The Problem of Inflation in Ethiopia

I have spent a bunch of hours over the last two weeks working on preparing a budget proposal for the Children’s Home in Soddo for the 2013 budget.  While the problem of inflation has certainly not been new to me in Ethiopia, over these past two weeks I’ve been painfully reminded of the challenges it presents for average Ethiopians and for small charities and NGOs operating in Ethiopia.  For foreigners, the inflation has certainly been visible, but not necessarily felt.  When converting to USD, items domestically produced in Ethiopia have always been very affordable (imported items are a very different story; automobiles, for example, are about 4 to 5 times the cost that they would be in the U.S, because of import shipping costs and duty, which can be upwards of 200% on top of the value of the vehicle). In addition, a large portion of the inflation over the last 8 years has been absorbed for foreigners by the devaluing of the Ethiopia currency (the Birr, usually represented as ETB) against the US dollar (USD). Ethiopians, however, have experienced the full brunt of the massive inflation of the past 8 years, and, as I was reminded the last couple of weeks, this inflation has created a great challenge for small charities and NGOs trying to operate in Ethiopia.

Just since 2010, the annual budget for the Children’s Home in Soddo has nearly tripled (it is up 278%) when looked at in Ethiopian Birr.  Some of this increase is because the organization has increased in size and scope during those 3 years.  We now have more kids than we did in 2010, and we have increased some of the staff since 2010.  In addition, there have been legal requirements added for alternative childcare institutions and NGOs since 2010, which require extra funding for reporting, documentation, monitoring and evaluation.  With these organizational increases aside, however, most of the budget increase since 2010 has actually been due purely to inflation.  According to inflation measurements by the World Bank, a basket of goods that would have cost 100 ETB in Jan. 2005, would have cost 223 ETB in Jan. 2010 and will cost 450 ETB by Jan. 2013.  That’s inflation of 450% since 2005 and just over 100% just since 2010.

During this same stretch of time, there has also been considerable devaluation of the Ethiopia Birr against the US dollar, so, for an organization that receives funding in US dollars, a good chunk of the inflation has been absorbed by the increased value of the dollar against the birr.  But, this currency devaluation has not come close to covering the full blow of inflation.  For example, in 2005 the exchange rate from ETB – USD was 8 – 1, so that basket of goods that cost 100 ETB would have cost $12.50 in US dollars.  The exchange rate now is 18.2 – 1, so that same basket of goods, which now costs 450 ETB, would be $24.73 in US dollars.  So, even when prices are pegged to the US dollar, inflation since 2005 has been nearly 100%, and just since 2010, it has been 45%.  This is the primary contributor to the increase in the budget for the CCC Home even in dollars. In dollars the budget for the home has increased by 80% since 2010.  As mentioned before, some of this is simply because of organizational growth and some structural changes, but more than half of this increase is because of inflation.

This inflation has made it increasingly challenging to raise the necessary funds to keep the Children’s Home funded properly.  The primary mode of funding the home is through sponsors in the US.  Sponsors are paired with a specific child at the home in Soddo and contribute a certain amount monthly.  It has been impossible, however, to annually increase the amounts expected from sponsors in order to keep up with inflation in Ethiopia.  As a result, every year, a larger percentage of the overall budget must be raised through special fund-raising apart from the sponsorship program.  By budget-year 2013, over 30% of the annual budget will need to be raised by special fund-raising beyond the sponsorship program.

Ethiopia claims that despite the massive inflation over the last 8 years, the growing economy has produced net benefits for the country.  It is true that Ethiopia has had strong economic growth in recent years.  Despite the economic downturn in much of the world, Ethiopia has averaged 10% GDP growth per year since 2004.  The effects are visible everywhere in the country.  There is a mind-blowing amount of construction, for example, happening everywhere; construction of housing, high-rise buildings, hotels, roads, dams, railways, etc.  Though the new wealth generated by the growth has been very unevenly enjoyed, the growth does seem to be helping to lift Ethiopia out of absolute poverty.  Ethiopia is one of the few countries in the world that appears to be on target to meet the Millennium Development Goals of reducing extreme poverty, decreasing child mortality, etc.  Ethiopia claims to have reduced absolute poverty from about 36% of the population in 2005 to below 29% by 2013 and seems to be on track to reduce that further to the goal of 21% by 2015 (these figures depend on from what source one gets his information).

(Based on one study that I was able to find with 2010-11 data, the absolute food poverty line in Ethiopia was determined by the min. amount necessary per adult per year to sustain a 2200 calorie / day diet (this does not account for any other expenses, such as those related to shelter, clothing, transport, etc.).  This number was 1985 ETB / year, which would have been about $140 / year based on the 2010-11 average exchange rate.  This particular study determined that in 2010-11, 29.6% of the population was below this absolute food poverty line.  Though I have not been able to find specific statistics, the Ethiopian government claims that since 2010-11, this below absolute poverty rate has decreased and it claims to be on track to reach its goal of decreasing this percentage to 21% by 2015).

Despite this reduction of absolute poverty, inflation has definitely hurt a large portion of the population.  While government expenditures in improved infrastructure, such as irrigation, clean drinking water, roads and access to markets, has reduced the number of people in Ethiopia who are unable to feed themselves, there is a large segment of the population, that segment just above absolute poverty, that segment who live off of low-wage jobs, whose living standards have decreased as a result of inflation.

This has, unfortunately, been the experience for many of the low-wage staff who work at the Children’s Home, despite our best efforts to give annual raises that are in keeping with raises that organizations like ours are giving.  For example, one of the guards that works at the Children’s Home, the most senior of the guards based on his years of experience, was making 498 ETB / month in 2010, which was the equivalent of $38.30 / month based on the 2010 exchange rate.  This was a reasonable wage for a guard.  Guard work is considered unskilled, low-wage labor, often for older men who have had little to no education.  For this guard in 2010, however, this monthly wage, supplemented by his small-plot garden and his few animals, allowed him to live and support his family.  If his wage had kept pace with inflation (45% when using USD), he should be making the ETB equivalent of $55.50 in 2013 (1010 ETB).  In other words, it would require the ETB equivalent of $55.50 / month in 2013 to ensure that our guard had the same purchasing power as he had with his $38.30 / month in 2010.  Instead, despite getting a raise (based on ETB) of 25% in 2011, 10% in 2012 and another 10% in 2013, this guard is now only making the ETB equivalent of $41 / month, which means that his real wages have decreased by $14.50 / month.  In other words, because of inflation, and despite of annual raises, our guard in 2013 is only making 74% of what he was making in 2010.  This same story is true for our other guard and our kitchen staff, who are now making less in real wages than they were in 2010 despite receiving annual raises.  This is the story of millions of low-wage earning Ethiopians across the country.

