October 29, 2013 | By Roger Thurow

How smallholders can grow ‘from merely surviving to robustly thriving’

Roger Thurow discusses potential of smallholders at Cargill

Although they have been largely neglected during the past several decades, Africa’s smallholder farmers hold the potential not only to transform their own lives, but also the world food supply. All they need is access to small amounts of the basic elements of farming: seeds, fertilizer, financing, storage and training.

That was the message from award-winning author and food security “factivist” Roger Thurow at the latest installment of a speaker series for Cargill employees. Roger’s newest book, “The Last Hunger Season,” examines the lives of Africa’s rural farmers as they struggle to not only provide for their families but also commercialize their endeavors in a way that will allow them to profit and grow.

“Their goal is to go from merely surviving to robustly thriving,” Roger said.

Subsistence farmers in Africa make up the majority of the continent’s population and produce the bulk of the continent’s food. Most of them are women. They farm areas of little more than an acre on average, and “it’s on that tiny land that they try to grow enough to feed their families, and then hopefully have a surplus.”

Unfortunately, the cycle of poverty has held their progress in check. Part of that cycle is the yearly “hunger season,” when stocks from the last harvest run low and families often cut back to one meal per day or less while they await their next crop. Perversely, this period of malnourishment often coincides with the planting and growing season, when farmers need the most energy to work their fields, Roger said. Children go hungry and lapse into developmental stunting. Parents must make difficult choices among food, medicine and education.

But that cycle can be broken, with just a little bit of help.

Becoming sustainable and commercial

To vividly paint a picture of how that’s possible, Roger told the story of Zipporah Biketi, a smallholder maize farmer in Kenya who, on her own, had only been able to plant one-fourth of her single acre farm. From this planting, she had harvested a meager two 90-kilogram bags of maize to last her family through the year. This meant their hunger season lasted nearly nine months, and the possibility of selling surplus crops to generate income remained a seemingly unachievable dream.

Then Zipporah heard about a local program being run by the One Acre Fund, a non-profit devoted to giving smallholder farmers the resources they need to sustain and grow their operations. Through One Acre, Zipporah was able to obtain better seeds, a small amount of fertilizer, some credit and training in basic farming techniques.

A year later, she and her husband had a fully productive acre, from which they harvested ten times more maize than the year before. Not only were they able to feed their family, they could buy medicine, educate their children and expand their operations. When Roger last visited with them, they were replacing their leaky two-room mud and straw hut with a brick house, complete with a metal roof and a storage room for their surplus grain.

“You can start to see them planning for the future,” he said about farmers like Zipporah. “You find them taking on more calculated risk and debt as they get adjusted to the family farm and the family business.”

The key to future food security As Roger looked ahead to 2050, when the world’s population will reach 9 billion and, based on varying estimates, food production will need to increase by 60 to 100 percent above what it is today, he said farmers like Zipporah could well be the key to feeding the world. They control the portion of agriculture that can most easily make sizeable gains in productivity.

He called on the private sector not to overlook these farmers, to seek opportunities to work with them and help them transition “from farming to live, to farming to make a living.”

“If these farmers succeed, so might we all, with this great challenge in front of us,” he said.

[This article originally appeared at Cargill.com]

Archive




| By Roger Thurow

Starved Bodies, Hungry Minds

The women farmers at the foot of the Lugulu Hills paused from the preparation of their fields for the planting season and looked forward to the harvest.

| By Roger Thurow

Extending the Reach

I returned from a day in the field with Kenyan smallholder farmers last week to find these words from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as the Newsbrief’s Quote of the Week:

“As I travel around the world talking about American agriculture, the one thing that has struck me is how jealous the rest of the world is about extension, how they would love to have the capacity that we have in this country and often, unfortunately, take for granted, of the ability to reach out and gain very useful information and insights to improve productivity.”

Exactly, I thought.

| By Roger Thurow

Bringing Home the Seeds

It’s been Christmas in February this week for thousands of smallholder farmers in western Kenya.  Seeds and fertilizer for the imminent planting season arrived.

| By Roger Thurow

Reality Check

As the budget battles intensify, a reality check is in order: Slashing foreign aid targeted for boosting development in poor countries will hardly make a dent in the deficit.  The savings will be negligible, but the consequences would be huge.


| By Roger Thurow

Writing on the Wall

The writing on the wall, foretelling the turmoil that has roiled North Africa and the Middle East in recent weeks, appeared during the food crisis of 2008.  It was then that staple food shortages and soaring prices sent protesters into the streets in dozens of countries in the developing world.

| By Roger Thurow

We Do Big Things

For those of us who were listening to the President’s State of the Union address this week, listening for a reference to the fight against hunger through agriculture development, we heard this near the end of the speech:

| By Roger Thurow

African Paradox

Once again, the great paradox of Africa emerges: hunger in one part of a country, food surplus in another.

| By Roger Thurow

The Task Ahead for the 112th Congress

As 2011 dawns, the United States government is poised to lead the greatest assault on global hunger through agriculture development since the Green Revolution half a century ago.  

| By Roger Thurow

Bowling against Hunger

The college football bowl season, which begins this weekend, celebrates food and eating almost as much as it celebrates gridiron excellence.  Just consider how many of this season’s bowls – Bowls!  The very word comes straight from the kitchen — are sponsored by food companies or named after food:


| By Roger Thurow

Food Is the Foundation

This week in Cancun, international negotiators have been consumed with climate change.  And on Dec. 1, all around the world, red ribbons were out in force for World AIDS Day.

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.

» Learn more.
» 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.

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?

Learn more »

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 »