March 15, 2013 | By Roger Thurow

Give peas a chance

As the ballots were being counted in the recent Kenya election, I saw photos of people displaying the encouraging message: Give Peace a Chance.  So far, that sentiment seems to be holding.

Equally important for the future of the country is this imperative message for the new government: Give Peas a Chance.  And Maize.  And Beans.  And Sweet Potatoes.  And Millet.  And Sorghum.  And Peanuts.

The planting season is at hand in many parts of Kenya, and a good agriculture season should be a top priority for the government.  The violence that followed the previous nationwide election in 2007 displaced many smallholder farmers and disrupted the planting season, which would result in significantly reduced harvests.  I traveled with Josette Sheeran, who was then the executive director of the World Food Program, as she spoke with the leaders of the quarrelling parties.  The visit came in the throes of the 2007-2008 food crisis, when global stockpiles of major crops were shrinking and prices were skyrocketing; Ms. Sheeran was scrambling mightily to procure enough food, on a limited budget, to feed the increasing number of hungry people.  The last thing she needed to worry about was feeding displaced farmers in Kenya, a country that ought to be able to feed itself.

After touring camps of displaced farmers, who should have been tending their fields, Ms. Sheeran had a curt message to the political leaders about the violence their disputes had unleashed: Knock it off, and get your agriculture back on track.

Agriculture is key to Kenya’s economic growth and social stability.  The majority of the population lives in rural areas, and most of those people are smallholder farmers.  These farmers produce the majority of the country’s food.

Thus, the new government’s main concern should be dealing with a maize disease that had been spreading through the western region of Kenya, threatening production in one of the country’s breadbaskets.  The virus bears a frightening name: maize lethal necrosis disease.  Carried by insects, it dries up leaves and stunts cobs, damaging the country’s staple crop.

The disease was on a rapid advance in the second half of last year, demanding a decisive response by the government and the agriculture industry to work on resistant varieties and get those seeds from the labs into the hands of the farmers.  At the same time, the maize disease presented an opportunity to promote crop diversity that would be good for the farmers’ diets, good for their income, good for their soils.  Improved resilience would be the silver lining.

When I visited them in January, the smallholder farmers of western Kenya featured in the book The Last Hunger Season were pondering their options.  Other grains like millet and sorghum have strong markets and would provide income.  Sweet potatoes and cassava would help with food security.  Beans, peas and greens would assure varied nutrition.

“We must adjust,” said Rasoa Wasike, one of the farmers.  Her husband Cyrus, who had become a field officer for the social enterprise organization One Acre Fund, agreed.  “We can’t stick with maize only,” he said.  “Our ancestors used to eat these other crops, so we will just go back to those habits.  We want our families, our children, to know these different meals rather than always chasing the price of maize.”

It would be good to have choices, he said.  “That is what will save us this year.”

As planting time nears, the farmers wait for rain and pray for peace.  In Kenya, both are needed to help the seeds take root and the crops to flourish.

Archive

| 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. 



Multimedia

Videos


 


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.

Books

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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EnoughEnough

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 »