Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

Hungry Farmers and the Challenges of African Agriculture

Francis Wanjala Mamati praying for rain. Photo by Roger Thurow.

by Roger Thurow

In Lutacho, Kenya, the rains were late. It was mid-March 2011, and the farmers of western Kenya were still in the grip of the brutally hot dry season. The year before, the seasonal rains that usher in the corn planting began at the end of February; by March of that year the first shoots of the stalks were already pushing through the soil. Now, though, the fields remained parched and the farmers nervous.

And every day the farmers’ worry increased. They knew that a drought, bringing great hunger, was spreading across the eastern and northern realms of their country and throughout the Horn of Africa. Western Kenya, one of the breadbaskets of the region, was usually blessed with good rains. But the extended dry season had made some of them anxious that the drought might reach them as well.

“What if it doesn’t rain?” I asked Agnes Wekhwela, one of the farmers. She was 72 years old, two decades beyond the average life expectancy in Kenya. Her face was creased with wrinkles and wisdom. She had more experience divining the weather than most anyone else.

“It will rain,” she said firmly.

It was a cloudless day, with a brilliant blue sky. “How can you be so confident?” I pressed.

“God knows where we live,” she said, again with great certainty. “God knows who we are.”

A few days later, her bedrock faith was confirmed. The rain began falling, the farmers planted, the heat and the anxiety broke.

That conversation with Agnes became a touchstone for me. Yes, I thought, God knows where the farmers live, God knows who they are. But do we?

That conversation and those questions drove my efforts to report on the lives of these farmers, their hopes and fears, their struggles and triumphs. Every day I was with them, my conviction grew stronger: we must know who they are.


Why? Consider the challenge facing all of us on this planet in the coming decades: to meet the demands of a growing population and the growing prosperity of that population, the world needs to nearly double food production by the year 2050. Estimates place another 2.5 billion people on earth in that time, which is the equivalent of adding two Chinas or two Indias.

Where will the needed doubling come from? Not likely from the present breadbaskets of the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia, where the great jumps in yields over the past decades have been narrowing. Nor can we confidently count on repeat performances of the large gains in productivity in India, China and Brazil.

With all this potential, Africa’s long-neglected smallholder farmers, who already produce the majority of the continent’s food, have become indispens­able. It will be impossible to multiply global food production without creating the conditions for them to grow and bring to market as much food as they can. We continue to neglect Africa’s smallholder farmers at our own peril. This is why we must know who they are.

Africa’s smallholder farmers work fewer than five acres of land; most often they work only one or two acres, barely enough to feed their families, let alone have surplus production to provide income. They are a majority of the population in most African countries. More than two-thirds of them are women.

The smallholder farmers of Africa are often recipients of American food aid. They are grateful for such aid when they face starvation—but they would rather receive assistance to grow their own food so they wouldn’t be hungry in the first place. They would rather have access to seeds, soil nutrients, financing and agricultural advice than to bags of food grown half a world away. Food aid is vital in saving countless lives each year when hunger emergencies arise, but food aid won’t prevent the next famine. Only agricultural development will.

This imperative yields a more hopeful irony: these hungry farmers, these recipients of the world’s food aid, are now being counted on to help feed the world.

These African farmers are at the center of President Obama’s Feed the Future Initiative, which seeks to create the conditions for smallholder farmers to grow as much food as possible, to store it and then to transport it to an efficient market that can give them a profit for their work. Momentum for such agricultural development is building among big donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, in countless corporations, in humanitarian organizations like Bread for the World and ONE and in the once-indifferent hallways of institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

But the question remains: Do we care? While these farmers were setting off on their exodus from the misery of the hunger season in 2011, this momentum to reverse the neglect of agricultural development was under grave threat in the U.S. Congress. The budget-cutting fervor was targeting foreign aid, particularly programs like Feed the Future. Bread for the World and the Alliance to End Hunger and other faith-based groups led a drive to create a “circle of protection” around programs designed to reduce hunger and poverty in the U.S. and abroad. They largely succeeded in preserving this spending in the 2011 and 2012 budgets, but the assault is on again for 2013.

This is why, facing the great challenge of increasing global food production, we must know who they are. For if these farmers succeed, so might we all.

 + Read more about Feed the Future in the 2012 Hunger Report.

+ Read about the Bread for the World mini campaign for international food aid.

Roger Thurow’s blog post appears courtesy of The Christian Century. 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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