April 13, 2012 | By Roger Thurow

African Farmers: Surviving or Thriving?

It is one of Africa’s cruelest ironies that as the planting season begins, as it is now across much of the continent, so does the hunger season. The food stocks from the previous harvest are running low and it will be several months before the next harvest comes in. Whatever food remains in the household is rationed: portions shrink, meals are skipped, malnutrition rises.

We have all seen the pictures of children and adults starving during famine. They are horrific and heartbreaking. While these epic hunger emergencies are becoming less frequent and less severe, thanks to initiatives like safety net programmes and more responsive food aid systems, the global hunger crisis still rages. It is a chronic crisis, a hunger that grinds on day after day, largely hidden, rarely making an appearance on our television screens. It is the hunger season that has no end.

In this crisis, nearly one billion people go to bed hungry every night, lacking the nutrition to lead full, active lives. That’s about 15% of the world’s population. And tens of millions of them are children who have such poor nutrition that they can’t grow properly – physically or mentally – and enter their teenage years severely stunted and unable to achieve their potential.

“When you, as a parent, see your child not eating enough to be satisfied, you are hurt, but you are not in a position to control the situation,” Zipporah Biketi, a 29-year-old mother of four, told me in the middle of last year’s hunger season. Zipporah tends one acre of land in western Kenya near the Uganda border and knows well the struggles to feed her family throughout the year. “The younger ones, they just want to eat.”

Zipporah embodies a second tragic irony: Many of the world’s chronically hungry are smallholder farmers and their children. Although tending the soil is their main preoccupation, they don’t grow enough to feed their families throughout the year. A majority of these farmers are women who feel a double burden of failure; they are also mothers who can’t silence the crying of their hungry children.

It is this crisis of chronic hunger – the crisis of a perpetual hunger season – that the anti-poverty group ONE is targeting through its new campaign, Thrive, which launches today.Thrive attacks this deep poverty by tackling its root causes; it focuses on ending hunger through agricultural development that will enable smallholder farmers to increase their harvests and their incomes. ONE is asking African leaders, donor governments and the private sector to focus on 30 of the poorest countries that have smart agriculture and nutrition plans. Those plans are tested, cost-analysed and affordable. They just need to be put into practice.

I have seen what a profound impact smart investments in agriculture can have in Africa. For the past year, I have been following the efforts of Zipporah and three other smallholder farmers in western Kenya to escape the annual hunger season. They are members of a social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund, which provides a “market bundle” of services – including farming inputs, financing, training and market facilitation – to more than 100,000 farmers in Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi. When farmers have access to these essential elements of farming – elements that rich world farmers take for granted but which have so long been unavailable to Africa’s smallholder farmers – they double or triple their harvests in one season.

Zipporah and her family live in a house made of sticks and mud with a thatched roof that leaks. Their 2010 harvest was just two 90-kilogram bags of maize, a meager amount that ran out three months after the harvest. That meant the hunger season stretched on for nine months. Children were sent off to school, and adults trudged to their fields, with only a weak cup of tea for breakfast. At times, that would be their only meal, if you can call it that, of the day. Zipporah’s youngest child, two-year-old David, exhibited the common signs of malnourishment. The older children were plagued by malaria, stomach ailments, coughs.

After gaining timely access to seeds, soil nutrients, training and the little bit of credit to pay for it through One Acre Fund, Zipporah’s 2011 maize harvest multiplied beyond her imagination. She rejoiced, calculating she would finally have enough to eliminate the hunger season, restore the health of her children and begin construction of a new house with solid brick walls that wouldn’t wash away in the rain and a metal roof that wouldn’t leak. In her eyes, the bountiful harvest was a miracle. In fact, it was evidence of a simple reality: investments in agricultural development work.

The goal of Zipporah and her neighbors is to move from subsistence farming to sustainable farming, from farming to live to farming to make a living. From surviving to thriving.

Thrive is a campaign that goes far beyond a humanitarian concern for the farmers of Africa. It takes direct aim at a great global challenge that should be of paramount concern for all of us. If we are to meet the demands of a world population that is growing in both size and in prosperity, we need to nearly double food production by 2050. To accomplish this, it is imperative that smallholder farmers like Zipporah become as productive as possible. If they succeed, so might we all.


| By Roger Thurow

Remembering the Post-9/11 Promises to Raise Foreign Aid

The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is bringing back a rush of memories and emotions.  Everyone it seems is recalling, with respect for the victims, where they were on that day when they heard or watched the horrific news.

| By Roger Thurow

Coping with Drought

With drought devastating farms from the Horn of Africa to the Panhandle of Texas, I journeyed to one of the frontlines of climate change to “chew the news,” as the Maasai say.

| By Roger Thurow

Harvest and Hunger – Part 2

At 6:30 this morning, as the sun was coming up, Sanet Biketi walked out of his small house made of mud and sticks.  Carrying a machete at his side, he headed straight to the edge of his maize field and said a prayer of thanksgiving for the arrival of harvest day.

| By Roger Thurow

Harvest and Hunger

Two scenes from the great African paradox of surplus and shortage – feast and famine – in the same country.

| By Roger Thurow

Empty Promises, Empty Stomachs

The promises made by the leaders of the rich world in L’Aquila, Italy, two years ago were supposed to stop what is now happening in the Horn of Africa. But those pledges haven’t been kept, and starvation is raging once again.

| By Roger Thurow

Rowing in the Same Direction

Vision.  Strategy.  Tactics.

These were the priorities that emerged at my table during a discussion about the role of U.S. universities, government agencies, NGOs, foundations and the African diplomatic community in advancing African development.  

| By Roger Thurow

Political Will

The Nigerian ambassador to the U.S., Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye, tells an acerbic joke to illustrate the importance of good leadership.

| By Roger Thurow

Countering Drought

This growing season in south-central Kenya has been a good test for the new drought tolerant maize varieties being bred in Africa.  This is a semi-arid area, but this year they can drop the semi.  Farmers report only three short periods of rain since the February planting time.

| By Roger Thurow

Cool Beans

For some farmers in western Kenya, the hunger season I wrote about last week is coming to a mercifully early end.  A new variety of bean is ready for harvest.

| By Roger Thurow

Big Brains on Little Brains

Little brains were on the minds of some pretty big brains in the fight against hunger at the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security this week.

| By Roger Thurow

The Importance of Innovation

Bill Gates came to the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security with a confession.  “I’ve never been a farmer,” he said.  “Until recently, I rarely set foot on farm.”

| By Roger Thurow

Public Policy Matters

I enjoyed the great privilege of giving my first commencement speech on Sunday, to the graduating class of the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin.  I had eagerly anticipated the ceremony, knowing that the passion to shape a more just world inspires young policy makers as mightily as it fuels journalists.

| By Roger Thurow

Something to Cut

With many words in this column, we have discussed what not to cut from the federal budget.  Namely, administration requests to fund agriculture development, especially in Africa, under the Feed the Future initiative and the Global Agriculture Food Security Program.

| By Roger Thurow

Yin and Yang of Foreign Aid

Here is the Yin and the Yang of development aid spending: In the U.S., it is on the chopping block, threatened by budget cutters sharpening their knives; in China it is on an expansion course, favored by a government seeking to accumulate influence and riches in the developing world, particularly Africa.




Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.


The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

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The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

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