Barley for brewing: Improved malt for Ethiopia’s beer industry

Ethiopian researchers are collaborating with local breweries to produce improved barley varieties, reduce malt imports, and increase farmers’ incomes.

Improved varieties of malt barley improve the yields and incomes of smallholder farmers in Ethiopia © ICARDA

As demand for beer continues to rise in one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, Ethiopian breweries are providing improved malt barley seed varieties to local farmers. Geletu Tafa, who farms 5 ha in Arsi Tiyo district, is one of over 20,000 smallholder farmers producing improved malt barley varieties, such as ‘Traveller’ which originated from France, for Heineken Ethiopia.

“After I began using Traveller seed, my production on 1 ha has increased to 6-7 t from 2.5-3 t. The money I get from selling 1 t of the new variety has also increased to around 1,000 birr (around €38) from around 600 birr I used to earn 3 years ago from other crops such as wheat and other barley varieties,” says Tafa.

Barley is a major crop grown on close to 1 million ha in the Ethiopian Highlands by around 1 million smallholder farmers. However, despite being resilient to drought and extreme temperatures, conventional barley varieties are low yielding and are susceptible to pests and disease. Domestic malt demand for the brewing industry is currently 118,000 t. In 2015, the country spent over €33 million importing over 63,000 t of malt for its brewing industry as Ethiopia’s two malt factories only have the capacity to produce a total of 52,000 t.

“The country has the potential to produce enough malt barley for our breweries and increase farmers’ income but all actors need to work together,” states Dr Berhane Lakew, senior barley researcher at Holleta Agricultural Research Center of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR).

Since 2011, EIAR has been collaborating with four breweries and Assela Malt Factory under a public-private partnership to improve Ethiopian malt barley seed varieties. One new variety released in late 2016 – Singitan – is resistant to shoot fly, a major pest in Ethiopia which can cause total losses during short rainy seasons. The improved variety is also higher yielding (up to 4.1 t per ha) and has good malting qualities e.g. protein content. Earlier released varieties include HB 1963 and HB 1964, which can yield up to 6 t per ha, also demonstrate excellent malting qualities ensuring that they are attractive to the malting industry, and provide valuable additional income to local farmers.

“By financing provision of improved seed varieties through regional agricultural bureaus, we are working with some 46,000 smallholder farmers in the Amhara region, who are supplying their barley to Gondar Malt Factory,” says Abreham Zerihun, PR manager of Dashen Breweries. “As a result, we have been reducing the amount of malt we have to import and increasing farmers’ income.”

Andualem Sisay Gesesse

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.