January 21, 2011 | By Roger Thurow

African Paradox

Nairobi, Kenya

Once again, the great paradox of Africa emerges: hunger in one part of a country, food surplus in another.

A persistent drought is biting hard in the northern and eastern reaches of Kenya, threatening herders and their livestock.  Already, the World Food Program is feeding about 1.6 million people.  This week the government said the number of Kenyans requiring food relief would increase to five million in the next three months.

At the same time, farmers in the Rift Valley are sitting on surplus maize following good harvests last August.  “Can the government tell us what food shortage they are talking about?  Most farmers have maize but there is no market,” a North Rift parliamentarian was quoted as saying in the Kenyan newspaper, Daily Nation.

Although prices normally rise this time of year as stockpiles from the last harvest dwindle, farmers are expecting them to be even higher to reflect the severe shortages in other parts of the country.  They have been pressing the government to buy their maize to feed their fellow Kenyans rather than relying on food aid from abroad.  After a few weeks of clamor, the government this week directed immediate purchase of food from the surplus regions to distribute in the drought regions and to build the country’s strategic grain reserves.

It shouldn’t take a government directive.  The international neglect of agriculture development over the past three decades also meant a neglect of developing agriculture markets.  Communications networks are inadequate, transport is insufficient, the private sector is weak.  The hungry are on the fringes of the economy; they lack the buying power to attract the surpluses.  So the laws of supply and demand that would usually move food from surplus to shortage rarely apply in Africa.

These disconnects prompt a second paradox: during times of high prices, Africa’s farmers often lose rather than gain.  This reality baffled many during the global food crisis in 2007-08, when grain shortages and soaring prices triggered riots in dozens of countries.  Surely, it was assumed, one silver lining of the crisis would be that the higher prices would benefit the world’s poor smallholder farmers if they had surplus harvests that they could sell.  Rather, they were hit harder than most.

The reason is that smallholder farmers, especially in Africa, are usually net buyers of the very food they produce.  These dynamics will again come to the fore as the world enters another period of higher food prices.

In Kenya, for instance, many of the smallholder farmers – those with only a couple of acres – face their greatest expenditures shortly after the August maize harvest.  (Maize is Kenya’s staple food.)  Within months of the harvest, the smallholder farmers are selling some of their maize to pay school fees for their children at the beginning of the New Year and then to finance the purchase of seeds and fertilizer for the March planting season.  Also, because of remedial storage facilities, farmers face pressure to sell surplus maize before it is spoiled by the climate or infested by pests.  Many of them choose to exchange their maize for other longer-lasting (they hope) assets like cows and goats.  At the time of these sales – for school fees, planting inputs, or to prevent spoilage – the market price of their maize is still relatively low because there is plenty available.

As their stocks of maize disappear, with several months still to go before the next harvest, the farmers enter the market to buy maize to feed their families.  But by then the prices are on the rise, as nationwide maize stocks dwindle before being replenished by the harvest.  Thus, the smallholder farmers operate in reverse of the guiding principle of stock market investors: buy low, sell high.  They sell low and buy high.  They spend more buying maize than they make selling it.

Even now, when the government enters the market to combat the drought and offers a higher price to attract maize sellers, most smallholders don’t benefit.  Often farmers must wait one or two months after delivery to be paid by the buyers.  If smallholder farmers living on the margins sell their maize surplus, it is because they need the money immediately.  So it is mainly the larger commercial farmers who benefit from the government purchases, or the traders who buy from the smallholders and then resell at the higher price to the government.

The smallholder farmers who haven’t yet sold their maize five months after harvest, who are holding on to their maize, storing it in plastic bags beside their beds in their mud-bricks homes, are hoping to get the higher lean-season prices before their stocks spoil.  If they lose that bet, a third tragic paradox will emerge:

Maize spoiling in some homes, while hunger rages in others.


| By Roger Thurow

A Wondrous Journey

Cruising down I-80 in the summer is one of the most wondrous, and paradoxical, drives in the country.

| By Roger Thurow

1,000 Days and Migrant Stress

The first 1,000 days of a child's life is a critical time for development, where nutrition--and stability--lay the foundation for a lifetime. 

| By Roger Thurow

Outrage and Inspire with Roger Thurow - Am I About to Lose My Second Child, Too?

The latest podcast in our ongoing series with Roger Thurow. Hear how even the best nutrition projects can be undermined by bad water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and lousy infrastructure.  From northern Uganda, we hear a mother’s agony when her healthy, robust child suddenly falls ill after a few sips of water…unclean water, it turned out.

Roger Thurow on SDG 2.2

Roger Thurow sat down with Farming First to talk about the individual and societal consequences of malnutrition. 




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.

» Learn more.
» 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.

Learn more »

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?

Learn more »


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.

Learn more »