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Market approach recasts often-hungry Ethiopia as potential bread basket

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Imagine if Ethiopia, that land of skin-and-bone children that defined African famine in the 1980s, could turn from the world's largest recipient of food aid into a bread basket, not only feeding itself, but its neighbors also.

It could happen.

Ethiopia actually produces more maize than east African neighbors Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania combined, but since most Ethiopian farmers are subsistence growers, only 30 percent of that food actually reaches the market.

The quickest way to change this, says economist Eleni Gabre- Madhin, is to bring profit back into agriculture, to give Ethiopian farmers enough information so that they can grow what the world wants and get paid more for growing it.

"Ethiopia is the second-largest maize producer in Africa, and yet Ethiopian farmers are getting poorer and poorer," says Ms. Gabre-Madhin, the head of Ethiopia's soon-to-be-functioning commodities exchange. "We're going to have to do something very dramatically different. The stakes are high."

What Gabre-Madhin is proposing may sound grandiose – she wants to set up a commodities exchange, similar to the Chicago Board of Trade. But her free-market passion has convinced Ethiopia's left-leaning Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to make her proposal his top domestic priority this year. Most Ethiopians earn their livelihoods from agriculture, and anything that promises to increase incomes and help Ethiopia compete on the global stage is welcome.

"You can see in the world today that globalization is a trend, and Ethiopia cannot be a country outside the global effort," says Berhan Hailu, Ethiopia's minister of information. "The government has been following the free market since 1993-94, and now the government is taking concrete means to bring this about in agriculture."

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