February 14, 2013

Roger Thurow - Outrage and Inspire - WOW! AG DEVELOPMENT WORKS

This post by senior fellow Roger Thurow originally appeared on the Outrage and Inspire blog. 


Kabuchai, Kenya

There’s a building boom going on in this western Kenya village.

The blueprint for Zipporah and Sanet Biketi’s new house is coming to life.  The walls, made of some 4,000 bricks formed by Sanet’s hands, are standing tall just as they planned: two bedrooms, a sitting room, a storage room and a narrow bathroom which will feature a water basin for washing-up.

When I visited them last month, Zipporah and Sanet proudly led me on a tour of their house.  It was still open to the sky, the floor was dirt, and weeds were sprouting in the rooms.  They hoped to have the roof completed before the rainy season begins in a month or two; they still lacked a few iron sheets and the wooden poles for the ceiling frame.

The house was a work in progress, but still it was a glorious site to behold.  I had first caught a glimpse of their dream at the end of 2011, as I was reporting The Last Hunger Season book.  The Biketis had reaped the best maize harvest of their lives – twenty 90-kilogram bags, a mighty increase from just two bags the year before.  As new members of One Acre Fund, for the first time in their lives they had access to better-quality certified seeds, micro-doses of fertilizer, farming advice and credit to pay for it all.  With their bumper harvest secured, the Biketis had enough food to feed their four children throughout the year and to act on other goals.



In the days before Christmas that year, we discussed their dreams in the dark sitting room of their house, a tiny bungalow made of mud and sticks.  We sat under a thatched roof that leaked in a couple of places.  Zipporah left the room and quickly came back with a sketch of the new house they hoped to build.  They would use some of their harvest to get started. And now, a bit more than a year later, here it was, a new home rising beside their old one.

Zipporah’s friend, Rasoa Wasike, was also building a new house, thanks to improved prosperity on her small farm.  In fact, the entire village of Kabuchai, populated with smallholder farmers, was expanding.  The technical training school had a new wing of classrooms.  A housing block with rooms for rent neared completion.  Several new shops had been built in the market in the past year: a men’s barber, Mercy’s Hair Salon for women, B. Cycle for bicycle sales and repairs, and a second M-Pesa agency for money transfers had opened.

“Competition,” Rasoa said, smiling brightly.  She was spending more time running Kabuchai’s first M-Pesa now that her husband, Cyrus, had become a One Acre Fund field officer.  “The market is growing.”

As I returned to western Kenya, I found that the dreams of the smallholder farmers I had come to know were being realized as the nightmares of the hunger season receded.  Francis Mamati, confident of better harvests, was taking driving lessons, a long-deferred goal; he hoped to get a job driving a small truck or a school bus to supplement his work on his farm.  And Leonida Wanyama was tending all manner of crops on her shamba as she gathered money to keep her children in school and improve their educations; Gideon had completed high school – the first in the family to do so! – and Jackline was about to begin.  Gideon, as I mentioned in my last column, was taking a short course on climate change and conservation agriculture while awaiting word on college possibilities.

There are many people in the rich world who consider agricultural development to be tedious and uninteresting.  “Obama’s Fantastic Boring Idea,” trumpeted a New York Times headline on a Nicholas Kristof column about the president’s Feed the Future Initiative, which seeks to end hunger and secure the global food supply through the development of smallholder farmers.  “At a time when there’s a vigorous political debate in America about foreign aid,” Kristof wrote last July, “outreach to African farmers doesn’t wow Congress or the American people.”

Well, let’s shout from the ramparts:

WOW, smallholder farmers with harvest surpluses are building new houses, opening new businesses, creating new jobs!

WOW, the children of thriving smallholder farmers are graduating from high school and dreaming of college!

WOW, smallholder farmers are diversifying their crops, increasing household income and eliminating the malnourishment of their children!

WOW, the goal you thought was impossible to achieve – the last hunger season – is within reach for millions of smallholder farmers!  “I am going to win!,” Leonida says.

WOW, agricultural development works!

Boring?  Anything but.  The progress of smallholder farmers in Africa and elsewhere is the most exciting news in international development.  Now, the challenge is to keep it going.

As the threat to international development programs still looms in Congress and the European Union, this exciting news needs to spread: investments in rural areas that benefit smallholder farmers is money well-spent.  Progress is being made, and it needs to be secured and furthered with new investments in storage technology and roads and markets, and new research to combat pests and droughts.

Listen to the words of new high school graduate Gideon Wanyama: “Forward ever, backward never.”

And consider the joy of a mother once burdened with worry over a malnourished child: One morning last month, Zipporah prepared lunch in the cooking room of the old house.  Sweet potatoes and porridge were on the boil.  Just after noon, the children came home from school.  Little David, who was sick with a cough and a distended belly throughout 2011 when I was reporting The Last Hunger Season, was now in kindergarten.  He was looking smart in a blue sweater and short pants and green plastic sandals; he was clutching a fistful of purple flowers he had picked on the walk home.  The signs of malnourishment had vanished, his cough was gone.  He giggled often and even showed off his English.

“How are you doing?,” I asked. “I am fine,” he said, proudly repeating the first line of conversation that every Kenyan schoolchild learns. Zipporah laughed.  “David, you are fine,” Zipporah said.



The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.