Ethiopia's Changing Diets: Causes and Consequences

Over the past two decades, Ethiopia has become one of the fastest growing economies in the world ( 2015 African Economic Outlook ). Rapidly rising income levels, combined with increasing urbanization, have led to important changes in many Ethiopians’ diets. In a new project paper , IFPRI’s Ethiopia Strategy Support Program examines the causes and implications of this dietary transformation.

The report utilizes datasets from the last four rounds of the Ethiopian Household Consumption and Expenditure Survey (conducted in 1995-96, 1999-00, 2004-05, and 2010-11), covering between11,000 and almost 28,000 households. The study’s findings point to several important implications for Ethiopia’s future food security and agricultural policy debates.

The share of income that Ethiopians spend on food declined in general between 1996 and 2011, while the share of non-food expenditures increased significantly. In 2000, non-food expenditures made up 37.2 percent of Ethiopians’ overall consumption “basket”; over the next 11 years, that number rose to 52.1 percent. As the report points out, such a transition is common in economies that are undergoing rapid transformation and growth. As people’s incomes increase, they have more money to spend on items other than basic necessities like food.

The per capita quantity of food consumed also increased, from 247 kg per capita in 1996 to 361 kg per capita in 2011. At the same time, cereals have begun to play a less important role in people’s household expenditures. The share of expenditures spent on cereals declined from 47.5 percent in 2000 to 35.8 percent in 2011. The share of money spent on animal products, on the other hand, increased slightly during the same period, from 7.6 percent to 10.8 percent. Significant positive growth was also seen in the amount spent on fruits and vegetables (from 4.3 percent to 6.4 percent). These changes suggest that as household income has grown, people have begun spending money on more diverse, nutritious diets.

Despite their decline, however, cereals still make up a significant part of most Ethiopians’ calorie consumption. Maize in particular accounts for around 20 percent of the average calories consumed per adult per day. Urban consumers were found to have higher average per capita expenditures than rural consumers, and to spend significantly more on non-food items. However, the amount of the total consumption basket spent on cereals remained generally the same between rural and urban households. Rural consumers were found to consume more sorghum and maize, while urban consumers eat more teff.

The study also finds that for both urban and rural consumers, purchased food – meaning food bought from some kind of market rather than food produced by the household consuming it – is becoming more important. Households’ own agricultural products account for 42 percent of total food expenditures for rural households; another 34 percent of food consumed by rural households is paid for through the sale of own agricultural goods. Remittances, the sale of non-agricultural goods, and off-farm wages account for 9, 7, and 4 percent of total food expenditures. In urban areas, on the other hand, wages and the sale of non-agricultural goods account for most of total food expenditures (40 percent and 28 percent, respectively). Remittances make up 15 percent of food expenditures.

The report’s findings have several policy implications. First, while dietary diversity has clearly improved for large portions of the population over the past two decades, the continued reliance on cereals (especially maize) remains a problem throughout Ethiopia. Further efforts to diversity both agricultural production and diets should be made. Specifically, targeted safety nets should be strengthened for segments of the population (mostly poor rural households) that do not have adequate access to a nutritious, diverse diet. Second, agricultural markets are starting to play a more important role in where households get their food; thus, efforts to improve the functioning of these markets should focus on understanding what role producers, wholesalers, and retailers play in the agricultural value chain, how agricultural processing can be sustainably increased, and how trade can help stabilize food prices and improve consumption patterns. A fuller understanding of agricultural market function can help ensure that market and trade policies are designed with continued dietary improvements in mind.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI