September 7, 2012 | By Roger Thurow

Listen Up!

Francis Mamati was gobsmacked by what he heard.

Why would they say that?, he wondered.

Sitting under a shade tree in front of his little house in western Kenya, Francis had just been told that there are people who think African smallholder farmers are better off planting seeds saved from previous harvests than planting newer, fresher seeds purchased every year.  The rationale behind this thinking is that these saved seeds are cheaper; annual purchases would trap these very poor farmers in a cycle of higher expenses, leaving them beholden to seed companies.

“You mean they would rather we be trapped in a cycle of hunger?,” Francis asked incredulously.

For years, he and neighboring farmers had routinely used saved seeds or purchased cheap, tired varieties that have been in use for decades.  And for years they have struggled through a hunger season, unable to grow enough food to feed their families throughout the year.  Francis knew the misery of the hunger season all too well.  In fact, his middle name, bestowed by his mother, is Wanjala, the local word for hunger.  He was born during the hunger season of 1957.

Thus, Francis and tens of thousands of other farmers in his area jumped at the chance to purchase better-quality hybrid corn seed when a social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund presented the opportunity.  Crucially, One Acre also provided the financing in the form of micro-credit to enable the farmers to afford the seed, as well as tiny amounts of fertilizer.  We’re not talking about the new generation of seeds called gmo’s, or genetically modified organisms – they aren’t even available in Kenya or in most of Africa — but about seeds produced through conventional hybrid breeding techniques that adapt for disease or climate or soil conditions.  The result can be harvests with double or triple yields.

“We will all pay more for seeds if they give us much better harvests,” Francis explained.  “Who wouldn’t?  It doesn’t cost anything to be hungry.  Starvation is cheap!  You mean these people would rather we not spend money and be content with low yields?”

He continued: “We’ve come to discover that the seed you save in your house and use year after year doesn’t perform as well as the hybrid seed.  One, it is too easily attacked by disease; no changes have been made to resist new disease.  Two, the cobs are smaller than with hybrid seed.”

“Look,” he said, “life is going on.  There is new technology in the world.  So you should follow the technology rather than hold on to old customs that are leaving you hungry.  We look forward to our better harvests.”

I write about this conversation in my book The Last Hunger Season.  And I repeat it here because as I speak about the horrible oxymoron of “hungry farmers”, of the need to end hunger through agricultural development, a frequently asked question is the very one that was put to Francis: are we somehow trapping farmers in the expense of buying seed every year?

My reply: Listen to the famers.

Listening should be the most cherished skill of anyone doing international development work.  Ask and listen.  Don’t assume.  Don’t dictate.  Don’t impose your notions of what is best.

I thought of Francis while watching former President Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democrats’ convention this week.  “Arithmetic!,” Clinton shouted when revealing the secret of balancing the national budget.

Arithmetic was also key to Francis’ farming rationale.  He acknowledged that hybrid seeds cost more than the traditional varieties, a couple of hundred shillings per half acre more.  But he said it was well worth the cost if he could harvest an additional five or six bags of corn, each worth more than 1,000 shillings (and perhaps as much as 4,000 shillings, depending on the time of year and the market price).  Who, he asked, wouldn’t make that transaction, particularly if their children were hungry?

Listen.  There is wisdom in these voices.


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1,000 Days and Migrant Stress

The first 1,000 days of a child's life is a critical time for development, where nutrition--and stability--lay the foundation for a lifetime. 

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Outrage and Inspire with Roger Thurow - Am I About to Lose My Second Child, Too?

The latest podcast in our ongoing series with Roger Thurow. Hear how even the best nutrition projects can be undermined by bad water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and lousy infrastructure.  From northern Uganda, we hear a mother’s agony when her healthy, robust child suddenly falls ill after a few sips of water…unclean water, it turned out.

Roger Thurow on SDG 2.2

Roger Thurow sat down with Farming First to talk about the individual and societal consequences of malnutrition. 




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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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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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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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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