Eritrea has a long coastline on the Red Sea but limited fresh water. Its erratic rainfall has left most of the country arid. This is a challenge for Eritreans who depend on agriculture and livestock for their livelihoods.
But things are changing. In the space of three years, Eritrea harnessed local engineering talent and mobilised thousands of Eritreans, including students from the country’s technical and vocational schools, to build the Msilam Dam.
The dam has a capacity of 350 million cubic metres and provides clean water to the towns of Dekemhare, Debarwa, Mendefera, and smaller surrounding towns. The Eritrean government funded and built the Msilam Dam, located in the village of Gergera.
In addition to increasing the availability of drinking water, the dam is now a catalyst for transformative livestock, agricultural, and industrial production as part of the country’s national strategy and sustainable development policy. Following this success, the country also built the Adi Halo Dam.
The water in the Msilam Dam has made it ideal for dairy farming. The area is now home to the Halhale Dairy Farm, part of an agro-processing facility for meat and dairy products. The farm covers 550 hectares and started with 660 cattle in 2017. Since then, the number of cattle at Halhale has increased.
Eritrea is now looking to trusted partners like the African Development Bank Group to scale up this innovative project.
African Development Bank president Dr Akinwumi Adesina paid a two-day official visit to Eritrea last week and toured the extensive facilities with President Isaias Afwerki on Saturday.
Afwerki said the government planned to use it as a pilot scheme to establish similar dairy farms in many parts of the country. He said this would help increase the number of dairy products and meat that people can buy at fair prices.
Adesina said that Eritrea’s Msilam Dam and the Adi Halo Dam Water Project—harnessing the power of commercial agriculture and food production—could potentially host the Bank’s Special Agro-Industrial Processing Zones initiative. He said a team from the Bank would visit Eritrea in the coming weeks to start immediate planning.
“I am impressed by what I see here. There are 10,000 hectares of land to irrigate with the dam. And it is already irrigating 1,000 hectares. That is a lot of land for livestock and dairy. There are also areas where fruit and other crops are being grown. I am particularly impressed by the density of infrastructure here,” Adesina said.
The Bank’s president said the proposed special agro-industrial processing zones would mean the African Development Bank could build on the infrastructure already in place and bring in support to develop food and agricultural businesses that process and package food, fruit, horticultural production, and even floriculture for regional and export markets.
Adesina assured the Eritrean leader that the African Development Bank would support his country in developing a financial system that supports agro-industrialisation. He said he also recognised the potential of the local private sector and the Eritrean diaspora to accelerate investment in the country’s development.
Adesina said the African Development Bank would also use resources from its Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa initiative to provide access to finance for women farmers working with local banks.
The Eritrean president showed the Bank’s team around the Adi Halo Dam water project, which the government launched in 2015 to address water scarcity in the capital.
The project consists of a thirty-two million cubic metre dam, also financed and built by Eritrea to demonstrate the country’s principle of self-reliance. The dam holds fourteen million cubic metres of water from the good rains that fall between July and September each year. It uses a 2-megawatt solar power plant that provides energy to pump water to irrigate community-owned farmland.
The project has increased the availability of clean drinking water for households, helping to overcome water scarcity and improve food security.
“I came away from this visit very enthused that the country is innovating and not just copying others,” the African Development Bank president said. He commended the capacity of the Eritrean people and research institutions for their prowess in excellent engineering.
Adesina remarked: “In many countries, these dams would probably have been contracted out to foreign contractors or big engineering firms. The Eritrean people built the dams themselves. I was surprised that a lot of them were done by students.”
He asked the government to consider the possibility of using Eritrea’s engineering skills and capacity to help other countries.
Adesina said: “We must develop a way to support Eritrean engineers to assist other countries and perhaps even come up with the idea of establishing an African engineering corps that the continent can deploy to major engineering works in different countries.”
The African Development Bank is supporting Eritrea in other initiatives, including enhancing water availability for crops and livestock.
For instance, the Bank-supported initiatives have helped increase water availability for crops and livestock in the country by 220% over six years This follows the completion of sixty masonry dams built through a community-based approach. The Bank has also rehabilitated 4,780 hectares of land upstream of the dams and 4,600 hectares downstream.
African Development Bank interventions will also help to revive and revamp the fish landing sites that were completed in 2006 under the Fisheries Infrastructure Development Project.
Giving his overall impression of his two-day visit, Adesina said: “I would say that President Afewerki’s passion is infectious. When you are outside, you hear news about Eritrea, but it is different when you come here. He was with me all day on a field trip, and I admire his vision and his determination to see the emancipation of his people.”
“One of the things I admire most here is the sense of purpose, direction, determination, pride, and patriotism. The people are very determined to develop and have a sense of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. The big dams we visited are evidence of that,” Adesina added.
He pledged that the African Development Bank would provide much more support to Eritrea in many areas: from agriculture, climate resilience, energy, the blue economy, and financial market development, to special agro-industrial processing zones. He said that above all, the African Development Bank would use Eritrea’s experience to help other countries. He said the Bank would also use its Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation initiative to support the country’s wheat production and the production of other value crops.
“Nobody is going to do development for you. You have to do it with pride and have the self-belief that you can do it,” Adesina said.
The African Development Bank Group head also met with the United Nations Acting Resident Coordinator, Aeneas Chapinga Chuma, and representatives of other UN specialised agencies. He called for increased cooperation to enhance development impact in Eritrea.
The Bank and UN agencies are to continue working collaboratively to further support Eritrea’s climate resilience, skills and capacity development, energy, pharmaceutical capacity building, as well as water and sanitation, among other areas.