The afternoon sun fills the classrooms at Bahir Dar University with light. The wooden student chairs seem to have been left in a hurry, each pointing in a different direction. The classroom is empty except for one student in jeans and a short-sleeved shirt. He sits in the front row leaning over a coloured document on the tablet arm of his chair. The document is a map of Gumara watershed, a strip of land in the Dera district (woreda) of Amhara region. There are green, brown and blue spots and Gizachew Ayalew – the creator of it - is proud of his achievement. The master student was supported by the CASCAPE project that uses the latest in research to increase the productivity of Ethiopian farmers.

The map is the result of his two-year collaboration. It is a soil characterisation and crop stability map for the region; the most detailed one available to date. Certain crops grow particularly good on certain soils. Besides the seed, the soil is a key component for any agricultural activity. Potatoes for example need plenty of organic matter and grow best in soils with a pH of 6.5 or lower. Dera woreda and the watershed Gumara have a long tradition of farming. The area lies in the highlands, including rugged mountains and vast plains. The past years have seen a decline in crop productivity due to misuse of land. Soil degradation and the continuous replenishment of nutrients have yielded fewer crops and therefore less food.

Big puzzle

For a year, Gizachew went to the fields, talked to farmers, and took samples that were not always easily obtained. “Some farmers thought we would take their soil away,” he says. In Ethiopia, farmers and researchers still have to get used to each other. The following months were spent in laboratories analysing the different soil types. “We expected to find three soils but we found four, that was a surprise to me,” he admits. The real puzzle started when Gizachew had to match the land characteristics against the crop requirements. His background in plant science and agronomy helped him to identify the right crops for the right soils. With the Geographical Information System (GIS) software the map took shape until all of Gumara was represented by a colour.

His work has already been marked as excellent by his professors but he would like to see the change on the ground. “We handed the map over to the development agents to pass it on to the farmers. If one model farmer uses it to increase crop production and conserve soil management, other farmers will follow his example.” Gizachew himself is not done with studying. He hopes to get the funding for a scholarship to do his PhD in soil science. His friend is doing his doctor degree at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and he would like to join him there. “I am very eager to go,” he says hoping to add a new spot on his very own personal map.