July 29, 2011 | By Roger Thurow

Harvest and Hunger

Bungoma, Kenya

Two scenes from the great African paradox of surplus and shortage – feast and famine – in the same country:

In rural western Kenya, farmer Crispinus Walubengo harvests a bumper crop of maize. He is expecting a half-acre yield greater than the thirteen 90-kilogram bags he reaped last year, which had been his biggest-ever harvest.

In the port of Mombasa, on Kenya’s east coast, a crane offloads thousands of tons of maize imported from Malawi.  That maize would soon be heading to drought-ravaged northern and eastern parts of Kenya where hundreds of thousands of people are desperately hungry.

If any sense would come from this paradox, farmer Walubengo would be entertaining buyers from the Kenyan government or international relief agencies flocking to purchase his harvest to feed the hungry.  They would come bearing a pile of cash to buy at the country’s current historically high maize price.  It would be a rare win for Kenya’s smallholder farmers, and help Walubengo achieve his post-harvest goal of buying a top producing dairy cow.So far, though, no one has knocked on the wooden door of his mud-brick house and no one likely will.  Instead, imports and food aid continue to stream into the country and the greater Horn of Africa region.  The U.S. has pumped more than $430 million of emergency assistance into the Horn since the beginning of the year.  Part of that has gone to the United Nations World Food Program, which has received more than $250 million from donors to feed 11.5 million people in the Horn.

In Kenya, the WFP is feeding 1.6 million people and the government of Kenya 800,000.  The number needing food assistance is expected to rise to more than 3 million by mid-August.

This emergency relief will undoubtedly save countless lives.  But another emergency afflicting Kenya, the Horn and all of Africa is the lack of agriculture development aid to help farmers produce more food so the countries wouldn’t be in need of food aid in the first place.  In contrast to the rush of emergency food aid, there is a decided lack of urgency in providing the emergency agriculture development aid.

The rich world countries have for the most part dragged their feet on meeting their pledges to dramatically increase aid to agriculture development.  And in the U.S., the Obama administration’s Feed the Future Initiative, which aims to address emergency food aid needs while also improving the long-term productivity of Africa’s smallholder farmers, is battling to hold back Congressional budget cutters who would obliterate such foreign assistance programs.

For those who doubt that agriculture development aid does any good, consider again the two opening scenes.  Just six or seven years ago, Malawi was a large food aid recipient as a severe hunger crisis crippled the country.  The government committed to developing agriculture by helping its farmers become more productive and donor nations joined in.  Within a year or two, Malawi was producing a maize surplus, and it became a food aid donor to other African countries.

Two years ago, Farmer Walubengo harvested only 6 bags of maize on his half-acre.  Then he became a member of the One Acre Fund, which provides seeds and fertilizer on credit, and farming advice to go with it, to some 50,000 smallholder farmers in Kenya and Rwanda.  In one season, he more than doubled his maize yield.

Despite such successes, agriculture development has been so woefully neglected.  And so, in the Kenyan breadbasket regions of the Rift Valley and Western provinces, farmers faced a seed shortage when planting season arrived in March.  Farmers wanting to grow as much as possible were stymied by the underdevelopment of the country’s seed industry.  Incredibly, many of them left fields fallow – at a time when drought and hunger were spreading in other parts of Kenya.

In 2009, the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) was established by the G20 nations to pool resources in support of country-led programs to improve the productivity of smallholder farmers.  So far, the fund has allocated nearly $500 million dollars to 12 countries, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa.  But it has exhausted its funding, and no new donations have replenished it.  At the last round of allocations, GAFSP was unable to fund 15 countries for lack of money.

One of those was Kenya.  Within months, emergency food aid was rushing into the country.


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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.

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.

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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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