March 4, 2011 | By Roger Thurow

Extending the Reach

Lutacho, Kenya

I returned from a day in the field with Kenyan smallholder farmers last week to find these words from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as the Newsbrief’s Quote of the Week:

“As I travel around the world talking about American agriculture, the one thing that has struck me is how jealous the rest of the world is about extension, how they would love to have the capacity that we have in this country and often, unfortunately, take for granted, of the ability to reach out and gain very useful information and insights to improve productivity.”

Exactly, I thought.

How the African farmers I had just visited cherished extension services that would bring to them the latest in technology and advice on how to best use it to increase food production.  Extension agents were essential in spreading the agricultural revolutions in every part of the world: America, Europe, Asia, Australia, Latin America.  Everywhere except Africa.  Government budgets didn’t have enough money to fund them, nor political will to insist that they do; international development agencies, in their negligence of agriculture, thought Africa, alone among the continents of the world, could do without them.  As a result, the continent’s extension services fell into a woeful state during the past three decades of neglect of agriculture development.  In many countries, if there were any extension agents, they did little extending; very few even had bicycles to go from farm to farm.Secretary Vilsack’s quote continued:

We are trying to replicate that around the world. For global supplies to keep pace with global demands originating in emerging markets and to mitigate price volatility, we have got to embrace proven technologies, and extension can help us do that. It’s not just biotechnology. It’s also conservation tillage. It’s drip irrigation. It’s multiple cropping practices.

It’s planting seeds, one per hole.  And spacing the seeds, and the rows, so the seeds will have room to grow without competition from other seeds for water, sun and soil nutrients.

It’s very basic knowledge like this, common practices among backyard gardeners everywhere in the rich world.  But it was news to the farmers of western Kenya when Kennedy Wafula came by their farms with advice on how to plant to get better harvests.

He produced a piece of string with a knot tied every 25 centimeters.  “Twenty-five.  This is the distance between plants,” he told a group of farmers gathered under a big shade tree.  “How far?”

“Twenty-five,” they shouted in unison.

He waved a stick that was 75 centimeters long.  “Seventy-five,” Kennedy said.  “That is the distance between rows.”

“Seventy-five,” the farmers repeated.

Kennedy explained, “You dig a hole every 25 centimeters and put in one seed.  Only one seed, so there is no competition between many seeds for the fertilizer and water and sun.”

Kennedy led the farmers to a small plot of land to practice the measuring and the preparation.  As farmer Geoffrey Sitata followed, I asked him how he traditionally planted.  “No measurement, we just scatter the seed,” he said.  He made a motion with his right hand, as if throwing dice or tossing feed to chickens.  That’s how he planted, scattering a fistful of precious seed willy-nilly.  That’s how everybody planted.  Nobody had ever come by the farm and told them there was a better, more productive way to do it.

Until Kennedy, a field manager for the One Acre Fund, stopped by.  The One Acre Fund is an organization founded by American social entrepreneurs that works with 55,000 farm families in Kenya and Rwanda.  One Acre’s main mission is to distribute to Africa’s farmers the simple technology and practical advice that have existed for decades but nobody ever bothered to deliver to African smallholder farmers.  The result is that African yields for maize, wheat, rice and other staple crops lag far behind yields in the rich world.  And that hunger and malnutrition blanket the African countryside.  One Acre farmers are typically able to double or triple maize yields in one year.

Kennedy calls One Acre’s simple sequence of planting practices the “Obama method,” for the American president who is highly revered in western Kenya, where Barack Obama’s father grew up on a small farm.  It is also appropriate in another way, for President Obama has made ending hunger through agriculture development a prime pillar of his foreign policy.  His Feed the Future Initiative especially seeks to help Africa’s smallholder farmers by creating the conditions for them to be as productive as possible to feed their families, their communities and their countries.

Secretary Vilsack continued to tell those gathered at the USDA Forum in Washington last week:

There are a variety of ways in which we can help the world do a better job of providing food to a growing population. So there are serious opportunities here for the United States to provide leadership, and we are prepared to do that.”

Extending the knowledge of successful agriculture practices is one of those opportunities.  Kenyan farmers often tell me, “Knowledge is power.”  That is one form of power Africa is happy to see the U.S. wield.


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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.

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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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