It was hard to avoid Ethiopia in the mid-1980s.

Political instability plagued the nation. A devastating famine left the East African nation dry and desolate. Hunger stalked the land when crops failed. Deprived of food and subsistence, Ethiopia descended into chaos. Images of its emaciated children, stomachs swollen from hunger, circulated in global media outlets. Millions were in peril.   

Response to the deteriorating situation in Ethiopia was urgent. The UN declared a state of emergency. Governments followed suit, condemning the violence and ineptitude of the ruling regime. Charities around the world dispatched food. The Live Aid benefit concert helped publicize the disaster and provide humanitarian assistance. Slowly, the deadly crisis receded, but not before hundreds of thousands starved to death.

The Ethiopia of today has changed significantly since those dark days of 1984-1985.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign of renewal has been the transformation of its agricultural sector. Once a broken state whose people depended on international aid, Ethiopia has become the breadbasket of East Africa and a model for developing nations looking to modernize foodways.

How, in the space of only three decades, did a starving nation become a case study in raising food productivity?

After bringing a decades-long civil war to an end, Ethiopia’s new government began to divert resources from the military to support agricultural development. Experts allege that resourcing the army during the conflict claimed as much as 47% of the GDP in 1984, leaving little to invest in farming. By 2015, that number had risen to 17% — a substantial proportion for a developing nation.

State investments went to addressing two strategic concerns: removing obstacles to agricultural development like skill gaps and infrastructure problems, and building a corps of advisors as part of an agency called the Agriculture Transformation Agency (ATA).

One of the critical problems confronting Ethiopian farmers was the lack of market standards for selling their produce. Prices seemed arbitrary. Buyers didn’t grade quality consistently. Deliveries weren’t reliable. And payment was often delayed.

To address these inefficiencies, the government helped set up a private market called the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX). Traders on the ECX could buy and sell certain agricultural goods according to uniform criteria. The government guaranteed next-day payments for market transactions.

Rationalizing the market created better incentives for farm production. But much of the countryside still practiced primitive agriculture, and had little access to knowledge or resources to improve their land.

The ATA helped to bridge these gaps by equipping farmers with data, advice, and support.      

Among its more enterprising solutions is the EthioSIS soil information system. Using state-of-the-art satellite photography, soil samples, and expert analysis,  EthioSIS helps determine which crops are best suited to the land. Government subsidies help make using more appropriate fertilizers a reality. For those with questions, a hotline connects farmers with ag experts who speak their language.

Grave problems still confront Ethiopian agriculture, of course. Climate change makes famine an ever-present threat. The ECX trades only a fraction of the ag products cultivated in Ethiopia. Large swaths of rural Ethiopia have yet to be integrated into this modernized farm economy. Even the hotline is an unaffordable luxury in a country with less than 30% cell phone penetration and less than 5% access to the internet.

Nonetheless, the numbers don’t lie: Ethiopia has made great strides in agriculture. Its GDP grew by 9.9% in 2014, fuelled by growth in food production, which represents 84% of exports and 80% of total employment. Farmers today are happy, prosperous, and hopeful.

Once again, Ethiopia has become unavoidable. But it’s no longer an object of pity. Now it’s a showcase for how investment in agriculture and enlightened policy can transform a developing country struggling to feed itself into a thriving nation.