Five years ago, Wegene Abebe was just another local peasant eking out a living in Tijo, 220km southeast of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa; today he is a prominent farmer with a steady income.
It all started when 38-year-old Wegene was approached by government agricultural experts and recommended improved seed. Although Wegene did not own a piece of land, he was offered two hectares after a preliminary assessment demonstrated his potential.
Wegene has doubled his harvest and leads a group of 13 farmers. He has also moved from a rented single room to owning a big house and four flour-milling machines.
"If you sow ordinary seed, you get 18-20 quintals [1,800-2,000kg] per hectare," he told IRIN. "But using improved seed, you get 40 to 50 quintals."
With the wheat boom, he is now dreaming of building a hotel. "I have a 700 sqm plot of land to build a 12-room hotel" he said. "The project will cost me about 350,000 Birr [US$39,000]."
Wegene’s story is, however, rare in Ethiopia where 80 percent of the population are farmers - mostly small-scale subsistence producers whose combined output cannot feed the country's 70 million people.
According to the government Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency, about 1.36 million Ethiopians are susceptible to food shortages this year, requiring an estimated 150,580 metric tonnes of food aid.
Opinions differ on possible solutions to the country's food problems. An agronomist, who requested anonymity, suggested that a market-driven agricultural system could help improve the livelihoods of farmers. Efforts to improve livelihoods should not just be limited to increased production, but should also emphasise market orientation.
"Sometimes you hear a contradictory statement from the supply and consumer sides," he said. "The supplier complains of a lack of a market while the consumer and grain processors complain about a shortage of supply."
This scenario, the agronomist argues, underlines the need to introduce a value chain approach; a market and technological support link between the producer and end-user. Farmers also need to diversify their crop type and activities to earn additional income.
On the other hand, the government is optimistic that the situation will improve. Abera Deressa, state minister of agriculture and rural development, said Ethiopia is on the right track to attain food security.
"We all believe that the right to food must be realised by making use of all the available resources," he said.
About 25 agricultural, technical and vocational educational training colleges have been established; so far, 50,000 graduates have been deployed all over the country as development agents, and extension services are being provided for 4.1 million farmers and pastoralists.
Various efforts to supplement government programmes are ongoing. In Tijo, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) crop diversification and marketing development project is promoting economic growth by strengthening the commercialisation of small farms in areas with a recognised market potential.
Tijo is in Arsi zone of Oromia region, one of the surplus grain-producing areas in the country. It is one of seven areas where the four-year FAO project started in January 2006.
More than 1,520 registered farm households are being targeted through irrigation, drainage and watershed management activities. Twenty-five farmers will also be involved in sheep farming and 50 smallholder livestock farmers in dairy production.
One dairy farmer, Hussein Defo, said he had now diversified to vegetables as well. Starting with three indigenous cows, he added three crossbreeds and six oxen for ploughing his land.
The project provided him with improved vegetable seeds and irrigation facilities. "I first began working with development agents," he said. "After four years, they recommended me for the FAO project."
He now has a heifer, increasing his milk productivity. "I [used to get] one to two litres of milk from the indigenous cows and three-four litres from the crossbreeds," he told IRIN in Tijo. "With the heifer, I get six to eight litres a day."
Using improved seeds, he has tripled his cereal production from 30 to 40 quintals of wheat, barley or peas from four hectares to 100 to 120 quintals. He is also now producing potatoes using irrigation and found a better market for his barley.
The Assela Malt Factory, the only factory that provides raw material to breweries in the country, has approached him with a proposal to purchase all his wheat.
Wegene and Hussein were among the six farmers singled out for awards during World Food Day celebrations in Tijo on 16 October. Witnessed by thousands of farmers who flocked to the celebrations held in lush green vegetation thanks to recent heavy rains, the winners each received 50kg of fertilizer.
"It is the right to have continuous access to resources," FAO said in a statement to mark the day, "that will enable you to produce, earn or purchase enough food to prevent hunger [and] ensure health and well-being."