By Jennifer Hyman
Communications Director, Land O’Lakes International Development
Crushing poverty used to be so immense for Workitu Tola and her husband Chala Gemechu that they did the unthinkable: they arranged for three of their children to leave their home and become daily laborers on other people’s farms.
“It was the most horrible decision we ever had to make, but we didn’t have enough food to regularly feed, let alone clothe them,” Workitu mournfully explained. “What little we earned went in full to pay for a place to stay. Outside our home, they’d at least be able to eat something, and we had a better chance of providing sustenance to our youngest.”
In fact, for many years, the family had no real place to call home. As daily laborers, the entire family constantly migrated from place to place looking for whatever work they could find – typically the most grueling and menial labor. Any limited earnings they made went back to the employer for the privilege of having somewhere to sleep.
Eventually, the desperate moment came when Workitu and Chala realized they could not continue to care for all six of their eight children who still lived at home, and they arranged for three of the eldest, who are now 11-year-old twins and an 18-year-old, to begin doing similar daily labor on properties that would guarantee them food and a place to sleep.
But, as a result of the extraordinary nutrition and livelihoods improvements the family has experienced over the past several years as clients of the USAID-funded ENGINE program, they finally have a huge home of their own, and are in the process of reuniting the entire family.
Empowering New Generations to Improve Nutrition and Economic Opportunities (ENGINE) is a five-year program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development under Feed the Future and led by Save the Children that is working to reduce maternal, newborn and child mortality by improving the nutritional status of vulnerable women of childbearing age, and children in their first thousand days of life.
Land O’Lakes International Development is leading ENGINE’s efforts to develop catalytic nutrition-sensitive livelihoods that can enrich access to nutritious foods for families like Workitu’s and lift them out of poverty, by providing resources and training to produce enough nutritious food to eat and sell for a sustainable livelihood on their own land.
The program provided her with six basic farming implements and six types of nutritious seeds – carrots, kale, Swiss chard, head cabbage, beet root and an apple seedling – and trained her on how to plant, harvest and prepare them. A year later, she received three sheep and a ram – along with training on animal husbandry – and she began selling their offspring.
After harvesting sufficient crops for the family, they sold the excess at market for 2,500 birr, (US $118) and got additional income from selling four of their lamb offspring. With that cash in hand, they bought a plot of land for 7,000 birr (US $331). In just one year, Chala built their spotless, expansive home, all by himself.
“In all my life, I never thought I’d own sheep, goats or chickens – let alone a cow! We are now on our fourth year of eating a diversified diet, and selling the extra after we ensure our family eats properly,” Workitu exclaimed.
The family is now eating at least 3 meals a day, every day, combining their injera bread with combinations of vegetables, meat and eggs. “My most recent pregnancy was different. I didn’t have a single headache, and I produced so much milk he couldn’t even finish it,” she noted, adding, “What’s more, his mental capacity is different than the others. He’s very active and bright, while the others look short for their age and are lower in energy.”
Her husband Chala’s confidence has grown, too. “Now that I can provide my family with a home, I feel like a man.
It broke Adegdigu Kassa’s heart when she had to pull her children out of class years back to help her with her arduous work as a daily laborer, but she simply couldn’t afford to pay for the clothes and books they’d need to attend school.
“I was considered the poorest person in my community of 30 families,” she explained. “But I promised them that as soon as I got some money, they’d go back.” At the time, she had a young baby, who she’d tie to her back as she did her work, along with 7 and 11-year-olds, who helped her with her work as much as they could.
There was rarely enough to eat. Nearly every meal would be a simple meal of the sticky Ethiopian bread known as injera, plus a dollop of shiro wat – a paste made from ground beans; animal protein and vegetables were a luxury she simply couldn’t fathom. “My children’s health wasn’t ideal, and I myself struggled to do the hard tasks required of me as a laborer. I was constantly exhausted and had no energy.”
Everything changed when she was selected to be a client of ENGINE, a USAID-funded program led by Save the Children that is working in 100 districts in four regions in Ethiopia to improve the nutritional status of impoverished women like her of childbearing age, who were lactating or had children under two.
One of ENGINE’s key levers of change was initiating nutrition-sensitive livelihoods efforts led by Land O’Lakes International Development. Through the provision of seeds for nutritious crops, simple tools, and livestock, Adegdigu and others like her have learned how to grow, prepare and eat nutritious meals, growing enough to sell the excess for cash at local markets.
“ENGINE was like a light – it showed me the way to have a better life for myself,” Adegdigu explained with pride. With training, she established a permagarden – a small-scale, high-yield organic family garden – and began growing crops including Swiss chard, cabbage, kale, potatoes and carrots. She also learned to compost, address water management, and make fertilizer by mixing eggshells with charcoal, ash and dry compost.
Two months after getting her first seeds, she harvested some Swiss chard and kale. After ensuring the family had enough to eat, she sold the excess at the market, and immediately reenrolled her children back in school.
In the second year of the program, ENGINE provided her with 3 female goats and a ram. She learned how to care for them at one of the Ethiopian government’s Farmer Training Centers, which partnered with ENGINE to demonstrate improved farming techniques, and she learned how to milk her livestock. “Drinking goat milk isn’t common here, but I took the lead on being the first person in my group to begin drinking it and feeding it to my children.”
As more vegetables in her permagarden matured, she not only continued to diversify the family diet, but also started turning farming into a viable business. When her carrots matured, she sold the excess for 1,300 birr (US $62), and used the proceeds to buy some grain and a donkey that would help her with transporting her crops to market.
She continued to expand her garden with potatoes and other crops, and began buying her own seed. At the next harvest, thanks to her new knowledge about crop seasonality and selling when prices were high, she was able to earn a whopping 10,000 birr ($478) from selling her carrots. With that money in hand, and thanks to a loan provided by her Village Savings and Loan – community banking groups that Land O’Lakes established throughout ENGINE project areas – she was able to finally move out of the family’s rented shack and construct her own home.
Meanwhile, her new goats began reproducing. Although she kept her original goat stock, she sold 5 kids to provide the 50 percent cost-share that ENGINE required so that she could upgrade to having a cow. “I wanted to continue diversifying my livelihoods, and I wanted to get the extra milk for my family a cow would provide.”
Today, Adegdigu is no longer a domestic laborer, with her farming efforts provide enough food to feed her family nutritious meals regularly and to continue improving her life. “ENGINE forced me to change my mindset, because I always felt that farming was for other people, not for me,” she explained. “But with a beautiful farm like this, I now feel like I should have people working for me, not the other way around!”
She had another baby after becoming an ENGINE client, and she says the extra nutrition has also done wonders for her young baby, noting that she is much healthier than her other children ever were. “She looks 3-4 years old even though she’s only an infant. This makes me proud.”
Not content to rest on her laurels, Adegdigu’s next plan is to invest in getting oxen, so that she can also plant grain. “I no longer want to have to depend on anyone else for the food my family consumes.”
No longer tied to working outside the home as a daily laborer, she says she has room to breathe. “I now have time to pass on my knowledge to my neighbors, and they’re starting to buy seed and start their own gardens, too.”
Adegdigu says she often has trouble believing just how much her life has changed since the ENGINE program started, and how much hope she has for the future. “I used to be truly destitute, but now I’m moving to the middle. I’m not poor anymore, and having the access, training and capacity I received gives me confidence that I will become even stronger in the years to come.”