February 25, 2011 | By Roger Thurow

Bringing Home the Seeds

Bungoma, Kenya

It’s been Christmas in February this week for thousands of smallholder farmers in western Kenya.  Seeds and fertilizer for the imminent planting season arrived.

They were carried in the backs of 400 10-ton trucks, the bags stacked neatly and handled with care.  It is the most precious cargo for the smallholder farmers of Africa, who rarely have had such timely access to hybrid seeds and fertilizer.

But these aren’t gifts.  They are part of a package of technology and advice provided by the One Acre Fund under a payback plan.  It also includes micro-insurance, to protect the farmers and their investment against crop loss due to bad weather.  The One Acre Fund, founded by American social entrepreneurs five years ago, serves small African farmers who have been woefully underserved in past decades even though they make up the majority of Africa’s population.

At each drop site, often a community church, farmers waited patiently under the scorching sun for their groups to be called.  They then carried their packages of seeds and fertilizer to a swarm of waiting motorcycles and bicycles.  The drivers stacked the goods on the backs of their bikes and then carefully navigated the rutted roads on the way to the farms.Precious cargo indeed, for with the proper seeds and the proper application of fertilizer – and with good rains — One Acre farmers double their maize yields, helping them to feed their families, send children to school and expand their land holdings.

“This is the most exciting day for us,” said farmer Rasoa Wasike, who was helping to allocate the seeds and fertilizer at one site.  “This is a new beginning for all of us.”

Seeds and fertilizer are the key ingredients in an African Green Revolution.  Especially the seeds.  Improved hybrid seed varieties, so crucial in the agriculture transformations in the U.S., Europe, Asia and Latin America, have been very slow to make their way across Africa.  Seed researchers estimate that less than 20% of African maize comes from hybrid seed; in contrast, hybrid corn blanketed American fields a half-century ago.  As a result, Africa’s yields of maize and other important staple crops remain far below the yields in other parts of the world.

“Why is the seed so important?,” asks Joe DeVries, the head of the seed program at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a joint venture of the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations based in Nairobi, Kenya.  “Fertilizer has lower return on investment if you’re not using the good seed.  But if you use the good seed with fertilizer and other inputs, BOOM, you get a big difference.”

One Acre Fund provides the seed and fertilizer to farmers early, in sufficient amounts and at a better-than-market price.  Farmers on their own usually wait until the rains begin to fall to go to the market for their seed and fertilizer; there, they often find the varieties they prefer are unavailable or in short supply, and prices raising daily as the planting nears.  By buying in bulk directly from seed companies, One Acre negotiates lower prices and early delivery.  For instance, two kilograms of seed from one of the companies retails at 232 Kenya Shillings, while One Acre buys it for 216.

While the trucks were being loaded, Andrew Youn, One Acre’s founder, climbed to the top of a mountain of fertilizer in the One Acre warehouse in Bungoma.  As he watched the workers load the bags into the trucks, he shook his head in astonishment.

“It’s pretty ridiculous,” he said.  “In our first year, we couldn’t even fill one truck.  This year, it’s 400.  Hopefully in five years we’ll laugh at how small this was.”

One Acre, which has been growing exponentially each year, has huge ambitions.  It hopes to be serving one million farmers by the end of the decade.  Even that, though, is a fraction of the market of underserved smallholder farmers in Africa.

This week’s seed and fertilizer deliveries represent the shift in hunger-fighting priorities embodied in President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative, a shift from sending emergency food aid to feed to the hungry to creating the conditions so that the hungry can feed themselves.  “The idea of bringing in food aid is totally absurd rather than empowering people to grow their own food,” Youn says.

The seeds have arrived.  Now the wait is on for the rains, so the farmers can begin to do just that.


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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.

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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.

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?

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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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