7 January 2013

Ethiopia: Lush Business At Grassroots Level

Cultivating qetema is a business that many labourers, such as Amha Getachew (a.k.a Sherifo), left, and Tereda Tesffa, right, put their sweat on, on daily basis. Irrigating, as they are doing, and cleaing, as Bogale Adugna, below, are just some of the processes that qetema growers around Akaki river labour on to produce a marketable product.

Abeba Gebregiorgis made a stop outside of Teklehaimanot Church on Wednesday January 2, 2012, to buy qetema, rush grass, for the holidays; a tradition learned from her mother growing up in Temben, Tigray.

It is the 24th day of the month according to the Julian Calendar, a date which the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and its followers observe as Saint Teklehaimanot's day. The Tahsas Teklehaimanot, which was on Wednesday, was the most important of all the 24th days of all the months when it comes to observing the religious mass named after the most famous of the Ethiopian saints.

The Church marks the day with a big mass, complete with touring around the church building three times, amidst ululations and songs, with priests carrying the tabot. It is the replica of the ark of the covenant, with this particular one named in honour of the saint.

The faithful, both to the tradition and the faith, usually bake bread, light candles and cover the floor with qetema.

Abeba is no different. She observes at least seven of the saints' days every month.

"She [her mother] used to observe most of the saints' days with qetema in the house," Abeba recalls.

Having come 30 years ago to Addis Abeba at the age of 20, she still carries out the practice to this day.

Her mother, who used to live by the riverside, where the grass grew abundantly, never had to pay for her qetema. Abeba, however, pays increasingly more as the years go by.

"This same handful I bought today for two Birr used to be five cents when I first started buying qetema," she says bringing out her hand from her netela, a traditional cotton shawl worn by women, and revealing a fistful of qetema.

Price, however, is not likely to separate her from the grass.

"Even if I do not have enough to bake bread," she says, "I still usually spread qetema around my home."

But she has no clue as to how the tradition came to be.

"It is a culture I got from my parents; that's enough for me to know," she said.

Rush has long been used to cover floors around the world for centuries. InEthiopia, religious leaders trace its use to the days of the Old Testament and relate it to the use of palm

The use of qetema is as strong as ever inEthiopia, it is being used for decorating even routine coffee ceremonies, coffee houses and smaller hotels on a daily basis. Even some of the shopping malls spread around the City, such as Getu Commercial, onAfrica Avenue, cover their entire stairwell with it. This apparently has led to a booming business for farmers, wholesalers and retailers of various grass types including rush and ryegrass (engecha).

Christmas Eve is especially lucrative for such businesses.

Rush's natural growth by the riverside or on land that carries has led most that buy it, including Abeba, to believe that the grass is simply cut and brought to the capital.

They are partly right. Some of the grass comes from Duber area in Selale and Meki nearZewayLake. But the rising demand has actually led some to use large area of farmland to grow ryegrass for commercial purpose.

Kifle Seme, 29, is one of those who has seen opportunity in such a market and leased two farmlands in order to grow the grass. Born in Akaki, he has grown up seeing a lot of vegetable farmers save a small corner in their farmlands to grow grass and sell it to the Addis Abeba market.

Never one who took much interest in school activities, Kifle dropped out of school in the seventh grade. First, he was involved in the cattle business, but he slowly came to realise that supplying grass was also lucrative.

In Kebele 03 area in Akaki Kaliti District, he leased 2,500sqm of land (one qert, by traditional measurement, which goes 50m on either side) five years ago to embark in the business. He has also been working on another land around Kebele 08, near Akaki Beseka Textile Factory, for two years. This area is also one qert. Kifle renews his lease each year in October.

Kifle is secretive about the amount of money he offered for leasing the land, fearing that when the wereda administration floats a tender to lease the land for the coming year, competitors will offer a price much higher than the one he has offered now. However, the same area of land, adjoining his, has been leased for 9,500Br.

Kifle admits that switching business has proved profitable. With the money he gets he has supported a younger brother, who is now a medical doctor, through his university years. But he has trouble explaining to people that have not grown in the area what he does for a living.

The statement "I am a grass farmer" usually confused people. He simply tells them he 'develops' land.

"Just because the grass grows by itself, most people think it does not take a lot of work," he said. "It actually does."

After leasing land where qetema grows, the land is prepared for at least a month. This involves raking in leftover grass and weed with a harrow, and then digging the entire land with a grub hoe. Then it is watered and covered with loam soil. This is an ideal situation for the grass to sprout from the ground.

The work is time consuming. Kifle usually hires three helping hands to do this work. Since they are permanent Kifle pays them 800 Br a month, but is responsible for handling all their meals. They are obliged to stay overnight in tents on the land and keep watch on the water pump and other tools.

Daily labourers, he says, cost a lot more asking around 70 to a 100 Br daily.

After the first preparation of land it takes at least two months and a half for the grass to sprout into qetema. After the first cutting (harvest), the grass grows every month and a half.

While the grass is growing, he treats the land with fertilizer (usually urea) a couple of times. He waters the grass up to 10 times for one harvest depending on the dryness of the land. Kifle gets water through irrigation from theBesekaRiver, which flows immediately next to his grass farm in Kebele 08. He drives the water up through a water pump. The grass must also be weeded to separate the ryegrass from normal hay grass used for cattle feed.

