July 23, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

At Harvest Time, Seeing Is Believing

Farmer Jentrix Mesache displays the remarkable difference in the size of her corn.
It’s maize harvesting time in western Kenya.  Tearing the husks off her corn, Jentrix Mesache can hardly believe her eyes – or her ears.

The ears of corn are thick and long, perhaps three times larger than the ears she harvested last year.  As proof, she retrieves an ear of corn from the previous harvest and holds it up next to one she has just picked.  It is a stark contrast, scrawny (last year) versus strong (this year).

“It’s like a miracle to me,” she says.  Last year her maize harvest from her half-acre plot didn’t even fill two 90 kg bags; that, says the 30-year-old mother of three, was barely enough to feed her family for two months.  This year, she’s expecting to fill at least 10 bags.  That will mean the difference between feeding her family all year or struggling through the traditional “hunger season” – the period that begins when the food of the previous harvest runs out and agonizingly stretches until the next harvest comes in.

Jentrix credits the difference in yields to her membership in the One Acre Fund, a new organization that aims to bring the best available technology and the best farming and business practices to farmers who in the past have had neither.  One Acre, which works with about 25,000 small-holder farmers in Kenya and Rwanda, provides seed and fertilizer in advance of the planting season – in the past, late delivery of those inputs, and then often in insufficient amounts, have limited harvests.

One Acre advisers teach the farmers how to space the maize during planting.  Traditionally, they would grab a handful of seed and just scatter it over the soil, rather than dropping it into holes of a certain depth.  That haphazard manner of planting would lead to overcrowding and weaker, smaller stalks.  The farmers learn how to apply fertilizer before and after planting, rather than casually throwing it atop to the seeds, which damages the young sprouts.

One Acre provides credit to the farmers to purchase the inputs and crop insurance to protect them against failed harvests in this rain-dependent area – two financial instruments common to farmers in the U.S. and elsewhere in the rich world but rare in Africa.

“It’s a relief,” says One Acre farmer Jane Makokha about the insurance.  “I know any losses will be shared.”  For these farmers, it is their first-ever hedge against the risk of farming.

Once the harvest is in, One Acre teaches drying and storage techniques to protect against weather and pests that sometimes ruin up to 50% of production.  And One Acre helps the farmers find markets for their crops.

“On just a small plot, I made 12,000 shillings!,” says Francis Mamati, amazed at the income from his beans, which equaled about $150 (nearly 7 times the amount of his loan).  He says he sold 158.8 kilograms of beans, which he knows so precisely because, for the first time, his harvest was weighed.  One Acre provided a scale.  Before, traders would come by his farm and scoop up his beans with a container and merely estimate the weight, often fudging in favor of the trader.  And those traders, Francis says, paid only half the price One Acre was able to negotiate for its group of farmers.

“We did very well,” he says with a broad grin.

I visited One Acre farmers in Kenya last week after attending a symposium in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, sponsored by the Sasakawa Foundation to honor the work of Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution that transformed agriculture in many countries in Asia and Latin America.  In Addis, the assembled scientists and humanitarians stressed the essential elements needed to finally bring an agriculture revolution to Africa, where crop yields lag far behind everywhere else in the world: access to the best farming practices and technology, and a profit incentive for the continent’s legion of small farmers to grow as much food as possible, not only to feed their families but to also provide an income.

In Kenya, One Acre was putting those goals into action.

“Left on their own, the farmers don’t have much power against the traders,” says Andrew Youn, the founder of One Acre.  “So we’ll consolidate farmers together.  It gives them more leverage, and it’s better for the traders because they don’t have to drive from place to place.”

Carrying an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Andrew traveled around Africa in 2005, exploring health and poverty issues.  In the Bungoma area, he came across two neighboring farmers who had very different crop yields.  He learned that the one with the much bigger harvest could afford seed and fertilizer and had access to training, the other one had none of that.  As the next planting season rolled around, he began working with about 40 small-holder farmers who were struggling to feed their families, and the idea of One Acre was sown. The organization has grown exponentially every year since – with ambitions of nearly doubling its number of farmers annually.

“It just struck me, here are customers who need to be served,” Andrew says from One Acre’s humble quarters in Bungoma.  And to serve them with a business model of credits and repayments rather than charity handouts.

“We’ve always thought of it as a business.  Provide clients with the best services.”  From the outset, he says, the strategy was to think big and scale-up operations: “reach as many people as we can, have a meaningful impact, and do it cost effectively.”

“In our grandest dreams,” he says, “we do think we can actually move the needle in Africa.”

In western Kenya, One Acre is already moving its farmers to think big beyond their first improved harvests.  Jentrix Mesache says she wants to use her income to buy a milk cow.  Jane Makokha hopes to expand her maize planting from a half-acre to one full acre next year.  And Francis Mamati, who is following up his beans with an anticipated bumper maize harvest, wants to send his two daughters to the local technical college, where they would like to study fashion design.  He would also like to build a greenhouse to grow vegetables.

Holding up three robust ears of corn he has just pulled from a stalk, he says, “This is our energy and our income!  If I can make enough money from my farming I will do wonderful things.”
One Acre Fund Farmer Peter Mafula shows off the increased growth of his maize crop.


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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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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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