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Ethiopia Diet Analysis – Implications for Development


During a recent workshop to develop a curriculum for including value chain evaluations in Ethiopia’s academic extension education program, the question of Caloric Energy Balance was used for small group discussions. One participant, with food science background, did an exceptional job with the assignment. His analysis is as follows:

  • Casual agriculture labor wage: 50 Birr/day = US$ 2.63
  • Compared to the USA minimum wage of US$ 7.15/hr and 8 hour work day or US$ 57.20/day, it is 4 % of USA minimum wage.
  • Maximum available for food = 80% or 40 Birr/day, with the rest going for fuel, light, housing etc.
  • Family to support:
    • Self
    • Spouse
    • Adolescent son
    • Two younger children
  • Food Purchased based on Consumer Prices collected previous week in Addis Ababa.


Daily allocation of Calories:

  • Self 3000
  • Spouse 3000
  • Adolescence son 3000
  • Younger children 2000 x 2 = 4000
  • Total 13,000

Potential hours of diligent labor

  • From 3000 kcal/day must subtract 2000 kcal/day for basic metabolism
  • 3000 – 2000 = 1000 to be allocated for manual labor
  • Diligent hourly agriculture field labor exertion consume on average 300 kcal/hr., but this includes 83 kcal of basic metabolism
  • Net hourly exertion 300 – 83 = 217 kcal over and above basic metabolism.
  • Available kcal /rate of exertion is 1000/217 = 4.6 hr/day.
  • Working longer would imply pacing to reduce amount of calories exerted or starving.
  • To diligently work a full 8 hrs. /day requires a diet of at least 3750 kcals.

Can anyone provide a comparable analysis for other developing countries?

Comments on analysis:

While the analysis is for casual laborers as the easiest means for doing the initial analysis using consumer prices, subsistence stocks available to the farmer would not be too different. The most common figure for subsistence stock of maize are around 200 kg./adult/year that would provide a daily diet of 550 g/day and 2000 kcal/day as the primary source of calories to be supplemented with other foods. If this constitutes 75% of the caloric intake the farmer would still have a diet in the 3000 kcal/day range or perhaps a little less.

The 3000 kcal/day is slightly higher then the case studies in a recent ODI Paper On Improving Nutrition For Smallholders. The five case studies list kcal/day ranging from < 2000 to nearly 3000 kcal/day as follows:

  • Ghana 2,930 kcal
  • Bangladesh 2,480 kcal
  • Tanzania 2,140 kcal
  • Zambia 1,880 kcals
  • Kerala, India 2,010 kcal

As the above analysis was done fairly quickly as part of a workshop group discussion, it has to be considered mostly conceptual with some basic assumptions made for wages and family size. However, it is illustrative of the concern and need for more detailed analysis of the impact limited caloric intake can have on agronomic field work and the ability of famers to take full advantage of innovations intended for their benefit, particularly labor intensive innovations.

While it may seem trite to claim that you cannot expect a hungry person to work very hard, isn’t that what the rural development effort has been doing for the past 40+ years?

Considering Subsistance Stock

In a subsequent assignment to Ethiopia it was possible to obtain an estimate of subsitance stocks for the high altitude area around Koffele. The farmers’ consensus of subsitance stock was three quintals of potatoes and 1.5 quintals of maize per adult. This would provide a basic diet of some 2054 kcals. Determined as follows:

  • Energy from potatoes:
    • 300 kg/365 day = 0.82 kg/day (820 g)
    • If 100 g of uncooked potatoes provides 69 kcals then 69 x 8.2 = 566 kcals.
  • Energy from maize
    • 150 kg/365 days = 0.41 kg/day (410 g)
    • If 100 g of uncooked maize provides 363 kcals than 363 x 4.1 = 1488 kcals
  • Total is 566 + 1488 = 2054 kcal.

This would only cover basic metabolism, but not allow substantial hours of diligent agriculture labor, that would consume up to 300 kcal/hr. While farmers most likely are also consuming beans and other food, the potato and maize stock will represent well over half their caloric intake. Thus most likely the most calories they could consume would be about 2500 kcal which would allow them to diligently work for 2 hrs/day, perhaps longer by pacing the work load, but then taking longer to complete the task.

