The farming mechanisation sector is thriving, but increased used of public roads by farm equipment pauses risks, writes Yohannes Mekonnen (firstname.lastname@example.org), an agricultural engineer. Views expressed here are the writers' and do not reflect that of any organisation.
These days one can encounter farm machinery, particularly farm tractors and combine harvesters, traveling on public roads. This is a product of the attention that farm mechanisation has received from the government.
Despite the increased demand for mechanisation services though, most small farm holders do not have the capacity to purchase machinery. It is believed that farm mechanisation can be expanded through machinery rental services.
As farming operations are seasonal, the service provider must hustle to gain as many customers as possible during the peak season. This requires shifting between plots, locations and towns. On top of that, during operations, the service provider might encounter maintenance issues that require it to move the equipment through public streets to reach repair shops.
The use of public roads by heavy equipment increases risks of accidents and legal requirements must be followed to ensure public safety.
Operators need to have appropriate driving licences and must operate only well-maintained safe equipment in a responsible manner. In principle this is true, but in reality operators of these machines are driving without the proper driving licences.
In Ethiopia, the Federal Transport Authority is the responsible agency that develops guidelines for operators' driving schools. A new directive that came into effect this year will replace the previous one for establishing training centres for heavy construction and agricultural machineries.
In the past, there was no specific driving licence required for operating agricultural machinery.
The new directive incorporates agricultural tractors and combine harvesters in the list. The effort to serve the agriculture sector is appreciated but the proposed changes are not comprehensive and there are still gaps left open. It would have been better if the directives were developed with consultation of stakeholders, such as the Ministry of Agriculture & Livestock Resources and operators.
In most countries, a tractor driving license is needed only for driving the machine on public roads. There is no need for a licence to operate off road. Some countries even allow driving a tractor by a holder of a car driving license with some restrictions. This situation shares some similarities with our country where many have been known to operate tractors without driving licenses but have the skills to operate farm equipment, nonetheless.
To obtain a tractor driving license, the candidate must pay a driving school 10,000 Br or more for training.
Another problem is the low number of authorised farm-machinery-operator training schools found around the country, as most of them are located in Addis Abeba. These driving schools are primarily established to provide training for construction machinery not farm machinery.
The new regulation excludes farm equipment weighing less than 6,000Kg from license requirements. It also restricts rented equipment and states that training centers should own at least three machinery with a minimum weight of 6,000Kg. This is the rule despite the fact that most farm tractors in Ethiopia weighing less than 6,000Kg.
Such restrictions are threats for new entrants into the training business and may even diminish the number of existing centres and increase the cost of training.
There are ways the system could be improved. Skilled farm machinery operators are in demand, with many service providers entering and expanding their services to areas where mechanization is less common.
An immediate and sustainable solution is needed to put things in order.
The government can start by permitting competency assessment tests after a short duration of training. The proclamation for Technical & Vocational Education & Training states that any individual who wants to obtain an occupational competence certificate shall undergo an occupational competence assessment.
It also states that the occupational competence assessment shall be open to candidates who appear competent to meet the requirements of the respective occupational standards. On the other hand, the new directive by the Transport Authority permits driving lessons with private practice. Beside being economical, this rule will help new drivers practice as often and as much as they needed.
With the new proclamation, as well as the practice that allow home trained vehicle drivers to sit for driving tests, would it not make sense to allow people with previous tractor driving skills but no proper driving licences to be able to take the competency test?
All over the country, there are many skilled operators without the proper driving license. Instead of sending people with previous driving experience to start from scratch, revise the system in a way that allows them to take the required competency driving test.
With some road traffic training and additional short-term skill upgrading, they should be allowed to take the competency assessment test. The government needs to focus in this direction and try to facilitate an easy way of obtaining farm machinery licenses.
Another way of improving the licensing system for machinery driving is to apply an endorsement system.
The occupational standard qualification for farm machinery and equipment operations involves a number of competencies other than operations. Any individual has the right to choose among these competencies, but this does not mean that the holder of a tractor driving license has all the skills.
Primarily, trainees need to learn how to drive followed by other various operational skills. As can be seen from some of the existing authorised operator training centres, much time is utilised in teaching driving skills. Since this is what is happening in actual situations, it is better to differentiate the training type from the beginning and avoid confusion.
As is practised in many countries, it would be wise to apply an endorsement system. If additional skills are involved beside driving, endorsements may be added to the driving licence. The endorsement could also be done while renewing the driving license when presenting a competency certificate from an authorised body.
According to the 2008 proclamation, driving licenses are not required for off-road activities. If this is the situation, it would be feasible to concentrate farm machinery driving licenses on requirements of using the public road and to leave the other technical skills to the other sector.
With this approach, the cost can be reduced. This will allow many driving schools to start providing training because of accessibility and ease in the requirements to establish an operator driving school.
There are quite a few high standard training centres that have the capacity to provide both the driving and technical sides of training. Since there is no clear demarcation, most of the training centres are concentrating only on driving skills.
To get a driving license, training centres, whether well-organised or not, are not required to train on various operational skills.
Why is the mandate to train agricultural machinery operators given to heavy construction and agricultural training centres?
To teach driving skills, can heavy vehicle driving schools not do the job? Would this not make the service more accessible as driving schools are available in every region? This will reduce people traveling long distances to acquire a farm machinery driving licence.
The transport authority should consider revising the implemented standard for setting up farm machinery operator training centres to encourage the mechanisation sector, which is still in its infancy.
For various skills demanding training in agricultural operations, well-organised agricultural mechanisation training centres should be monitored by the Agriculture Ministry.
Along with conducting short-term trainings, the centres can be used to conduct competency assessments in different farm machinery operations. Awareness should also be created among employers, that beside driving licenses, they also need to qualify their operators with the required relevant competencies.