So the story of Ethiopia’s boom times in the last decade is very mixed.  There is no question that there is an increase of wealth in the country.  There is a new class of people living in Addis who are making lots of money, living in large luxury homes, driving luxury SUVs and enjoying expensive new leisure activities.  There is new business and investment in Ethiopia.  The hotel industry alone in Addis has exploded, with the construction of at least a half dozen high-end hotels in the city just in the last 5 years.  The statistics seem to also show that there is a segment of the population on the very bottom, the absolute poor, who have also benefited to some degree.  This is true at least to the point that the percentage of the population considered in absolute poverty has been decreasing.  But between these two extremes on either end of the spectrum, most Ethiopians will say that their lives have become more difficult and their standards of living have declined in the last 8 years.  This is the part of story that often isn’t reflected by the nation-wide economic statistics and this is the story that I’ve been painfully reminded of during the last couple of weeks.


It’s Green and Wet Now…

When we lived in Chicago, Richelle worked for a number of years with a refugee resettlement organization.  As a result, we had a lot of contact with new-to-America refugee families, many of which, for a few years, were from East Africa.  During the summer, we were often part of planning picnic events at the park with these families.  Often refugee families had been told by resettlement case workers about how cold Chicago gets in the winter, but having recently arrived in Chicago, sitting on the beach in July watching their kids swim in Lake Michigan, it was very difficult for them to imagine.  While playing soccer, barefoot in the sand, it was impossible to explain to them how in January the lake freezes over, there’s snow on the ground, and the lakefront is completely void of people, because even with parka coats, gloves, hats and boots, the cold biting wind can chill you to the bone.

Ethiopia does not have such seasonal differences of temperature, but its annual cycles are no less extreme.  In Ethiopia it is precipitation that sets the seasons apart.  This morning, looking off the veranda of the CCC Home, I see beautiful, green, lush, rolling hills descending to the south and west of Soddo.  The Wolaita region received decent belg (spring) rains and it’s now krempt, the main rainy season, during which the region, like most of Ethiopia, receives about 80 – 90% of it’s total annual rainfall.  Farmers in Wolaita have corn, barley, wheat, sorghum and lots of vegetables growing. It’s a very fertile time of year.  Because of sufficient rain, streams and springs are running and shallow wells are giving water.  With all the rain, there will be plenty of water for the next several months.

But it doesn’t remain this way in Ethiopia.  If someone was just visiting the country for the first time right now, it would be difficult to imagine why this country often suffers from drought and food shortages, but that’s the seasonal extreme of Ethiopia.  Come December in Wolaita, the landscape will be brown, all the streams will be dry, the springs will have deteriorated to a trickle, and the hand-pump wells will pump nothing but air.  The fine dust will lie like snow banks on the sides of the dirt roads on the outskirts of town, and the clayish soil will harden and crack like bricks.  It will remain this way from early December through the end of March.  Wolaita actually has one of the shorter dry seasons compared to most regions in Ethiopia.  The fact that it remains relatively green through into Nov. is unique in this country.  But the problem in Wolaita, with both food and water, is compounded by population density.  Despite being overwhelmingly rural (88.5%), Wolaita is the most densely populated region in Ethiopia (a population in 2007 of 1.5 million in a area a little smaller than Delaware; this gives it a population density similar to Rhode Island, the 2nd most densely populated state in the U.S.).   This is why, despite being relatively fertile with relatively high levels of precipitation, there are problems of malnutrition and there is a lack of access to water.  The resources and infrastructure are not sufficient to sustain the population.

During the dry season (Dec. – Mar.) the town water system wells run low, so the supply of water from the town is greatly reduced.  The system is unable to supply consistent water to the growing population of the town.  During the best of weeks during this time of year, the CCC Home only has running water from the town system a couple of days per week, and usually not for more than a few hours at a time.  In addition, the compound hand-pump well runs out of water by Dec. and usually is not useable again until sometime in late April or May when enough rain has replenished the well.  All this means that for several days per week from Dec. – Mar., the CCC compound is without water, making the entire operation of the home of sixty children (cooking, cleaning, flushing toilets, washing clothes, drinking, and bathing) dependent on water carried from a spring 30 minutes away in jerry cans on the backs on donkeys.

The issue of access to clean water for the African continent has become a very popular cause in recent years.  A quick google search of water and well related charities involved in Africa will pull up a long list.  Some of these organizations have some very heart-rending stories on their websites.  We get a little fatigued with over-sentimentalized stories of hardships in Africa, so I’m going to try to describe the water needs at the Children’s Home with an example that I hope will help readers understand without over-stating the problem.

Summer in the U.S. for many American families involves sending kids off to summer camp for a week.  Now I want to be very careful about comparing the Children’s Home in Soddo to a summer camp.  It very much is not a summer camp.  The Children’s Home in Soddo is a permanent home for our 60 kids because they have no other home.  They don’t have parents to come pick them up at the end of the week.  Many of our kids have or will spend most of their growing up years at the Children’s Home.  Having said all that, imagine arriving at a summer camp to pick up your kids at the end of a week-long camp experience and learning, after your dirty, stinky kids have hoped into the car, that the entire camp compound had been without water for the whole week.  In order to cook and provide some limited drinking water for the campers, the camp manager had placed a bunch of old jugs in the back of his pick-up, had driven out to a spring 30 min. away and had filled up the jugs.  But because of the limits of how much water could be carried in jugs on the back of his truck, the camp staff were forced to severely ration the use of water.  Water was used primarily for cooking, washing dishes, washing hands before meals, and providing some rationed drinking water to the campers.  Most of the remaining water, after these priorities were covered, was used at the end of the day in the toilets so that toilets could be flushed at least once to reduce some of the stink from the bathrooms.  Because of the lack of water, there were no showers or baths, and no cleaning of floors, cabins or clothing.

If this went on for just one week at a summer camp, it would not be the end of the world.  Probably a lot of campers don’t bother to shower while away at camp anyway and most parents expect to pick up dirty and stinky kids.  That’s part of the camp experience, right?  But you can imagine how conditions at the camp would deteriorate if it tried to function an entire summer season under these circumstances.  You can imagine how filthy, stinky and fly-ridden bathroom facilities would get.  You can imagine that the camp would have to contend with lice, fleas, bed bugs, ringworm and head-fungus at increased rates.  You can imagine that there’d be more sickness because of unclean drinking water, dirty dorms, reduced sanitation in the kitchen and a lack of camper hygiene.

This is a pretty accurate depiction of the months of December through March at the Children’s Home in Soddo.  This past year, we would get up each morning to check if there was any water from the town system in our storage tanks.  If yes, we’d ration it out for some drinking, cooking, and high-priority cleaning.  If no, we’d scramble to track down a donkey-water carrier to bring us some water from the spring 30 min. away.  We figured out that it took about 12 donkey’s worth or water (4 jerry cans / donkey) to get us by on absolute-minimal mode per day.  Given the distance to the spring and the lines at the spring to fill up, it would often take one donkey carrier with 2 donkeys all day to make the 6 trips necessary to get us this bear minimum amount of water.

