Applying systems approaches to tackle agricultural complexities in Ethiopia

Different professional hats are better than one. In Pisa, Italy, multi-disciplinary agricultural experts came together to brainstorm pathways to sustainably intensify Ethiopian agriculture.

Systems are complex, and the agricultural realm is no different; connected to its own natural, social, economic and political challenges. To tackle such complexities and bring together the expertise of different disciplines, the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies (SSSA) and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) teamed up in Pisa, Italy, in January 2019. Together, these institutions jointly organized the workshop: Transdisciplinary approaches for sustainable intensification of rural areas in Ethiopia.

The country’s diverse and complex agroecologies prompted Ethiopia to be selected as the key focus of the transdisciplinary workshop. The workshop brought together experts and participants from universities, international research organizations, financial institutions as well as regional research centers in Ethiopia. Two central themes guided the sessions: i) towards resilient agriculture in marginal areas and ii) climate-smart solutions for sustainable agriculture.

Opportunities for sustainable intensification in rural Ethiopia

Researchers put their heads together to identify pathways for harnessing agricultural productivity and efficiency across Ethiopia in a sustainable manner. These include:

  • Improving access to weather, climate and early warning information systems
  • Utilizing remote sensing to digitally map soil fertility levels and inform fertilizer advisory services
  • Harmonizing institutional arrangements to find middle ground between top-down and bottom-up approaches

Such diverse strategies can be applied to overcome capacity gaps, low uptake of technologies and information systems and limited enabling environments. These approaches can also facilitate informed decision making among farmers.

What comes next? Collaboration!

To move these conversations to action, workshop participants garnered ideas for future collaboration motivated by improving smallholder farmers’ productivity, livelihoods and income, bolstering climate resilience as well as attaining food security.

The discussion led to the Sustainable Agroforestry for Better Agriculture (SABA) project. Grounded in the principles of agroforestry and agroecology, the SABA project intends to design resilient mixed farming systems in three villages across the Ethiopian highlands. The project aims to move from traditional subsistence farming to creating alternative income generating opportunities for agricultural livelihoods. Once launched, the SABA project will strive to holistically oversee the smallholder farming value chain from production to revenue making.


The workshop benefitted from the participation of the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), the Amhara Regional Agricultural Research Institute (ARARI), Bioversity International, CCAFS, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Institute for Advanced Study of Pavia (IUSS), SSSA, the University of Milan (UNIMI) and the University of Pisa (UNIPI).