The internationally recognised research centre 'Proefcentrum Fruitteelt' (pcfruit) in Sint-Truiden has helped thousands of Ethiopian farmers earn an additional income by growing apples.
Strange but true: there is strong demand for apples in Ethiopia. You can find them neatly presented in fruit stalls. They sell like hotcakes, and for a similar price to apples in Belgium, as it happens.
However, apple cultivation in Ethiopia is still in its infancy. Mekelle University – located in the northern area of Tigray – wanted to change all that. They achieved this as part of a 10 year-long partnership with the Flemish University Development Cooperation (VLIR-UOS). To help boost apple cultivation, VLIR-UOS found the perfect partner in pcfruit. 'We sent several rootstocks and varieties to Ethiopia', explains Tom Deckers, head of the cultivation research department at pcfruit. 'An Ethiopian firm took care of propagating the rootstocks in a lab. We showed them how to add grafts to the rootstocks so they could produce their plant material independently.'
But how can you grow apple trees in the hot Ethiopian climate? 'Apple trees do indeed require a cooler climate. This triggers a rest period during which they lose their leaves. Ethiopia has suitable zones at 2450m altitude.' But even at this altitude there are insufficient cold hours. The result: the trees blossom for 4 to 6 weeks, compared to 2 weeks here. 'But that does not really pose a problem. It means you can pick apples for a longer period and you don't need a refrigerator.' The grower can force a rest period by not watering the trees. Indeed, apple trees in Ethiopia are irrigated, often just with a small canal. 'By stopping the irrigation, the apple trees enter a rest phase. The leaves fall off, or the grower removes them himself.'
The trees blossom for 4 to 6 weeks, compared to 2 weeks here. But that does not really pose a problem. It means you can pick apples for a longer period and you don't need a refrigerator.
The varieties which are adapted to the Belgian climate – Jonagold, Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji, etc. - provided surprisingly tasty apples. The Jonagold apples even turned very bright and had a very sweet taste thanks to the generous Ethiopian sun. Pcfruit also tested two other varieties which do not require as much cold: Bound Red, a local Ethiopian variety, and Anna, a variety which is often grown in Israel. Farmers were able to harvest twice a year with the Anna and Bound Red varieties, by inducing a rest period of one month.
The varieties which are adapted to the Belgian climate – Jonagold, Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji, etc. - provided surprisingly tasty apples.
Thousands of farmers
Mekelle University has helped organise information sessions for the growers. A number of NGOs, inclulding Caritas, supplied them with the apple trees. 'Each interested farmer received 7 to 10 small trees. Not all the farmers continued to cultivate the apples. For some, their trees were eaten by goats. In total, we helped thousands of farmers with apple trees. And don't think they will eat the apples themselves, they prefer to sell them. As one person confirmed: thanks to the income from my apples, my two children were able to study. It's great to hear something like that', confirms a pleased Tom Deckers.