we make to the government. In addition, the partnership with IFPRI has actually enabled us to tap into experts within the wider CGIAR community.

What is the role of smallholder farmers in agriculture, and how will the ATA support smallholders?

Like most of Africa, Ethiopia’s agricultural system is dominated by smallholder farmers. When you step back and look at the contribution of agriculture to the national economy, it accounts for over 42 percent of the economy when you look at it as a percentage of GDP. Given the fact that smallholder farmers account for over 90 percent of agriculture in the country, the ATA’s focus is exclusively on this group of farmers. By supporting smallholder farmers, we believe we’ll be supporting most of the agricultural system, by extension the largest component of the economy. So the ATA’s work is focused exclusively on identifying the bottlenecks constraining the development of smallholder farmers in Ethiopia and as a result, contributing to the overall economic growth of the country.

How does the ATA support development in agriculture?

The ATA works at two different levels. The first is at a systemic level and the second is at a geographic level. At the systemic level there are already a number of interventions that we have been working on with the Ministry of Agriculture and other partners that we believe will increase the productivity of farmers in the near and long term. A few examples of those include the fact that over the past few years we have been working with the Ministry of Agriculture to amend the seed proclamation, the law that governs the production and distribution of certified seed. That change, now,  more accurately reflects the reality on the ground as well as the future we’d like to see. So that’s one specific engagement that we think will make a profound difference.

Second, the project that we are doing in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture as well as Columbia University and AFSIS (African Soil Information Service) is a one of a kind project in the world, seeking to map, using satellite technology and remote sensing, the soil fertility and soil information of the entire country. Teams will use confluence points that are at one degree latitude and longitude throughout the country but also do ground truthing and soil fertility mapping in key parts of the country. At the end of this we will have a digital soil map of the entire country, as well as very detailed soil fertility maps of the highest potential areas of the country.

A third area of work, at a systemic level, is our work with farmer’s cooperatives or farmers associations in Ethiopia. Like most of Africa, farmers’ cooperatives in Ethiopia have a very mixed background. Some are very high functioning and provide their members with fantastic services, both from input distribution as well as output marketing. Examples of these are plentiful in the coffee sector in Ethiopia. But when it comes to cereals, the experience of cooperatives has been somewhat mixed. We’ve been working with the federal cooperative agency to implement and introduce a new certification system for cooperatives and a new auditing system to ensure cooperatives are actually operating as high functioning business organizations, rather than service organizations. So these three examples, one in the seed industry, one in the soil area, and one in the cooperatives we believe will make a profound difference.

In addition to these, there is work that we are doing at a geographic level, looking at the key crops that Ethiopia’s farmers are growing for food security. These include teff, wheat and maize and in each of these we’ve identified with our partners at the Ministry of Agriculture and the regional bureaus of agriculture specific clusters of woredas or districts where these crops are prominent. And we are working with extensions workers—Ethiopia has the largest public extensions system in the world— to ensure that we provide farmers with the most appropriate agronomic practices, and at the same time provide farmers with seed and fertilizer on time as well as mechanization and markets. So the combinations of these four different things are interventions that we’re bringing to teff, wheat and maize farmers in the near term.

What historical precedents set the stage for the development of the ATA?

The ATA was modeled after similar organizations in Asia: in Taiwan the Joint Commission for Rural Reconstruction, in Korea the Economic Planning Board. Similar organization existed in Malaysia, Mexico, and Chile. In all instances, these ATA-type organizations acted as a catalyst for a period of time— between 15 and 30 years. The ATA is a unique organization that’s meant to be a catalyst, it’s not meant to be a bureaucracy that lasts forever. Rather, it’s meant to serve its purpose for a short period of time. We believe the ATA will only exist for 15 to 20 years; acting as a catalyst to transform the agriculture sector over time and then once that activity has been undertaken successfully, it will cease to exist.

Explain the role of research support by partners to the overall success of the ATA.

First and foremast, the ATA is a problem solving organization. We work with our partners to identify the systemic bottlenecks within key parts of the agricultural sector. In order to determine these bottlenecks, it’s critically important for the ATA to have access to strong research and strong data, which will allow the ATA to come up with the objective analysis and recommendations that will make long term changes sustainable. So our work with partners, such as IFPRI, is critical from the perspective of allowing us to really look objectively at key parts of the sector using hard data and rational analysis to come up with these kinds of objective recommendations.

Our role as a problem solving organization is only one part of the solution we provide to Ethiopia’s agricultural system. This problem solving function, which is undertaken with many partners—including organizations such as IFPRI, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR ) other development partners, NGO’s even the private sector—allows us to identify these systemic bottlenecks. However, the second part of our mandate is to work with partners in supporting them to implement these recommendations to address systemic bottlenecks. So these twin pillars, one of identifying solutions to systemic bottlenecks and second, supporting our partners to implement these recommendations, allows us to be somewhat of a unique organization. Not a think tank, not a research organization, but at the same time not an implementing organization, but a hybrid [organization].

Are there any concrete results or impact of IFPRI’s work so far?

IFPRI’s research has been critical to our work on a number of levels. The levels that sometimes aren’t seen are allowing our team to more deeply understand the underlying issues in the agricultural sector. IFPRI has international researchers that are looking not only at Ethiopia but other countries that face similar challenges as our country. As such, when these types of comparisons are made, of the lessons learned from countries like Kenya, Ghana, or even places like Vietnam where great progress has been made, it allows us to enrich and inform the recommendations we make to the government of Ethiopia.

Beyond the deeper research that IFPRI has done, there are some specific areas that IFPRI has looked at in the Ethiopian agricultural context that has allowed us to provide good recommendations to the government, which resulted in changed policies. For example, Ethiopia’s procurement of inorganic fertilizer from outside the country has grown in the last 3-5 years. The work that IFPRI has done has allowed us to look at exactly the level of purchases over the past few years and provide recommendations that allowed the Ethiopian government to adjust fertilizer purchases to more accurately reflect demand from farmers in different parts of the country. This kind of research has not only refined the policies of the government of Ethiopia but has saved the government a significant amount of hard currency that it had been using to purchase inorganic fertilizer, which might not be necessary in the near term.

View the video