Identifying trajectories of agricultural development that enable substantial increases in food production is of
prime importance for food security and human development in Sub-Saharan Africa in general, and Ethiopia in
particular. To ensure long-term welfare for people and landscapes, it is imperative that such agricultural
transformations sustain and enhance the natural resource base upon which agriculture depends. To understand
the prospects for a sustainable transformation of Ethiopian agriculture we develop a new conceptual framework
for sustainability transformations that combines insights from the social-ecological transformations literature
with research on socio-technical transitions and institutional entrepreneurship. Using this framework, we analyse
the agricultural development trajectory currently envisaged by the government, as expressed in policy
narratives and public institutions.
We also explore the opportunity context facing non-state actors who promote sustainable intensification (referred to as green niche actors), as well as the strategies they employ to navigate this context and lever change in the direction they perceive as desirable. We find that current policies for agricultural development are primarily dominated by a narrative of Agriculture as an engine for growth, which focuses on the role of external inputs and commercialisation in boosting agricultural production so as to drive economic growth. While another narrative of Natural resource rehabilitation exists in policy, it sees natural resource management as a means of reducing degradation rather than a crucial component of enhanced and sustainable agricultural production, and the policies largely decouple issues of natural resources from issues of agricultural production. Institutional structures in the agricultural sector are found to reflect these discursive patterns.
Further, the general institutional context in the country is characterised by strong government domination and rigid structures, which indicates an opaque opportunity context with limited opportunities for niche actors to have an impact. Given these challenging conditions, green niche actors adapt their strategies to fit the existing opportunity context and choose to collaborate closely with the government and the extension system.
While this strategy offers the possibility of a direct impact at potentially large scale, it also leads to a range of
trade-offs for the green niche actors and ultimately reduces the prospects for a sustainable agricultural transformation.
In conclusion, an adaptation of the regime’s proposed development trajectory for Ethiopian agriculture
is, under current conditions, a more likely scenario than a more fundamental sustainability transformation,
although options remain for more transformative action. Through the case of Ethiopian agriculture, this
study adds insights into how transformation processes could play out in non-Western contexts where a strong
state plays a dominant role, thus broadening the scope of empirical applications of the emerging research field
on social-ecological transformations. We also demonstrate how the multilevel perspective from the transition
literature and the concepts of opportunity context and situated agency from the literature on institutional entrepreneurship can be fruitfully merged with the social-ecological transformations literature, thereby moving
towards a more comprehensive conceptual framework for analysing sustainability transformations.
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