New paper: Livelihood strategies, capital assets, and food security in rural southwest Ethiopia

By Aisa Manlosa

Livelihood strategies are vital to the ability of households and individuals to be food secure. But what types of livelihood strategies promote better food security, and how can these strategies be supported? We explored this question through empirical research in a semi-subsistent smallholder farming context in southwestern Ethiopia. In a new paper published in Food Security, we applied multivariate statistical analyses to determine types of livelihood strategies in a way that allowed these strategies to emerge from data, rather than through pre-determined categories. This enabled us to tease out fine differences between livelihood strategies in a predominantly smallholder farming setting. We then investigated capital assets that were associated with the different strategies. Using the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale as a measure of a household’s food (in)security, we also determined which livelihood strategies were associated with different levels of food security outcomes.


Fig 1 Ordination plots of livelihood strategies with associated capital assets and food security outcomes. Underlying all four panels are the combined principal component analysis (PCA) and the cluster analysis of livelihood variables with each data point representing a household and a corresponding livelihood strategy indicated by a symbol. The x-axis always depicts the first principal component (26% explained variation) and the y-axis the second principal component (23% explained variation). 1a) Distribution of households by livelihood strategies in the ordination space of the PCA. 1b) PCA plot of livelihood activities highlighting the variables that most strongly correlated with the first two axes. Longer arrows suggest stronger correlations with PCA axes. 1c) Asset variables that are significantly correlated with the PCA axes at p<0.01 (permutation test). Longer arrows also suggest stronger correlations with PCA axes. 1d) Gradient of food security (measured by HFIAS scores) corresponding with the livelihood strategies.

Our research findings indicate that households in the area studied mainly relied on diversified smallholder farming. The combination of food crops and cash crops was the distinguishing characteristic of the livelihood strategies. Food crops such as maize, teff, sorghum, wheat, and barley were primarily used for household consumption; while cash crops such as coffee and khat were produced for the market. Other livelihood activities were undertaken, for example production of milk and honey, diverse home gardens, and wage labor. However, most of the variation in the data on livelihoods was explained by the types of crops produced. Five livelihood strategies were identified namely ‘three food crops, coffee, and khat’, ‘three food crops and khat’, ‘two food crops, coffee, and khat’, ‘two food crops and khat’, and ‘one food crop, coffee, and khat’ (Figures 1a and 1b). The ability of households to undertake these strategies was influenced by the types of capital assets that they had access to (Figure 1c). For example, households undertaking the strategy ‘three food crops, coffee, and khat’ had larger aggregate farm field size and learned new information on farming techniques from other farmers more frequently. Households undertaking the strategy ‘three food crops and khat’ more commonly had farms that were sharecropped and had more livestock. Through a generalized linear model, we established that the type of livelihood strategy households undertook in southwest Ethiopia was significantly associated with their food security. The more diverse the food crops in the strategies were, the better the households’ food security (Figure 1d). Furthermore, educational attainment and gender of the household heads were also significantly associated with better food security outcomes.

This paper contributes evidence to the important role of diversification in promoting food security amongst smallholder farming households. It calls attention to the need to understand local livelihood strategies and to build on what works for local farmers. We highlighted how farmers complemented food crops with cash crops, and how the benefits that farmers generate from these complementarities should be protected and maintained as governments formulate policies and interventions to support farming livelihoods. In the Ethiopian context where coffee is an important cash crop that is considered to play a role in ending poverty and hunger, our findings re-situate coffee as one of a range of important crops, rather than as the single commodity whose production should be intensified for higher income. The paper is open access and can be downloaded here.

3 thoughts on “New paper: Livelihood strategies, capital assets, and food security in rural southwest Ethiopia

  1. Dear Sir/Madam,

    I have no words to appreciate your concerted coffee research project contributions to generate and share info in the areas of coffee sustainability in Ethiopia. In contrast, the unique arabica coffee genetic resources, their original habitats and livelihoods of the local people are still under high risks due to multifaceted challenges and constraints at various levels. This is despite a good number of research works (national and international institutions) to generate and avail information, knowledge and technologies. So, where is the missing link? I think, we need to move beyond publications, perhaps through strengthening/establishing coffee platform for systematic and collaborative practical actions to safeguard the global coffee industry for the well-beings of local community in the country.

  2. Hello, Taye. Thanks for this comment, it’s an important one. I fully agree with you that effectively addressing the complex and multiple challenges faced by local people require more than publications. While scientific publications can contribute information and insights, action on the ground is urgently needed. From the time I started field work in the kebeles, to the time our team shared the research findings across various levels of government, I found that the most common and the hardest question to answer had been — how can this research benefit us? I don’t have a straightforward answer because when a problem is complex, the solution/s need/s to address various parts of a system. In terms of what this specific paper contributes, I think it provides a different perspective from the current Growth and Transformation Plan, and the Policy and Investment Framework which focus on industrializing Ethiopia’s agriculture, promoting dominance of cash crops over subsistence food crops, and increasingly prioritizing the role of the private sector without commensurate attention to the diversified livelihood strategies of smallholders. The current agricultural development policy, to my mind, misses to understand the local logic of current smallholder strategies and misses to build on the benefits that farmers generate through complementing their subsistence food production with cash crop production. This seems inevitable to me when issues such as food insecurity and poverty are narrowly defined along the lines of production, profit, and economic growth. While production and profit are important and do play a role, any policy should be fundamentally based on principles of social justice and equity. I try to communicate this in my papers and presentations but every researcher’s contribution tends to be very small in relation to the magnitude of the problem. This is why I totally agree with you about collaborative, practical actions. There is still so much to be done, and much of the solution will come from diverse local people, leaders, researchers, development workers and many other actors working together on equal footing, re-imagining and deliberating pathways to pursue.

  3. Thank so much Alsamanlosa for your kind response and reflection to my comment- not specific to your publication alone. Congrats for the work done! I was trying to ask myself and other experts/academia on how to deliver scientific solutions to the complex threats facing coffee farming by smallholders in developing countries like Ethiopia. I think, we need to join hands and design new initiative to support coffee platforms for better global coffee future in a holistic approach at national and international levels.

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