Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

All Efforts Great and Small

After the passage of the health care bill, doing the big and historic is again possible in politics.

On the international front, the equivalent is President Obama’s Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, popularly known as Feeding the Future. Ending hunger through agriculture development, particularly in Africa, would be both very big and supremely historic.

The challenge is enormous: 1 billion people in our world are chronically hungry. That’s an historic high in absolute numbers. And with the population growing and demand for food increasing, we’ll have to double food production by 2050 if we’re to make any permanent reduction in the ranks of the hungry.

The president is asking Congress for $3.5 billion over three years to fund the U.S. commitment to the food security initiative, which is part of a larger $22 billion three-year pledge from the world’s rich countries. These sums sound big, but in present-day political spending terms, they’re veritable chicken feed. Last summer, Congress came up with $3 billion and spent it in a couple of months on the Cash for Clunkers program. Surely Congress can scratch up the same amount of money to make a big dent in the world hunger problem and stimulate the lives of the bottom billion as it did to get some wheezing gas-guzzling cars off the road and stimulate the auto industry.

But let’s not be daunted by the enormity of the job. For success in this big, historic task will require many small efforts. And these small wonders are happening daily.

Opportunity International, a leading micro-finance organization in Africa, updated its accomplishments at a board of governors meeting last week. In 2009, it was managing an African loan portfolio of more than $87 million, with 261,749 active loan clients. The average first trust-group loan was just $183; three-quarters of the loans were made to women. It was also overseeing 495,817 savings accounts with deposits valuing $44,604,077. That’s an average savings balance of $90.

Small and huge at the same time. For these loans and savings accounts are enabling a legion of peasant farmers across the continent to obtain the better seeds and fertilizer vital to producing harvests big enough to feed their families and perhaps yield a surplus for added income. At the same time, Opportunity International’s micro-insurance net is spreading, now covering nearly 600,000 lives. Less than 10 percent of people living in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa have access to comprehensive financial services.

The organization also recently received $16 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the MasterCard Foundation to bring access to savings accounts to 1.4 million people, most of them in rural areas in countries like Malawi and Ghana. Opportunity International will deploy an array of financial services common in the rich world but rare in rural Africa: satellite bank branches, mobile vans, ATMS and little banking kiosks.

Loan officers are also beginning to more closely tailor loans to the situations of the individual farmers. They are mapping the agriculture production area to better estimate yields, and composing household profiles to better understand the dynamics of each family, measuring such things as food consumption, labor potential and costs for things like education and health care. With this information, the loans can be targeted to guide the families from the planting season when costs are high through to the harvest time when income increases and beyond to the lean months as the household food surplus begins to decrease and additional food needs to be purchased. The goal is use the loans not only to help the farmers grow more food but also to keep their families from hunger before the harvests come in.

Seed companies are also going small. A consortium of African agriculture entrepreneurs noticed that manufacturers of consumer goods like detergents, lotions, and mobile phone scratch cards have been moving toward smaller packages with cheaper prices to fit the needs of their customers. So they too are designing smaller packets of higher-quality seeds that can be bought for less than $1. Farmers are more likely to take the risk of trying new seed varieties if the initial investment isn’t so high. After all, the farmers depend on these seeds to feed their families.

“Adopting a new seed variety is a risky proposition for small-scale farmers. Making new seeds available to farmers in small packets and allowing them to see the crop growing in their area can reduce this risk and help open millions more farmers’ eyes to the importance of planting improved seed,” says Joe DeVries, the director of the seed development program of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which is a partnership of the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations.

DeVries was speaking at a meeting of seed experts, entrepreneurs, and relief organizations this week in Nairobi. In some African countries, according to AGRA, as few as 4% of small-scale farmers use improved hybrid seed varieties to boost their harvests of corn, beans, and peas. Continent-wide, fewer than one-third have access to high-yielding, locally adapted seeds of staple food crops.

“A whole new seed economy is growing in Africa that is based on the needs of the majority -- poor, small-scale farmers who up until recently were completely in the shadows of agri-business,” he added.

Fertilizer has normally been sold in 50 kilogram bags that might sell for upwards of $40, putting it beyond the reach of many small farmers. And seeds are packaged for larger commercial farmers, not for the farmers with just one or two acres.

“Small packages could unlock Africa’s farm potential,” AGRA’s George Bigirwa told the gathering.

And unlocking Africa’s farm potential, so badly neglected in past decades, would be big and historic.

Roger Thurow’s blog post appears courtesy of the Global Food for Thought blog. Thurow, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, is a senior fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


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