The Children’s Home needs a consistent, year-round source of water.  This is necessary for a number of reasons:

  • cleanliness of rooms, bathrooms, eating area and kitchen
  • washing of clothes and bedding
  • showering and bathing of children
  • water for cooking and drinking
  • flushing of toilets and washing of hands

Unfortunately, getting access to a consistent, year-round source of water is not easy in the Wolaita area of Ethiopia.  We have explored all the options:

  1. Fight with the town water dept.:  During the months of Jan. – Mar. this past year, I made weekly visits to the water dept. to speak with the manager.  I had his personal mobile number on speed-dial on my phone.  He was a very helpful and cooperative man, always willing to listen to my complaints and usually doing his best to squeeze out a little more water from the system and direct it our way, but he was limited by the system itself and the amount of water available during dry season.  The town water system is dependent on a series of wells around the outskirts of the city.  During dry season, the water levels in these wells run low leaving little water to be rationed out to the town.
  2. Install an additional water storage tank: Up until the beginning of last Nov., we thought this idea would greatly improve our situation.  If we could store more of the town water when we got it, we could stretch out our stored supply until the next time we got town water.  Then the dry season hit us and we discovered that the water pressure coming from the town when we did get it was so low that it wouldn’t even ascend the pipes to fill our elevated storage tanks.
  3. Dig another hand-pump well:  We have one already that’s about 18 meters deep (60 feet).  That’s pretty much the maximum depth for a hand-dug well and from Dec. – Mar. it’s useless.  If it was servicing a single family, it might be possible to get by year-round on this type of well, but with 60 kids, we’d need to dig about 15 of these hand-dug wells if we wanted to get through a dry season with water.
  4. Use new hand-drilling technology:  There are some well related organizations that have developed hand-drilling technology.  It involves a drill bit apparatus that can be operated with the manpower of several people.  This is fabulous technology that has been used with great success in some more lowland parts of Ethiopia (in the Rift Valley, for example).  It’s very economical.  With local labor, it costs less than the equivalent of $10 USD / meter to drill with this method.  The technology has the capacity, depending on the geological nature of the drill site, to drill down to 60 or so meters (200 feet).  Unfortunately, Soddo sits on highland terrain (above 7000 ft. elevation).  We’ve had a hydro-geological survey completed for our site and we’ve looked at the other deep borehole wells in the area.  We’ll need to drill down beyond 150 meters (500+ feet) to hit an aquifer that can supply year-round water.

So that leaves us with one final option.  We need to bring in a drill rig, drill to a depth of 150+ meters (we’re budgeting for 180 meters), case, install a submersible pump, and set up a water system that will allow our compound to be water self-sufficient.  Because of the cost of materials in Ethiopia, the depth to which we need to drill and case, the size of a submersible pump necessary to pump from that depth, and the 3-phase electric power necessary to run such a pump, this is a costly endeavor… costly to the tune of $80,000 USD.

Here’s the good news:  we’ve already raised $42,000, we’ve already partnered with a drilling organization (, we’ve already paid for the 3-phase power installation, we’re already scheduled to start drilling in mid-Oct. and we’ve already lined up the pump supplier and installer.  If we have the funds, we’re completely on track to have this whole project finished and online by the end of Dec., just in time to be water self-sufficient for dry season.

Aerie Africa has just launched a concerted fund-raising effort to raise the remainder of the funds for this project.  You can find out more about the project, Aerie Africa, the fund-raising campaign, and how you can contribute by going to our newly launched fund-raising site at

Please consider how you can help and please pass on this blog and the site address to others you know.  As always, don’t hesitate to email us or respond with questions or thoughts.

Gardens and Water… Making Progress

We haven’t provided much information lately about our two most popular blogging topics:  the garden project and the well project.  We’ve been intentionally trying to diversify the topics a little.  But since there has been exciting progress in both of these projects, I guess it’s time for an update.

The Garden Project

I (Nathan) and the kids have been enjoying the garden project.  We’ve had a good wet spring since the beginning of April.  We have lots of garlic and red onions growing, plus some carrots, potatoes, green beans, peas and lettuce.  Richelle and I have been enjoying a few green beans and some lettuce already (by buying them off the kids who grew them).  We hope that the kids can be harvesting their first round of garlic and red onions in about a month, then turn around and get a second planting in so they can harvest again in October or so.

We’ve learned a few things along the way.  For you gardening experts out there, these may be obvious lessons, but they’ve been new to us:

Number one: garlic likes a good chilling.  A gardener can spur-on the growth of garlic if the bulbs are chilled for a while before “cracking” and planting.  This is why in North America, most people plant garlic in the fall.  The winter cold, followed by the warming soil of the spring, helps initiate growth within the clove, so that long before the ground is warm enough to work and plant other vegetables, the gardener can already see garlic shoots above the ground.  We don’t have a cold winter season here in Ethiopia… but we do have mountaintop villages where the nighttime temperatures dip consistently down into the 40’s.  That’s why the locals in the market all suggested, if we’re purchasing for planting, that we seek out the ladies selling garlic from the top of Mt. Damota (the mountain just north of Soddo, which rises to about 10,000 ft).  Unintentionally, we did a little experiment.  We bought our first round of garlic from the ladies from Damota.  The ladies even opened up some cloves to show us how the shoot was already beginning to develop within the clove.  Once planted, we had shoots above the ground within a week.  When we ran out of the first round of garlic and the kids still wanted to plant more, we went to the market again but couldn’t find any ladies from Damota, so we just purchased some random garlic.  It took over a month for the second round to show shoots above the ground.  We had almost given up, but just recently, shoots are popping up.

Number two: when you use compost on your gardens, you get the added excitement of seeing what random things grow from the compost.  We have maize, tomato and potato plants growing in the most random of places… places where they were never planted.

Number three: buying small red onions from the local open market and using them as onion sets can result in some ugly onion “clumps.”  Without access to prepared onion sets, we just selected out small onions (1” diameter or less) in the market and planted them as sets.  It seems, though, that some of these “sets” that we planted were either already “split” (harvested from an onion plant that had already bolted) or for some reason, once planted, they split immediately.  Instead of nice single-bulb onions, we have these weird clumps of 2-4 onions growing from the same “set.”  We’re going to experiment with a couple of clumps, try digging them up, separating them and re-planting.  We may also try letting some go to seed and try planting some from seed next time around.

Finally, number four: given the incredibly powerful rainstorms that sometimes hit Ethiopia when rain does come, we have learned that terracing a side-hill is not enough to prevent erosion.  We have spent many hours digging ditches to control rain run-off.

The Well Project

We are still moving forward with our deep borehole well project.  We have already begun the process of installing 3-phase electric power to our compound (needed to run the submersible pump that we’ll eventually have).  We hired some workers the other day to level out a path next to our football field so that an electrical utility truck can get in to install the transformer.  We hope to begin installation of the high voltage line and transformer within the next couple of weeks.  We have chosen to work with Water is Life as our partner for the drilling and casing stage.  Water is Life is a U.S. registered non-profit that operates out of Hawassa, Ethiopia and works on well and water projects throughout southern Ethiopia (check them out at  We are planning on drilling in Oct. after the ground dries out a little from rainy season.

