September 16, 2014 | By Roger Thurow

The Last Hunger Season, Part 1 – The Expanding Possibilities of Family Farmers

We’re excited to announce the launch of a new multi-part film series on Roger Thurow’s The Last Hunger Season. Now through October 16—coinciding with World Food Day 2014—we will be releasing two episodes from the series per week. Part 1 is now available below. See all episodes.

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.

Archive

| By Roger Thurow

Remembering the Post-9/11 Promises to Raise Foreign Aid

The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is bringing back a rush of memories and emotions.  Everyone it seems is recalling, with respect for the victims, where they were on that day when they heard or watched the horrific news.

| By Roger Thurow

Coping with Drought

With drought devastating farms from the Horn of Africa to the Panhandle of Texas, I journeyed to one of the frontlines of climate change to “chew the news,” as the Maasai say.

| By Roger Thurow

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.

| By Roger Thurow

Harvest and Hunger

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

| By Roger Thurow

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.

| By Roger Thurow

Rowing in the Same Direction

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.  

| By Roger Thurow

Political Will

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

| By Roger Thurow

Countering Drought

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.

| By Roger Thurow

Cool Beans

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.


| By Roger Thurow

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.

| By Roger Thurow

The Importance of Innovation

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.”

| By Roger Thurow

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.

| By Roger Thurow

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.

| By Roger Thurow

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.

Multimedia

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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.

» 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 »