These are some of the big expenses when growing the grass, according to Kifle. Using the water pump for a whole day for both lands, takes up about 400 Br worth of gas, he explains. The land needs to be watered 10 times during a single harvest.

When the grass is ready for cutting, he hires around 15 temporary workers for 4000 Br in total. The grass needs to be cut at night, in order for it to stay fresh enough to make it to the markets in Addis Abeba. They usually finish cutting the grass in a single night.

For Kidan G. Egiziabher, a qetema trader around Teklehaimanot, the motive is a business venture wherein profit is the prime motive.

Because Kifle knows qetema wholesalers in Addis Abeba who place large orders, he usually loads the bundles and delivers it to their specific location. Usually qetema wholesalers are located in five areas in town. These areas include Gojam Berenda, Cherkos, SengaTera, Teklehaimanot and Gurd Sholla

The grass is sold in bales, which those in the business refer to as half bonda in Amharic; these bales have a standard size of about 1.1m by 45cms by 45cms. It is tied with a rope in three separate places before it is ready for transport. The price of these bales has reached 300 Br currently although it used to be between 200-250 Br previously.

In fact Kifle predicts he may be able to sell the bales for 350 Br when Christmas comes. From a one time harvest of one qert land around 50-60 bales can be tied, according to Kifle.

If those who grow the grass are not connected to wholesalers in Addis Abeba, they sell the entire grass for an estimated price to wholesalers or to people like Kifle who can sell it to wholesalers. Kifle pays 4,000 - 6,000 Br to buy the grass from one qert of land. If the grass patch is not thick enough, the price he offers may go lower. He usually gets the grass from farms outside of Addis Abeba.

Seeing the profitability of the business, Kifle always wishes he could expand the business.

Most recently a three hectare land (12 qert) was contracted by three people from Ethiopian Metal and Steel Factory. They are using the entire land to grow grass on a large scale.

Kifle who had initially negotiated with the factory to lease the land eventually lost out to this group and he is still chaffing. They had offered 180,000 Br for one year, which was above the price he had proposed. The factory would not confirm the sum paid.

Despite the loss of that land, Kifle is looking forward to the Christmas market. He is already prepared to have his grass cut on Saturday night for Sunday morning delivery.

A big Isuzu NPR can carry 40-50 half bundles to markets in Addis Abeba. Usually wholesalers pay in full after they sell the bundles, according to Kifle, but the give them an advance of 3,000 to 5,000Br.

A wholesaler in the capital can take as many as 30 bundles of grass or just limit himself to one.

Merkato's Qetema Terra in Gojam Berenda, near Wollega Hotel, is one famous location where big wholesalers are located. Bales of qetema lie on the side of the streets along with watering cans which the wholesalers use to sprinkle the grass in order to keep it fresh. Labourers with wheelbarrows hang around the Terra waiting for retailers that buy in bulk.

Sixty-four year old Megersa Tomsa, a war veteran, is one wholesaler who gets his grass from the likes of Kifle. He had been in the area the longest, selling qetema for the past 42 years, save for the few years when he was drafted into the military to serve inEritreaduring the Dergue regime.

"In the old days we used to go to Furi [in the outskirts of Addis Abeba west of Kaliti] to cut grass," he recalls. "Big Scania trucks used to cost five Birr for transport but now they cost 50Br."

The profit margin was small then but money had better purchasing power, he fondly remembered. Now he buys a bale of grass for 300 Br. Contrasting it to a time when he used to buy it for 40 Br he is surprised at the increasing cost of selling grass.

It was after he returned from the war that he noticed the business had become more formalised and that farmers were growing the grass for commercial purpose in Akaki area instead of cutting the ones that grow naturally from the riverside.

These days Megersa normally buys two or three bundles of grass which he finishes selling in two or three days. The grass from Akaki, stays longer, up-to five days, while grass from Duber only stays for two or three days, Megersa says.

People prefer buying the qetema from Duber or Meki near Zeway during holidays but for daily use the Akaki engecha, ryegrass, is preferred, according to Megersa. He himself buys a lot of his bundles from Akaki.

"I have a supplier that grows grass in Akaki, and I call him whenever I ran out," he says.

This Christmas Megersa plans to bring around 10 bundles because of the increased demand.

"I have told my supplier to bring them on Sunday after cutting the grass Friday evening," he stated.

The profit margin Megersa professes to make is much lower than what grass growers like Kifle earn. He says that from a bundle of grass he earns 20Br.As the business does not bring enough money he states that he works as a security guard at night to add to his income. Megersa has two children to support, while the other two are self-sufficient.

The retailers recount the same tale of small profits. Afele Ayeye, one such retailer, who sells ryegrass for two Birr by the handful. At the same time Abeba had bought Ketema outside Teklehaimanot, Afele was busy tying the roll of Ketema she had bought into two Birr bundles, hoping that church goers would come and buy on their way back home.

Afele does not usually buy in bundles but purchases Ketema worth 40 or 50 Br, from which she profits 20Br.Still Afele is grateful because it was a surprise that business could be made out of selling grass to people when she came to Addis Abeba.

"Where I come from, it is only used as cattle-feed," she said.

Afele is not the only one that is grateful. Even as he prepares for Christmas, Kifle is eyeing next year when he can make another bid for a large plot of land from the wereda and expand his business.

Because the culture is so engrained with Orthodox Ethiopians, he is sure he will get lifelong customers and the business can flourish to greater heights.

If people like Abeba keep up with the tradition then he is justified in his hopes.

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