After drilling and casing, we’ll be purchasing a submersible pump, installing the pump and setting up the water system from the well to our current system.  We hope to have the whole thing up and running by the end of 2012.  Of course, Aerie Africa has also been working on fundraising for this project.  Because of the depth that we must drill to hit quality, consistent, year-round water, the whole project will likely cost between $70 and $80 thousand.  We’ve already raised over half that amount (if you’re interested in contributing, please feel free to email us or go to

As always, we’re very interested in feedback (and gardening advice or contributions to the well project).  Please feel free to reply to this post, email us or post to our facebook page at

Social Entrepreneurship

This post is about a recent curiosity of mine that I’m both intrigued by and discomforted by at the same time.  I came upon the concept of social entrepreneurship after someone suggested I look at the work of an organization called iDE and at a recent book written by its founder, Paul Polak (more about Paul Polak and iDE below).  Please note that I am in no way an expert on this topic.  What is written below is by no means a fully thought out or researched analysis.  I submit this mostly just to generate some discussion and learn more myself.  Please feel free to correct any of my misunderstandings and further educate me.

Attempt at a Definition

The term social entrepreneurship seems to be a broad term that gets attached to a wide variety of enterprises.  There are those who claim to be doing social entrepreneurship through not-for-profits and NGOs, while on the other end, there are those who insist that social entrepreneurship has to be attached, from top to bottom, to the pure laws of the market.  There are some involved in social entrepreneurship more as a means to an end, while there are others who pursue it ideologically, as market enthusiasts.  The first group sees small business as a practical means of income for populations that otherwise have no means to financially support themselves.  The later view social entrepreneurship as an example of how the rationale of the market can solve social problems and address poverty on a broad scale.

By my understanding, a social entrepreneur is defined as someone using business to address a social problem.  Of course, the broad range of what can be considered a social problem is part of why the term is so vast and vague.  To narrow our discussion somewhat, let’s stick to the context that has given rise to my curiosity about the topic, which is as a means of addressing issues of poverty in developing countries (the term developing countries is problematic, but I use it here out of lack for a better term).

A Couple of Examples

It may help to better understand social entrepreneurship if I provide a couple of examples of social entrepreneurs who are addressing the social issues of poverty in developing countries.

Example 1:  Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammed Yunas , founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh is considered the father of the micro-credit movement.  He saw a social problem.  He saw that the poor of his country did not have access to capital with which to start or expand small businesses to provide for and improve their livelihoods.  He saw this as a sort of “poverty trap” (to use Jeffery Sachs’ term; see The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time).  Those with money, because they had money, could get access to credit from banks in order to make more money.  Meanwhile, those without money could not get access to credit.  With few other job opportunities through which to move out of absolute poverty and without access to credit to start their own small business enterprise, they were trapped in poverty (absolute poverty is defined as living on less than $1 USD / day / person, which in 2001, according to World Bank stats, included about 1.1 billion of the world’s people).  So Mohammad Yunas established Grameen Bank and launched the idea of micro-lending to the poor.

Grameen Bank is set up as a normal bank, a self-sustaining, profit-making financial business (though apparently there is controversy about its self-sustainability because of its partnership with the Bangladesh Central Bank).  It is a for-profit business, but one established for the purpose of addressing a social problem.  It is a business that, according to proponents, has done great practical social good.  By providing needed capital funds to poor individuals and families, Grameen Bank has helped people move out of absolute poverty to a financial position where they are able to provide for their livelihood and that of their families.  Beyond just meeting basic needs, with increased income, people are empowered to invest in areas that improve their lives, their families and their communities.

Grameen Bank is not the only model of micro-lending.  Grameen Bank is set up on a business model, as a bank.  Unlike Grameen Bank, there are also not-for-profits, NGOs and even community savings cooperatives working with micro-lending.  In these cases, the funds are initially provided through donors, foundations, or from contributions from cooperative participants (rather than through investors).  In these cases, the lending organization is using micro-lending as a means to empower poor people to lift themselves out of absolute poverty, but without the concern about the business purity of their model or the business sustainability or profitability of their lending program.

On a quick side note, there are critics of micro-lending.  There have been examples where micro-lending has veered into predatory lending; where micro-lending institutions have strapped individuals, families or communities with high-interest depth that they simply can’t repay.  In some cases, people have become worse off because of dept incurred from a micro-lending institution.  There are also questions about the success statistics of micro-lending.  To what degree does micro-lending truly help people rise out of poverty.  There are many examples of borrowers using a micro-loan to finance a wedding, a funeral or some other form of one-time expense.  In these cases, the micro-loan may have served a purpose, but does not actually result in increased income and improved livelihood for the borrower.

Example 2:  My second example is that of Paul Polak, founder of an organization called iDE (International Development Enterprises).  He is also the author of a recent book called Out of Poverty:  What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail.  iDE was established to develop and market products to poor, sustenance farmers; products that were developed explicitly with a price-point in mind that small, poor farmers could afford (think: ¼ – ½ acre, hand-worked, non-mechanized, family farms without access to high-yield seed varieties nor fertilizers beyond what is provided by their own animal or two).  These are products that can help small, poor farmers increase production on their small plot farms and thereby increase their income and better their livelihoods.

One product example developed and marketed by iDE is drip irrigation.  At the simplest level, iDE has developed a drip irrigation system, attached to a 40 or so liter, elevated barrel, and gravity fed to irrigate a small garden plot.  iDE’s philosophy is that a poor farmer, dependent on rain to grow crops, if he/she can carry enough water to fill that 40 liter barrel each day, can grow a small plot of high cash value crop in the dry season during a time of scarcity and high market price using a small, cheap, drip irrigation system (iDE’s gravity fed system costs about $25 USD per a 1/3 acre and can be easily scaled up to cover larger plots).  With the cash they can make off a drip irrigation-grown cash crop, a small farmer can improve his/her livelihood and the life of his/her family.

iDE’s model is to not give away or subsidize the products that they’ve developed, but to set up a supply chain through new or already existing manufacturers and businesses.  This way small shops in the small towns where rural farmers come to sell their produce can benefit by manufacturing or selling an in-demand product at the same time as farmers benefit from purchasing a product that helps them increase their production and therefore their livelihood. With even slight increases in income, iDE has found that poor families invest in improved diet and therefore improve their health.  They invest in education for their children because they can afford uniforms and school supplies.  Of course, they also invest in further improvements to their farm or business so as to further increase their incomes in the future.

Unlike Grameen Bank, iDE itself is not a business.  It is set up as a not-for-profit corporation.   Its goal is to help small business operators (including small farmers) improve their ability to make money.  They work to develop and market products that solve problems for small farmers.  They work to train farmers and technicians with their products.  They work to help farmers and small business owners gain better access to markets.  But iDE itself relies partly on funds it receives from grants and donors to implement its projects and does not have its own profitability as an organizational goal.

