Redaegzy Gebremedhin, 64, an experienced farmer and entrepreneur in the Red Sea state of Eritrea, remembers fondly the days when he exported fruit and vegetables to Europe and meat to Saudi Arabia.
But that was more than 30 years ago. Today, more than two-thirds of Eritrea's population depends on food aid, and officials are waiting to see whether donations by the United States and Britain will stop a million people from going hungry this year.
President Bush has pledged $674 million to ease famine in Ethiopia, Eritrea and other countries, while British Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised $300 million.
Eritrea's poor food situation is worsened by loss of labor to the military, closed borders with neighbors Ethiopia and Sudan and persistent drought, experts said.
Eritrea has always had a semiarid climate, said Gebremedhin. But water was once much easier to find. "When my mother was a young girl, I am sure she was not pulling water from a well, she was scooping water from a spring," he says.
Gebremedhin insists that Eritrean farming would improve if rainwater were used more efficiently, adding that he has undertaken a project to prove it.
Protecting the soil and slowing the flow of rainwater keep the soil moist, helping vegetation to grow, he said, standing at the top of a dry and stony valley less than 12 miles from the capital, Asmara.
Conservation of water and soil is best done with man-made obstacles, or ideally with vegetation, he says.
Deforestation and destruction of vegetation have been problems in Eritrea. Agriculture, population pressures, poverty, use of wood for cooking and destruction of cover for Eritrean guerrillas during the 30-year independence struggle have taken a toll. Although 30 percent of the country was covered in forest a century ago, that figure fell to 5 percent in 1960 and less than 1 percent in 1995, official sources say.
Looking into the valley, while buses grind their gears up the nearby road, Gebremedhin notes a splash of green that stands out below.
Welcome to Manguda Mountain Farm, Gebremedhin says 15 minutes later, now sitting under an acacia and pouring a cup of tea somewhere in the splash of green. After three years of work, the results are beginning to show.
"Every year, we see greater cover, grass cover," he says, delighting in the young trees that have germinated by themselves and the monkeys that come to visit.
With help from the nearby village of Shiketi, and government-organized students, Gebremedhin has built a variety of stone obstacles -- terraces, dams and micro-basins -- in the valley, protecting the soil and slowing rainwater when it comes.
"The combination of land, water, labor, the market and technology are all vital factors" for increased production of food, he said.
Using his stick to scratch the earth above a micro-basin, a semicircle of stones to stop the soil and rainwater from rushing away, Gebremedhin makes his point effectively.
"It's still wet," he said, comparing it to the earth outside the stones. This moisture provides conditions for vegetation to grow. Elsewhere in Eritrea, drought has made growth of grass more difficult, and farmers have had to sell their animals.
"Shiketi doesn't suffer that, because they have this resource," Gebremedhin said, noting that Shiketi residents can cut the grass from the project and take it to their animals.
The villagers can also take the dead wood for cooking, and Gebremedhin has since had to employ extra guards at night to protect the other trees.
And, he said, "while we are sitting here, water is seeping down into [the village] wells and onto the plains below."