June 24, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

A Glimpse of Feeding the Future


As leaders of the world’s top industrial countries gather for the Group of Eight summit in Canada, they can look to the long-suffering hills of Rwanda to see the fruits – and vegetables — of their actions.

Corn farmers in the eastern province are receiving assistance in marketing a surplus harvest.  Rice farmers in the south are planning for new warehouses.  Dairy farmers up north are offering more nutritious feed to their cows and reaping more milk.

And here on the western hillsides near Lake Kivu, more than 2,000 farmers wielding hoes are hacking away at the ground, crafting wide terraces that will increase their arable space and shaping a water management system to slow the relentless erosion which strips away some 40 million metric tons of Rwanda’s valuable top soil each year.

Taking a break from the work, Ezechias Rurahinyuza surveys the hills – and the future.  He expects the terraces will hold the rain water and better retain the fertilizer, giving his seeds a greater chance to take root and flourish.  He calculates he may be able to triple or quadruple his harvests of corn and potatoes and expand his grove of passion fruit trees.  For once, he says, he may have enough to both feed his family of six children and earn a decent sum of money from sales at the market.

“That,” he says, “will be wonderful.”

Ezechias’ vision, and the hopes of Rwanda’s other farmers, are being aided by the commitment of G8 leaders at last year’s summit in Italy, when they pledged more than $20 billion to end hunger through agriculture development in the world’s poorest countries.  Several weeks later came the call to create a multi-donor trust fund – the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program — to finance larger rural development projects that have been neglected for decades.  Today, some of that money, flowing under a program called Feed the Future by the Obama administration, is beginning to take root in the fields of Rwanda.


Rwanda has emerged as the model country for the food security initiative because it was the first to challenge the G8 to make good on its pledges.  The G8 said it was interested in country-led agriculture investment strategies, and Rwanda had a plan ready to go, with priorities such as irrigation, soil conservation, local seed research and extension services to advise farmers.  Since 2007, it had been sharply increasing its own spending on agriculture development, determined to cut its reliance on food aid and have its own farmers feed the country.

This tiny nation in east-central Africa – known as the “land of 1,000 hills” — was pushing ahead with an ambitious Land Husbandry, Water Harvesting and Hillsides Irrigation project, a $200 million initiative that would initially include more than 40,000 hectares.  To begin work earlier this year, Rwanda had committed up to $25 million of its own money and had received $34 million from the World Bank, $14 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development and about $8 million from the Canadians.  When the corn harvest was in, Ezechias and a legion of other farmers went to work terracing their land.

Then the global agriculture fund was launched this spring, and Rwanda jumped to be the first in line with a request for $50 million for the hillside project.  This week, that request was approved by the new multi-donor trust fund and Rwanda’s ambitions kicked into high gear.

“This is the future of Rwanda,” the program manager, Innocent Musabyimana, told me this week as he stood atop one the hills, looking down at the work.  “Ninety percent of the country is like this, all hills.  If we don’t do anything, in 40 years with the erosion, the farms will be gone.  To make our agriculture sustainable, we have to do this.”

The world needs to share Rwanda’s ambition and urgency.  For Rwanda illustrates the consequences of our neglect of agriculture development over the past three decades, and the potential for a reversal – the goal of Feed the Future.

Typical of sub-Saharan Africa, about three-quarters of Rwanda’s population depends on farming for its own food and a bit of income.  Agriculture provides one-third of the national income.  Yet Rwanda’s rural infrastructure is underdeveloped.  Markets are weak, transport is difficult, seed research is scarce.  Since the genocide of 1994 ravaged the countryside, hunger has gnawed away at the country.

The government’s recent push to improve its agriculture is yielding early successes.  This year’s corn harvest was four times greater than in 2006; farmers’ surpluses are filling the kitchens and bedrooms of their little houses.  And those farmers are counting on the G8 countries to continue their commitments to agriculture development, for much more work needs to be done on the entire farming chain so they can manage and sell their surpluses.  The farmers’ hopes are high for help in building new storage facilities, acquiring trucks to haul the surplus to market and expanding processing plants to turn their kernels into flour.

Rwanda has heard the G8’s pledge to follow country-led programs, and it is eager to show the way.  A host of other African countries are lining up to push their agriculture plans.  The challenges to boosting the continent’s food production are immense, and last year’s G8 commitments will need reinforcements.  Money, of course, is tight.  But the world can’t afford to continue the neglect of agriculture development.

Estimates are that the planet’s food production needs to nearly double by 2050 to feed a growing population that is also growing in prosperity.  It can’t be done without Rwanda’s –- and Africa’s — farmers.


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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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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.

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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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