My Misgivings

As mentioned at the outset, my curiosity about social entrepreneurship comes with some serious misgivings.  Here is a quick summary of some of my concerns:

  1. I have been and continue to be a strong critic of capitalism.  If I had lived in the U.S. during the past year, I would have been an active supporter of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement because I believe that the unbridle capitalism of the U.S. has had disastrous effects on American society and the global community.  At the very heart of the capitalist system is the principle of self-interest and the drive for increased profit.  I see a serious contradiction between capitalist self-interest and the goal of addressing the social problem of poverty in developing countries.  I believe there are good intentioned individuals who have and can use business in a selfless way to improve the lives of others, but as a general, broadly applied principle, I question whether the business goal of personal profit can exist alongside the goal of addressing poverty.  Perhaps this contradiction can be mitigated when social entrepreneurship is practiced by the social entrepreneur under the banner of a not-for-profit such as with the example of iDE.  Otherwise, I am uncomfortable with the idea of business entrepreneurs in the developed world profiting off of the poor in developing countries.
  2. Many advocates of social entrepreneurship are market enthusiasts.  Paul Polak, for example, though iDE operates as a not-for-profit, believes that that best way to address poverty is through the natural workings of the market.  He is strongly against subsidies or providing products at below market value.  While I have witnessed some of the disastrous economic consequences of government price controls, or development organizations broadly giving items away or providing goods at great subsidy, I don’t hold to the same enthusiasm about the natural market as many social entrepreneurs.  Even iDE depends on grants from large foundations and donor agencies (such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) to develop its products and implement its programs.  There is a reason why large irrigation companies have never developed systems affordable and useable for poor, ¼ acre or less farmers in developing countries.  The natural market principle is about developing and selling products for the purpose of maximizing profits and the natural market doesn’t believe that the world’s poorest are a profitable market.
  3. There are many advocates of social entrepreneurship who see the enterprises of big businesses and multinational corporations as holding potential for addressing issues of poverty in the world.  While I can concede that smaller business enterprises can practically function for the genuine good of others simply through the personal humanity and morals of the business owners and operators, I cannot concede that large corporations, beholden to share holders and investors who want to see constant growth and increased profits, can positively address the issues of poverty in the world.  A large multinational apparel company like Wal-mart, for example, can certainly set up clothing production in China or Bangladesh and provide jobs, but I have to question the motive.  Would a company like Wal-mart make such a move for the purpose of helping the population of Bangladesh pull itself out of poverty, or would it make such a move just to exploit cheap labor and increase its own profits?  Can one really say that the net effects of these kinds of corporate profit-driven decisions have a positive result on addressing the social problems of the world?

But I’m Still Intrigued:

Despite these misgivings, m curiosity continues, particularly as it relates to our work here in Ethiopia.  Here are a few reasons why I think there could be something to this idea:

  1. The longer I spend time in Ethiopia and think about the on-the-ground issues of poverty on the local level, the more I become a believer in practical, local solutions.  Maybe it doesn’t matter if an idea can work on a global scale.  Maybe it doesn’t matter if an idea can address poverty everywhere.  Too often macro-solutions fail because they don’t account for the particularities of local situations.  Maybe we don’t need a macro-solution, or a new political-economic philosophy.  Maybe we need a bunch of micro-solutions that actually work.  Despite some of the larger macro-implications that Paul Polak discusses in his book (many of which I’m uncomfortable with because of his enthusiasm for the market as a global solution to poverty), when I look at the micro-level of what iDE is actually doing with small, poor farmers in places like Ethiopia, I can’t deny that their approach is helping.  They are empowering small farmers to increase their personal income and thereby improve their lives, the livelihoods of their families and their communities.
  2. Part of our work here in Ethiopia is to help our kids figure out ways to thrive as independent adults in the future.  Part of this independence depends on our kids’ abilities to eventually support themselves financially.  These are kids who have grown up or will grow up in an orphanage, kids you have no or limited family connections, kids disconnected from a community, and kids who will never inherit land.  Our area of the country is deeply dependent on small, sustenance agriculture.  There is really no other industry.  Unless one gets a job as a civil servant in a government department, there are few other job options available.  Most people exist off of some form of official or unofficial micro business.  This micro business may be their small family farm, a small vegetable stand, a small hardware supply shop, a café, or a tea and bread stand.  This micro business may be driving people on a motorcycle for a fare or it may be selling some handcrafted items or used plastic bottles in the Saturday open market.  This micro business may just be an individual contracting out his/her labor to carry items for others, push a wheelbarrow, or dig a ditch.  Some of our kids will succeed with education and acquire a decent-paying civil servant job in the future, but many of our kids will have to financially survive as entrepreneurs of sorts.  Because of this, I see great value in micro-lending organizations and organizations working to help people start, develop or increase income off of small businesses.  These are efforts that can genuinely help people lift out of absolute poverty and financially sustain themselves.
  3. One of the great benefits of micro-lending and the work of organizations like iDE is that they are empowering people to improve their own lives.  These are not ideas that create dependency.  These are ideas that help poor people use their own ideas, initiative and hard work.  These are ideas that empower and promote human worth and dignity.  Interestingly, there is significant literature on how these ideas are helping to empower women.  By helping women make cash off of small family gardens, or by helping women establish micro-businesses with micro-loans, these ideas are helping women develop their own personal sources of income.  These ideas are helping to decrease the dependency of women on male income-earners, thus personally empowering women and raising the value of women in families and communities.

In conclusion, I know that my own thinking on this is currently under-developed and probably inconsistent and contradictory.  I came upon the concept of social entrepreneurship second to my exposure to the work of Paul Polak and iDE.  I have been impressed by the real, practical, workable ideas of iDE on the micro level of small farmers in Ethiopia.  So, despite some of my concerns about the idea of social entrepreneurship more generally, my interest in the work of iDE continues to grow.  Whether my interest in their work is because what they do is often labeled social entrepreneurship or in spite of it, I don’t know.

As always, thanks for reading.  I hope if you’ve taken the time to read this that you’ll also take the time to provide some feedback.  I am clearly no expert and want to learn more.  Feel free to reply to the blog post or email me directly at

Q and A About Our Work in Relation to International Adoption

Below is a little follow up on our most recent post about international adoption in Ethiopia.

Because we are parents through adoption and because our daughter is from Ethiopia, people are a little surprised when they hear that the children’s home where we work in Ethiopia is intentionally not involved in adoption.

Here is a quick Q & A to help explain it.

Q.  Why is the Children’s Home not involved in adoption?

A.  There are two primary practical answers to this question:

1.  There are many international organizations in Ethiopia focused on international adoption, but international adoption is not a possibility for most orphaned children.  Many orphaned children do not qualify for international adoption and even among those who do, once an orphaned child is older than four, the odds of him/her being adopted are slim.  While 50% of international adoptions (by U.S. citizens) are of infants and 90% are of children under the age of five, 95% of the orphaned children of the world are older than five (these stats are specific to international adoptions by U.S. citizens, but the U.S. is the largest “receiving” country of international adoptions and the trend is similar with other international adoption “receiving” countries).  This Children’s Home has intentionally chosen to fulfill a need for quality care for older orphaned children.  The Home provides care for children ages 4 through older teens.

