Zipporah Biketi was living in a shrinking world when I first met her back in 2011. Her imagination rarely stretched beyond the boundaries of her small family farm in western Kenya. She could barely think beyond the next hour and the next meal, if there was to be one. She and her family were in the midst of the hunger season – the food from the previous meager harvest had run out and the next harvest was still months away. How could anyone have grand thoughts of thriving when struggling so mightily to merely survive?
Now three years later, Zipporah is thinking big. Her imagination stretches around the world, out into the future, beyond her own farm, beyond the next meal.
She thinks so big, in fact, that she proclaims with confidence that Africa’s family farmers “can feed the world.”
What happened to change Zipporah’s perspective so vastly? In 2011, she finally realized the potential of her small family farm and discovered the possibilities for an entire continent. She had joined a social enterprise organization, One Acre Fund, that was reversing the long-entrenched negligence of Africa’s smallholder farmers; rather than ignoring the farmers as too poor, too remote and too insignificant, One Acre embraced them as worthy customers for the essential elements of farming. With access to better quality seeds, soil nutrients, extension advice and the financing to pay for it all, Zipporah and her husband Sanet multiplied their maize harvest by 10-fold. For the first time, there would be enough food for all for the entire year.
Freed from the confinement of the hunger season, Zipporah and Sanet began planning for the future rather than dreading it. At the end of 2011, with her harvest stored in their bedroom, the Biketis showed me a blueprint of a new house they wanted to build to replace their old house of mud walls and thatched roof that leaked in the rain. Another year and another good harvest later, that house was being built with solid bricks and a metal roof. The next year, Zipporah was mastering diversification, tending all manner of vegetables on her one acre plot and talking about plans to hatch a poultry business. Her four children, so weak when I first met them, were now healthy, robust and doing well in school. Zipporah and Sanet had opened a savings account to ensure there would be enough to send them to high school.
Zipporah is one of the central characters in my book, The Last Hunger Season, along with three fellow farmers in western Kenya: Leonida Wanyama, Rasoa Wasike, and Francis Mamati. They are also at the heart of the United Nations 2014 International Year of Family Farming. For on their farms you can see the potential of Africa’s smallholder farmers, and the 500 million-plus family farmers around the world. Family farmers already produce the majority of the world’s food – but they can do so much more.
Yes, they can contribute greatly to feeding the world and its increasing population when they have the access to the essential elements of farming and access to storage and markets. And, as I found in western Kenya, they are also diligent stewards of the earth. Their land and their harvests are all they have. The last thing they want to do is to harm that which provides their sustenance, their livelihood, their health, the education for their children.
Investments in these family farmers will unleash the possibilities, as we see with the farmers of The Last Hunger Season.
“You should never neglect the small beginnings of somebody,” Zipporah says, “because with that little knowledge and small start, that somebody can go very far and accomplish things that you cannot believe.”
This was the message of the book, published in 2012. Now, we see it come to life in a series of short films about The Last Hunger Season farmers from filmmakers Josh Courter and Giulia Longo Courter. We hear the farmers’ voices, see their shambas, witness their exodus, as Leonida Wanyama says, from the misery of the hunger season to Canaan, the Promised Land, of improved harvests and better lives.
Beginning with today’s episode – an introduction to the farmers and their role in the global food chain – please watch, enjoy, and spread the message.
This blog post also appeared as a World Food Day Perspectives essay.