August 5, 2011 | By Roger Thurow

Harvest and Hunger – Part 2

Kabuchai, Kenya

At 6:30 this morning, as the sun was coming up, Sanet Biketi walked out of his small house made of mud and sticks.  Carrying a machete at his side, he headed straight to the edge of his maize field and said a prayer of thanksgiving for the arrival of harvest day.

Then, just as he said “Amen,” he wielded the machete.  Whack, whack, thump.  He cut down two stalks of maize and threw them to the ground.  Whack, whack, thump.  Two more stalks added to the pile.

Within five hours, Sanet and a team of relatives and neighbors had cleared his one acre of maize.  Then, the rest of the day, led by Sanet’s wife Zibborah, they yanked the maize ears off the stalks and removed the husks.  The cobs, heavy with white kernels (preferred by most Africans over the yellow), were then carried from the field to dry in a new storage bin, made of maize stalks, sticks and logs.

The harvest totals weren’t immediately known; after drying, the cobs must be shelled and then the kernels packaged in 90 kilogram bags before the final yield can be calculated.  But of this Sanet is sure: he will be at least 15 to 20 bags ahead of last year’s harvest, which yielded barely more than one bag of maize from the one-quarter acre he tilled.  That paltry harvest left his family skipping meals and battling hunger in the months leading up to this harvest.  This year, for the first time, he will have a maize surplus.

As Sanet stood in his field, amid piles of cobs, I asked, “No more hunger?”

“We are safe now,” he said.

He also stood amid the wreckage of spreading drought and hunger throughout the Horn of Africa, including parts of Kenya.  What happened today on the Biketi shambaillustrates the impact of promoting agriculture development along with emergency food relief.  While the food aid rushes to feed the hungry, this area of western Kenya, where agriculture development efforts are more intense, is awash in big harvests.The Biketis are members of the One Acre Fund and one of the families I have been following this year.  Through the One Acre Fund, they received seeds and fertilizer on credit and farming advice about planting, weeding, harvesting and storage.  The timely delivery of seeds, the little bit of fertilizer, the financing and the knowledge are all things that have been largely unavailable to Africa’s smallholder farmers.  This has resulted in woeful underproduction on Africa’s farms and the horrible, oxymoronic phrase “hungry farmers.”

“The harvest is one of the most rewarding times of the year,” says Andrew Youn, One Acre’s co-founder.  “It is a time to dream, to chart your path out of poverty.”

While the leaders of other non-governmental organizations and humanitarian agencies are rushing to Somalia and Ethiopia and the drought-stricken sections of Kenya to see their emergency feeding operations, Youn was observing the harvest of One Acre farmers.  And participating himself, clearing the cobs from the stalks alongside the farmers.

“We need the relief aid, but the only permanent solution to famine is permanent and sustained increases in food production,” he said.  Increasing the quantity and quality of their harvests is the goal for the 50,000-plus farmers in Kenya and Rwanda who are One Acre members.  The organization began five years ago with 40 farmers; by 2020 it aims to be working with one million.

“Famine is a horrible tragedy, but it should send the signal that more food needs to be produced,” Youn said.  “Famine is a wake-up call to the world.  As human beings, we respond to emergency needs.  But we can’t band-aid this problem forever.  We have to invest in long-term agriculture development.”

“Long-term” is the key.  A short burst of investment in agriculture development won’t change much.  Nor will the mere promises of rich-world leaders to increase agriculture development investment.  That path out of poverty that Youn talks about isn’t a short one-season journey.  It is a path that stretches, slowly and steadily, from one harvest to another to another.  It is something that politicians and governments and some donors with short attention spans and desires for quick results need to understand and embrace.

It is far better to hear the whack, whack, thump of the maize harvest than the cries of the hungry.

Archive

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Harvest and Hunger – Part 2

At 6:30 this morning, as the sun was coming up, Sanet Biketi walked out of his small house made of mud and sticks.  Carrying a machete at his side, he headed straight to the edge of his maize field and said a prayer of thanksgiving for the arrival of harvest day.

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Harvest and Hunger

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

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Empty Promises, Empty Stomachs

The promises made by the leaders of the rich world in L’Aquila, Italy, two years ago were supposed to stop what is now happening in the Horn of Africa. But those pledges haven’t been kept, and starvation is raging once again.

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Vision.  Strategy.  Tactics.

These were the priorities that emerged at my table during a discussion about the role of U.S. universities, government agencies, NGOs, foundations and the African diplomatic community in advancing African development.  

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The Nigerian ambassador to the U.S., Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye, tells an acerbic joke to illustrate the importance of good leadership.

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This growing season in south-central Kenya has been a good test for the new drought tolerant maize varieties being bred in Africa.  This is a semi-arid area, but this year they can drop the semi.  Farmers report only three short periods of rain since the February planting time.

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For some farmers in western Kenya, the hunger season I wrote about last week is coming to a mercifully early end.  A new variety of bean is ready for harvest.


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Big Brains on Little Brains

Little brains were on the minds of some pretty big brains in the fight against hunger at the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security this week.

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Bill Gates came to the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security with a confession.  “I’ve never been a farmer,” he said.  “Until recently, I rarely set foot on farm.”

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Public Policy Matters

I enjoyed the great privilege of giving my first commencement speech on Sunday, to the graduating class of the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin.  I had eagerly anticipated the ceremony, knowing that the passion to shape a more just world inspires young policy makers as mightily as it fuels journalists.

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Something to Cut

With many words in this column, we have discussed what not to cut from the federal budget.  Namely, administration requests to fund agriculture development, especially in Africa, under the Feed the Future initiative and the Global Agriculture Food Security Program.

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Yin and Yang of Foreign Aid

Here is the Yin and the Yang of development aid spending: In the U.S., it is on the chopping block, threatened by budget cutters sharpening their knives; in China it is on an expansion course, favored by a government seeking to accumulate influence and riches in the developing world, particularly Africa.

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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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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.

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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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.

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