2.  In the early years of the Children’s Home, a few children were adopted internationally.  This was a difficult experience for the home and the other children.  It created a climate of competition and disunity among the children as each vied to be the next to be adopted.  It impeded efforts to create a healthy home environment for all the children.  The Home made the decision to no longer deal with international adoption and instead focus on providing the best care possible for all the children in the Home.  This policy has been coordinated with local government and other organizations.  If international adoption is a possibility for a certain child and an assessment shows that it would be a good option for that child, he/she is referred to an organization that works in international adoption.  If a child does not qualify for international adoption, he/she may be referred to us.
Q.  Why do some orphaned children not qualify for international adoption?

A.  It is important to recognize that the UN definition of “orphan” is a child who has lost one or both parents (see UNICEF article:  According to UNICEF statistics (2005), of the 132 million orphaned children in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, 13 million have lost both parents.  It’s clear from this stat that the large majority of orphaned children have one parent still living.  Even among the 13 million who have lost both parents, a grandparent or other extended family member is often still living.  In many cases, this living family member cannot care for the child (because of disease or lack of economic resources, for instance), but does not want the child adopted out of the country.  In some cases, the living family member intends to place the child with an orphanage for a temporary period of time, and hopes to be able to support that child in the future.  Understandably, because of this a child does not qualify for international adoption unless no living family can be found (determined after a formal process of searching for living family), or the living family member willingly relinquishes custody of the child.
Q.  As adoptive parents, how do you feel about not working with adoption?

A.  This was actually one of the aspects about this Children’s Home that drew us to the work.  Since we first started traveling to Ethiopia, we have felt conflicted about international adoption, and through our own process of adopting from Ethiopia, we became more acutely aware of the limitations of international adoption as a solution for orphaned children in Ethiopia.  We believe that a healthy and loving family is clearly the best option for a child.  If that option is not available in Ethiopia, than a family outside of Ethiopia can be a very good alternative.  We are daily grateful for our own daughter and have seen her grow and develop in ways that never would have been possible if she continued her life in an orphanage with 450 other children.  However, our daughter’s adoption still left 450 other children in that orphanage, almost all of which will grow up with that orphanage as their only home.  We are excited about working here to help provide, as best as possible in an institutional setting, healthy and loving care to children for whom a traditional family is not an option.
Q.  But is institutional care really a good option for children?

A.  It is certainly not the best option.  The best option, without question, is to grow up in a loving, nurturing family.  Unfortunately, for many reasons such as disease, death and poverty, this option is not always available to children in Ethiopia.  We are trying to provide a healthy home for children who have no family who can provide one for them.  Part of our role here at the Children’s Home is to help continue to improve the care of the children in the home and develop programs and policies that help the kids develop into healthy adults despite the institutional setting.  It is certainly a flawed setting for a child to grow-up, but for the kids who live here, it’s better than some of the ways they could be spending their childhood.  We are also interested in exploring other ideas for addressing the care of orphaned children in the region.  Some organizations are working on ways to draw along side of grandparents and aunts/uncles, etc. to help them care for orphaned children within their extended family.  Others are looking at ways to develop and support a form of “foster care” to help with the care of orphaned children.
Q.  What are your personal feelings about international adoption in general?

A.  This is a tough question for us.  We are adoptive parents and have seen the great benefits of adoption for our own daughter.  We also have concerns about the international adoption process.  Here are a few of those concerns (our knowledge is mostly about Ethiopia, and so these concerns stem specifically from our experience with adoption from Ethiopia and may not apply to adoption from all countries):

1.  It is estimated that only about 1.5% of the world’s “double-orphaned” children (children who have lost both parents) are adopted each year.  International adoption only helps a small percentage of orphaned children, but because so much attention and so many resources go into international adoption, it can distract from the pursuit of other, and perhaps better, solutions.

2.  International adoption does little to address the care of older orphaned children.  Because the large majority of adopting parents prefer to adopt an infant or younger child, once an orphaned child is a toddler, his/her chances of adoption are significantly reduced, and once the child is older than four, his/her chances are very small.  Assuming that the trend of international adoptions of older children (older than 4) adopted by U.S. citizens (approx. 10%) is similar to the worldwide trend (which it seems to be), one could estimated that only 0.15% of the world’s older orphaned children are adopted each year.

3.  Because international adoption agencies are funded by the fees they charge to adopting parents, they can sometimes tend to answer to interests of the adopting parents more than the interests of the child or the child’s birth family.  This has sometimes led to the cutting of ethical corners in the adoption process.  It is not usually an issue of out-right child trafficking, nor is it even an issue of all-out corruption.  It is usually much more subtle.  For example, a grandmother may bring an infant to an orphanage because the infant’s mother has died and she does not have the capacity to care for the infant.  The grandmother may have hopes that the situation will only be temporary during the vital infant age.  She may hope to return to care for the child once he/she is a toddler.  Given the agency’s list of waiting adopting parents, you can see how the orphanage may have an interest in convincing the grandmother that it is best for the infant that she relinquishes custody.  This is a subtle thing, but it has significant ethical implications.

4.  The recent move by the Ethiopian government to greatly reduce the rate of international adoption approvals (about a year ago) has raised the question about the future of international adoption in Ethiopia altogether.  Other countries have closed their international adoption programs because of persistent concerns over corruption and ethical gaps in the system.  This further highlights the limits of international adoption as a sustainable, viable solution for the care of orphaned children in Ethiopia.
Q.  How can I learn more or respond to this?

A.  We’d be happy to dialogue further on these issues.  Feel free to respond to this post or email us at or

Our Thoughts and Observations on International Adoption

Since we’ve been here in Ethiopia, on several occasions we’ve been asked our thoughts on international adoption from Ethiopia by parents exploring the idea of adoption.  This is partly because we are an adoptive family and our adopted daughter is from Ethiopia.  It is also partly because we live and work at an orphanage.  It is not an orphanage that deals with adoption albeit, but we’re still familiar with the issues and concerns of OVCs (Orphans and Vulnerable Children), alternative care for children, and international adoption in Ethiopia.

For what it’s worth, below I’ve pasted a slightly edited version of an email response that we recently sent to just such a question.  But first, I want to reiterate that international adoption is a very complicated and somewhat controversial matter.  There are significant political, ethical, sociological, cultural and racial issues connected to international adoption.  The email response pasted below only begins to scratch the surface of these issues.  We’d be more than willing to further engage some of the questions and issues if any readers are interested.  We also want to recognize that there are people who we love and respect that have very different perspectives on this issue.

