December 20, 2013 | By Roger Thurow

Meet the Experts: Roger Thurow — Making the Impossible Possible

Roger Thurow is a senior fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He is the author of The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change and ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty

Follow him on Twitter at @RogerThurow.

You were based in South Africa when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the transition to a post-apartheid society began. What is Nelson Mandela’s legacy?

I think a large part of Nelson Mandela’s legacy will be seen in what is yet to come. We will see in coming years how people act on the inspiration he provided. My favorite Mandela-ism is this: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Mandela himself was the embodiment of this quote. It always seemed impossible that he would be released from prison during his life—and then, after 27 years, it happened. This should inspire all of us facing difficult challenges and prod us to make the impossible possible. I think this is particularly applicable in the push to end hunger and extreme poverty. The problem of hunger seems to be so huge. It always seems impossible. Until… So let this be our New Year’s Resolution: Let us do all that we can to end hunger in our time. Let’s make the impossible possible!

The end of apartheid was one of the big stories you covered during your 30 years as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, 20 of them as a foreign correspondent in Europe and Africa. What motivated you to switch careers and focus on global hunger issues as a senior fellow at The Chicago Council?

It was the Ethiopian famine of 2003. It was the first famine of the 21st Century…14 million people were on the doorstep of starvation, being kept alive by international food aid. How had we, with all our great advances in science and technology, brought hunger with us into the new millennium? After all those years of wandering from place to place, from story to story as a foreign correspondent, this was one story I couldn’t simply walk away from. There, in Ethiopia, I found my true passion, my calling, as a journalist. Hunger in the 21st Century was the only story I wanted to write about. And this is what I do now at The Chicago Council, raising the clamor about hunger in our time and what we can do about it. You can also watch my TEDx talk to learn more about the Ethiopian famine and the power of smallholder farmers in Africa.

You travel all over the world speaking with smallholder farmers. What are some of the challenges and struggles facing these farmers?

It is the world’s cruelest irony that the hungriest people on our planet are smallholder farmers. Try as they might–and they do try mightily–they often aren’t able to grow enough food to feed their families throughout the year. They endure an annual hunger season. Their greatest challenge to ending the hunger season is obtaining affordable access to the essential elements of farming: seeds, soil nutrients, micro-financing, extension advice, proper storage, markets. They also struggle against a common perception, especially in the rich world, that smallholder farmers are too poor, too remote, too insignificant to be worthy of our attention and to be considered as worthy clients. In fact, these farmers who have for so long been neglected are now essential to the sustainability of our global food chain. We need them, and all farmers in the world, to be growing as much nutritious food as possible.

Why did you decide to focus on smallholder farmers in your last book, “The Last Hunger Season”?

I wanted to create as intimate-as-possible portrait of the lives of smallholder farmers and thereby help to reverse the global neglect of them. In the narrative of the lives of four farmers in western Kenya, we see their potential–how they can succeed in ending their hunger seasons. And we see how their success is important to all of us. I hope readers gain a better understanding and appreciation of how these smallholder farmers make decisions on how to utilize their limited resources to provide the best education and nutrition for their children–the very same things we in the rich world hold so dear.

You are now working on a new writing project?

It is about the 1,000 days from the time a woman becomes pregnant to the second birthday of her child. This is perhaps the most important period of human development, for this is the time when any shock of malnutrition can cause cognitive and physical stunting with detrimental life-long impacts on education and income. You can learn more about this project at our website,

You spend a lot of time talking with high school and college students during your book tour. What are some activities and programs that students can participate in to help farmers and the hungry in the world?

I love speaking with students because they are eager to get busy changing the world…to make the impossible possible. I tell them that whatever they are studying, whatever their interests are, they can apply it to the fight against hunger and malnutrition. Be it business, or engineering, or computer science, or anthropology, or architecture, or theology, or geology, or law, or medicine, or philosophy, or journalism. There’s important work for you to do.


| By Roger Thurow

A Wondrous Journey

Cruising down I-80 in the summer is one of the most wondrous, and paradoxical, drives in the country.

| By Roger Thurow

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. 

| By Roger Thurow

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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» 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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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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