Estimated Work Day for Ethiopia

During the same farmer discussions it the farmers mentioned they had to spend two hours in the morning and another two hours in the afternoon caring for thier animals, it was possible to develop an estimate of a typical smallholder wrokday. Since Ethiopia is in the tropics with nearly continuous year round 12 hrs of daylight and 12 hours of darkness, the work day can be reasonable consistent all year. During the day the need to care for animals will have priority over crop management, as they need to be watered and feed or taken to where they can graze for the day, then later returned to the homestead for the night. These animal chores cannot be avoided or substantially postponed, as easily as they can for crop management. The care of animals most likely represents a lot of time, but not a lot of caloric exertion, as occurs with agronomic field work. Thus while there might be eight additional hours for potential agronomic field work, the farmers claimed they only worked about 4 to 4.5 hrs./day. This would go from approximately 9:00 after getting the animals settled for the day, until 1:00 or 1:30. This 4 hrs. also represents the limited energy the draft animals may have for hard pulling in land preparation with only the marginal rations associated with communal grazing lands and crop residue fodders, without any supplemental grain or other feed concentrates. Also, given the limited diet, this human output is most likely not at full diligence, but represent some degree of pacing their available energy to extend the workday. This can also be fairly clearly seen in casual driving through rural areas of Ethiopia. In this case in the morning starting around 9:00 you can see a lot of field activity, but after about 2:00 in the afternoon most of what you see are farmers slowly leading their animals back home, and setting them to feed on straw stacks, while substantial agronomic field work opportunities clearly remain uncompleted. Thus a typical workday would look something like:

  • Daylight begins around 6:00 am;
  • 6:00 to 8:00 am, Morning care for animals;
  • 8:00 to 9:00 am, Return home from caring for animals, breakfast and walking to Agronomic field for the day;
  • 9:00 am to 1:30 pm, agronomic field work depending on crop or land needs;
  • 1:30 to 4:00 pm, return home for lunch and some well-earned rest;
  • 4:00 to 6:00 pm, afternoon care for animals; and
  • 6:00 pm, darkness descends and the day ends.

Implications for development

  • The 4.6 hrs is consistent with the casual labor work day in neighboring Kenya which is set at 5 hrs./day.
  • With a 5 hrs. work day it would be possible for someone to work a double shift, but this does not happen and is not encouraged by hiring farmers. One farmer interviewed indicated, if a person worked a double shift they would be unable to work the next day.
  • If the work day is reduced to 4.6 hrs., from limited available calories, then the days required to complete various agronomic field tasks will be substantially prolonged.
    • Example: if it takes an estimated 300 person hours to manually cultivate a hectare of land with hoes, then an individual working alone and limited to 4.6 hrs./day will need 67 day or 9.3 weeks to complete initial crop establishment, excluding any return to early established fields for weeding or other mid-season crop husbandry activities. Isn’t this consistent with observed time of establishment?
    • However, in the Ethiopian case above, if the farmer’s adolescence son is assisting him full time with an equal amount of calories than it will take 33 days for initial crop establishment. More reasonable but still longer than usually allocated.
      • However, this could result in the youth not being able to attend school, and from a development perspective allowing a youth to remain in school should be higher priority, and program expectations adjusted to provide for formal schooling opportunities.
  • If the spouse has substantial essential domestic tasks to do, such as fetching water, fetching firewood, cooking, nurturing children, that take priority over assisting with field work, but still only has enough calories for 4.6 hrs. of diligent work, it is unlikely she will be able to provide substantial assistance with the field work.
  • If a spouse or independent women head of household only has enough calories to work 4.6 hours a day and domestic tasks take priority over economic activities, how much time will women have to participate in the multitude of income generation, financial empowerment projects promoted for their benefit? Would the family be better off concentrating their limited energy on assisting with basic farming?
  • While rarely specified, there is an underlying assumption that crop establishment shouldn’t take more than a couple weeks, perhaps three at the most, after which the expectations are for farmers to concentrate on initiate weeding and other mid-season crop husbandry activities. Thus, if crop establishment is extended up to 9 weeks with declining potential yields with delayed establishment by as much as 50% from optimal physical potential, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for smallholder farmers to dig themselves out of poverty when limited to manual labor such as hoes. It will be a major struggle just to meet the food security needs for the family.
  • Considering hiring labor to expedite crop establishment has to be done with care to make certain it, to use a Christian analogy, is not robbing Peter to pay Paul. How often is the casual labor pool in smallholder communities really other farmers opting for a day of causal labor instead of working their own fields? Thus, hiring out might assist the hiring farmer but result in a drag on hired farmer which for the community could be a zero sum activity? It has to be appreciated that from a development perspective, while we may concentrate on a few cooperating farmers, the objective has to be improved economic well-being across the community.
  • Also, as crop establishment is delayed and has to be integrated with weeding and other mid-season crop husbandry activities on early established parcels, farmers will compromise on quality management in favor of a more extensive area cultivated. This is a very rational economic decision, but can give the impression of farmers having limited knowledge of best management practices and need to be taught the best management practices, when they are well versed in such practices but don’t have sufficient labor to fully adopt them. They are actually completely maxed out and fully optimizing the returns to their Limited Available Labor.
  • The result could also imply that farmers will be better off using their limited energy to Enhance The Value Chain At The Farm Level, where they have the most direct control and vested interest, rather than getting involved with value added further up the value chain. This might involve improving yield, yield recovery, or quality.
  • Thus, value added above the farm level might be better done by out-sourcing than direct farmer involvement. This appears to be the preference for par-boiling and milling rice and converting cassava to gari* as noted in Nigeria and Ghana.
  • The real need here might be, instead of proposing labor intensive innovations, Concentrate on Drudgery Relief, either directly or indirectly.
  • Ultimately, the most effective means of assisting the smallholder might be to work at the Community Level to provide a more conducive overall operational environment, including improve access to community based family enterprises as the support service providers, particularly those that can provide a mechanized service such as contract tillage to expedite crop establishment or mechanical threshing to enhance crop recovery.
  • The typical smallholder farm size of 1.5 ha, that appears common in many developing countries, may represent the outer limited of what a farmer can manually manage more than the availability of land within the community.
  • It might also be interesting to revisit the concept of a midday siesta to escape the heat of the day, and consider that it might equally be exhaustion from exerting all the available calories and need to recover from the exhaustion.
  • Likewise, it might be worth reconsidering the stereotypic Africa male farmers loafing around the village in the afternoon. They might be more in need of a hearty meal then a swift motivating application to their posterior. Given the work needing to be done and risk to family food security which is more realistic?
  • Similarly, reconsider the often stated contention that smallholders are Risk Averse and deliberately delay crop establishment hoping for more favorable rainfall or avoiding lulls in the rain. If only able to work 4.6 hours a day and crop establishment in spread over 8 weeks or longer, risk averse farmers would starve. Instead farmers have to be manditory risk takers starting and the very first opportunity and their very servival depends on it.
  • It might also be worth considering that if development projects have an expectation of farmers exerting more energy than they have access to, how close are projects coming to advocating the genocide by starvation of smallholder farmers and potentially referable to the tribunal in The Hague dealing with “crimes against humanity”. Of course farmer will not starve, but then neither will they widely accept innovations.

While the dietary energy balance analysis from Ethiopia is mostly conceptual, the assumptions need to be considered reasonable realistic, and thus the result reasonable valid. Therefore the need for various projects to take a closer look at dietary energy as it can impact on available labor, and wide spread acceptance of more labor intensive innovations. It also has to be appreciated that for the most part operational requirements in terms of availability of labor, access to mechanization of development innovation have long been overlooked and need to be considered if projects are going to effectively alleviate poverty. The limited operational resources can become a major drag on well-intended innovations.

*Gari is a dried less perishable form of cassava.

Last Revised 16 June 2013

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