For the sake of full disclosure, let it be said that we are an adoptive family.  Just over two years ago, we adopted a beautiful 3 ½ year-old girl from Ethiopia.  She’d been in an orphanage since just a couple of months after birth.  We met her while visiting an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity (the order started by Mother Theresa of Calcutta) in Addis Ababa.  We love our daughter dearly and are so glad to have her as a part of our family.  We have no regrets about adopting her whatsoever.  Despite the high-quality, loving care provided by the Mother Theresa sisters and the staff, we firmly believe that she’s been able to thrive and grow as a part of our family in a way that she would never have been able to if she’d continued to grow up in institutional care.  Having said all that, through our own adoption process, our connections in the adoptive community, and our experience living and working at an orphanage here in Ethiopia, we’ve become very cautious and critical proponents of international option.  We’re still proponents, but we’ve come to recognize that international adoption is not always in the best interest of every orphaned child.  Before pulling a child from family, community, culture, language and country, one has to think hard about the best interest and specific situation of that child.  We have also come to recognize that, while international adoption may improve the life of a specific child, it is not a social solution for the larger issue of orphaned children in Ethiopia.

My email response was as follows:

“Hey —-… we’re happy to help you think this through a little.  One warning, though… this email is epic.  It’s just such a large matter and we feel strongly on some aspects of it.

First, let me say that we’re very happy to hear you considering adoption.  We think, in the right circumstances, adoption can be a beautiful thing.  We love our adopted daughter so much and are so happy that she’s a part of our family.  She’s adjusted well and is growing strong and healthy in every way.  We also have a very special place in our hearts for Ethiopia.

Having said that, we’re also glad to hear you asking questions and doing some exploring before jumping into this.  We think it’s very important to pursue international adoption cautiously and realistically, recognizing that there are some real potential pit-falls.  First, for a couple of the simple points:

  1. Adoption from Ethiopia has become very slow in the last year.  Depending on the age of the child you are adopting, it could take several years to complete the whole process (even up to 4 or 5 years).  The Ethiopian government has intentionally slowed down adoption processing considerably and western embassies (U.S. for sure… I expect others as well) are doing a lot of their own investigations into adoptions before they issue visas, which has further slowed processing down.  Prior to a year ago, Ethiopia was processing about 50 adoptions / day internationally.  It was a pace that allowed for and even created some corruption in the system (and not just on the Ethiopia end, by the way).  Because of the demand for Ethiopian children internationally through adoption, agencies, orphanages and gov. officials were not always doing their due-diligence to investigate cases and make sure they were legit orphan cases.  There were also officials and agency staff pocketing a lot of money along the way.  Even a whole industry of guesthouses, tour operators, drivers, etc. had developed up around international adoption (crudely, we came to call it “adoption tourism”).  In the past year, a number of agencies and orphanages have been closed down because of alleged corruption and the process has slowed considerably.  This is especially true if you want to adopt an infant.  You can expect between 3-5 years to process the whole thing from start to finish.  If any agency tells you much less than that for wait-time, I’d be suspicious of the agency.
  2. When we did our adoption, adoptive parents only had to make one trip to Ethiopia (we made several, but that was because of some unique circumstances in our adoption).  You didn’t have to be in Ethiopia for the court date; your agency could simply represent you.  The adoptive parents only had to show up to pick up the child and go to the embassy appointment (for us, the U.S. embassy) for the visa processing.  That has now changed.  As another measure of protection, at least one of the adoptive parents now has to be in Ethiopia for the court date (when Ethiopian gov. legally approves the adoption) and then at least one parent has to return about 2-4 months later to pick up the child and process the visa at the embassy appointment.
  3. International adoption is very expensive.  In the U.S., we were able to claim some tax credits after the fact that reimbursed a chunk of the costs, but just to give you a ball-park, with travel, agency fees, medical backgrounds, security background checks, home-study, etc., you can probably expect it to cost in the range of $20,000.

Okay… now for the more subtle points…

International adoption is a very complicated issue.  I don’t know about other countries, so I can only really speak to Ethiopia.  In the past 10 years, international adoption form Ethiopia has become quite popular and “sexy” (Angelina Jolie, etc.).  In the case of infants, there is actually more “demand” than “supply.”  Those are terribly crude terms, but they explain the situation.  There are actually more adoptive parents in North America and Europe waiting for Ethiopian infants than there are orphaned infants in Ethiopia; thus the long waiting lists.  This strikes me as concerning.  There is actually a situation of parents waiting for children to be born and orphaned.  These adoptive parents are in the process not to adopt an orphan, but to adopt a potential future orphan.  I have problems with this for 2 reasons:

  1. There are thousands of actual orphaned children in Ethiopia that are passed up for adoption simply because adoptive parents want an infant and would rather wait for a future orphan baby than adopt a child that is actually orphaned and in need of a family now.
  2. It creates lots of potential for abuse in the system.  Because agencies and orphanages have waiting lists of parents waiting for an infant and they get their funds from processing adoptions, there is a certain incentive to cut corners in investigating supposed orphan children, or to even “find” or “recruit” infants or to subtly council parents/extended family to give up infants (though with some help, the parent/extended family/community may be able to care for the infant themselves).

So, I would think hard about adopting an “older child.”  By older child, I mean a child that is 2 years old or above, which means that you’re actually adopting a currently orphaned child, rather than waiting in a line for an infant to be born and orphaned.

I would also do a lot of research into whatever agency you use and make sure that agency is really doing its due diligence to investigate the case of the child.  You want to be completely confident that it is in the child’s best interest to be adopted internationally.  We personally believe that before a child is considered for international adoption, all possible options with parents, family and/or community should first be exhausted.  If there is any way that a child can remain with parents, extended family, or community, we believe that is usually best for the child.  All too often, children are brought to orphanages by parents or extended family simply because they hope that the child will have a chance at adoption, sometimes because they hope to get some personal benefit from it.  Unfortunately, the popularity of international adoption has in some cases encouraged the orphan problem in Ethiopian by taking the responsibility away from extended families and communities to raise the orphaned children in their midst.  Why sacrifice to help raise your neighbor’s child, when there’s a very well resourced, USD-financed orphanage in town where the child may have the option of being adopted to America?

Lastly, we always encourage couples to consider a child that for one reason or another is considered “less adoptable.”  This is often because of some illness, disease, disability, or simply because of age.  This is difficult, because it certainly presents some great challenges for the adoptive parent, but often the “diseases” and/or “disabilities” that make a child less adoptable in international adoption are minor and manageable issues.  Unfortunately, there are thousands of relatively healthy orphans lingering in orphanages in Ethiopia because of manageable health issues that prospective adoptive families are intimidated by and therefore these kids are passed over.  For example, it is often very manageable these days to adopt and care for a child with HIV.  This is something that one would need to do a lot of thinking on and a lot of research, but with the availability of ARVs, it’s a very doable thing.  Most children with HIV today, if properly cared for and provided with ARVs, can live long and healthy lives.  At one orphanage in Addis Ababa where we’ve spent some time, there were nearly 500 HIV positive children and with ARVs, the vast majority of them lived very healthy lives and will continue to do so.  Unfortunately, because of their HIV status, most will never be considered for adoption (though this is slowly changing).

I hope that helps.  Adoption can be a very beautiful thing, but there are some horror stories of good intentioned adoptive parents getting involved and discovering much later some of the complications, abuses and problems in the process and finding themselves unintentionally in the middle of them.  We think it’s really important to have lots of realistic information up-front.”

The Launch of the Garden Project

Banchiwosen working the soil to prepare for planting.

Some of you have graciously followed the development of our Garden Project over the past few months (Richelle keeps telling me how boring some of the blog posts are… thanks for reading anyway).  It started as a pretty simple idea (and remains so, really), but it’s been some work…

The initial idea… dig up some new garden spaces in the unused portion of our pasture, divide up those garden spaces, and distribute them out to our kids.  Through the planting, growing, harvesting and selling of their crop, the kids can learn some great skills – both gardening skills, and some small money management and business skills (whatever money they can make off of their plot of land is theirs).  Naturally, the implementation of this simple idea has been hard work.

Hand-tools only.  We have no tractor, motorized tiller, nor even an ox and plow.  So we had to do all the work of pulling up sod and tilling up soil with hand-tools only… a shovel, pick-ax and hoe (we now have 3,600 square feet of new garden space).

Slope.  The unused portion of the pasture slopes downhill into a gully at about a 45 – 60 degree angle.  It’s a nightmare for erosion during the monsoon rainy season of July & Aug.  So, not only did we have to pull up sod and till the soil, we had to terrace the plots.  We used the pulled-up sod to build a wall on the lower end of each plot, then dug out the dirt on the upper end and threw it down and up against the sod wall until the plots were essentially level… again by shovel, pick-ax and hoe.


Water.  We have none, then we have too much; unfortunately, that’s the way it works in Ethiopia.  There is so little rain from Oct. through May and then there is more rain than the soil can handle in July and Aug.  So for the dry times, we developed and set up a drip irrigation system that allows us to irrigate the gardens with grey-water (wash water, shower water, etc.) and run-off water from the buildings (for when we do get some small rains during the drier months).  This system also allows for direct watering when we have some excess water available on our compound (which is rare).  It’s a system of pipes connected to the end of water gutters, which run to barrels, to which are attached pipe and perforated tubing.  For the rainy season, we’re currently developing an appropriate system of ditches and trenches to control excess run-off and help avoid erosion.

Soil.  It’s a clay-like, red-dirt soil that gets rock-hard during dry season.  We’ve been composting like crazy since last fall to fertilize and supplement the soil.

Education.  We’ve been learning everything we can about local seed and gardening knowledge (I’ve even driven 15km out of town to a small countryside Thursday market because it’s there that one is suppose to find the best garlic for planting this time of year), and supplementing it with all the expertise we can glean from online and from some garden experts back home.  We’ve been holding bi-weekly meetings with the older kids for the past couple of months to educate them and prepare them for planting.

Making use of the irrigation system.

Finally… today we launched the project officially.

We’ve still not received any of the spring rains that are always hoped for in Ethiopia.  We had one good rain about three weeks ago and not a drop since then.  We’ve had a couple of late afternoons or mornings of cloud, but they haven’t produced a drop for us.

(It’s concerning, actually.  It’s these small spring rains that annually make or break many regions of Ethiopia.  Many regions of the country are unable to produce enough food during the rainy season (Jul. – early Sep. with Sep. – Oct. harvest) to last all the way through a full year until the next post-rainy season harvest.  If they get enough of the small spring rains to plant a small crop during Mar. – Jun., they’ll be okay, but if the small spring rains don’t come, many regions will suffer food shortages before fall… see earlier blog post for more info. about this cycle and the problem of drought and food shortages in Ethiopia:

Even our 4-year-olds were out digging

But, despite the lack of rain, we’ve decided to do a small planting anyway.  We’re only planting a portion of the garden plots for now – just what we can sustain using our irrigation.  We decided that if we can plant even a small crop using irrigation and bring it to market around Jun., we could fetch a decent price on our crops during a time of scarcity.

So this morning, we had about 20 kids working in their respective plots (and more were working in the evening).  They were hoeing, tilling, spreading compost, watering and planting.  Most are interested in planting garlic and red onions because of the popularity of these vegetables in Ethiopian cooking (and in the Home kitchen).  Some are also planting potatoes and we have a few “farenge” (foreign) vegetables to plant:  green beans, peas and cucumber.  It has been fun today to watch many of the kids work very hard, learn and experiment with the irrigation system, and get excited talking about what they’re going to plant.

Little Eyayu... the "baby" of the Home

We’ve had some money donated already for this project (thank you Argosy University Student Government for you $500).  Expenses for the project have so far totaled about $600.  The project is now completely functional and operating, but there are a few further components that we’d love to do to maximize the project.  If you’re still interested in contributing specifically to this project, here’s what a small amount of money could help us add to the project:

  • $18 USD – some additional local gardening tools, which would include 3-4 additional two-prong hand-hoes and 1 additional larger 3-prong hoe
  • $15 USD – some more plastic tube to attach to outdoor water facet to water the garden when we have excess water on the compound
  • $90 USD – some additional ¾” poly-pipe to attach to a grey-water collection barrel on south end of our compound (because of distance from the gardens, we have not yet connected the grey-water from our clothes washing station to the irrigation system; we’d really like to do this because we could greatly increase the amount of grey-water we’re able to capture and use for irrigation)
  • $18 USD – 1 large, 200 liter water barrel for collecting grey-water from clothes washing area (the final grey-water point on our compound to be connected to the system)
  • $40 USD – 1 wheel-barrow for hauling compost from our compost site to the gardens
  • $20 USD – necessary fittings to set up in-line shut-off for last irrigation point, and some minor repairs to current drains pipes to maximize capture of grey-water from clothes washing area and hand-washing area outside cafeteria

So an additional $300 would cover the remaining expenses that we’ve already incurred and help us make sure there are enough tools for the kids to use and help us make sure that we’re maximizing our use of the compound’s grey-water.

Looking down the road a little, for those really interested in our little experiment with grey-water, there are a couple of larger projects for the compound that would further help us capture grey-water and run-off water and further conserve our scarce water resources.

  1. With a little re-plumbing in our bathroom / shower areas, we could separate the drainpipes for the shower rooms from those of the toilets rooms.  Currently, all the drains exit the house in one drainpipe that goes to our septic system.  Because of the way our bathroom / shower areas are designed, some fairly simple re-plumbing could drain the showers into our water gutters, thus allowing us to capture that grey-water in our irrigation system.
  2. Both the main house and the cafeteria / kitchen house were build with decent rain gutters and drainpipes from the roof to the water gutters that surround the houses.  After a number of years, however, some of these gutters and pipes could use

    Merdekyos was the first out there at 7am

    some repairs and replacements.  We could capture even more rainwater when it does rain if we did some maintenance to these gutters and pipes.

If these slightly larger projects interest you, please let us know and we could gather some price estimates and provide more information.

If you’re interested in contributing to this garden project at any amount, the easiest way is to go to the Aerie Africa website ( and follow the “Donate” links.  At the point in the paypal process where you can leave a note with your contribution, just enter “for garden project” and your funds will be designated appropriately.  Of course, if you have any questions, email us at or

To go back and read about the development of the project, follow these links:


Here’s a few additional pictures of the day of planting: