May 20, 2012 | By Roger Thurow

Neglect Reversed, Now Keep the Focus

Too poor, too remote, too insignificant.  That was the unofficial mantra behind the neglect of smallholder farmers in Africa for the past four decades.  It was recited by the farmers’ own governments, by rich world governments, by development institutions large and small, by the private sector.  It has left Africa’s farmers far behind those in the rest of the world.  It has left them unable to feed their own families throughout the year.  It has given rise to that horrible oxymoron “hungry farmers.”

Hopefully, that mantra – and the mindset it fronted – was junked forever this weekend and the neglect reversed.  At the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Food and Nutrition Security and at the G8 summit at Camp David, the smallholder farmers were put on center stage – although few were actually in attendance – and showered with attention.  The powerful and the rich trained their focus on the hungriest and the poorest.  Their overwhelming consensus was that the smallholder farmers of Africa – most of whom are women — are indispensable in the great global challenge of doubling food production by 2050 to meet the demands of a population that is growing in both size and prosperity.

Finally, the potential and performance of Africa’s smallholder farmers – as I chronicle in The Last Hunger Season — was recognized and saluted and embraced.  Well done.

But, as was also often noted at the Symposium, this recognition needs to go beyond the conference halls and into the fields, to the women working their soil at the end of the rural dirt roads.

So, how do we get from here to there?

President Barack Obama, speaking at the Symposium, unveiled the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.  He said it demanded the concerted efforts of governments in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world to design and prioritize their own agricultural development plans, of the donor countries to support those plans and of the private sector to help implement them.  He called it an “all hands on deck” effort.

It was a rousing start.  But then the G8 failed to fully seize the moment and turbo-charge the New Alliance with concrete promises and money and commitment.  A number of advocates and organizations on the front line of the fight against hunger hailed the initiative for reversing the neglect but were quick to say more needed to be done to maintain the momentum.

“While some countries appear to have really stepped up to the plate, the G8 collectively missed an opportunity to build the New Alliance at the scale that is needed to get the job done,” Michael Elliott, president and CEO of ONE, said in a statement.  “So while this plan is a bold beginning, it must not be the end of the G8’s ambition on food security and nutrition.  The Alliance needs to be built out across the 30 developing countries with plans for agriculture if we are to meet the goals of lifting 50 million people out of poverty and prevent stunting in 15 million children due to chronic malnutrition.”

Perhaps the key player in achieving these goals will be the private sector, particularly the international agriculture industry, which has in the past dismissed some 50 million African smallholder farmers as potential customers.  To poor, too remote, too insignificant.  It defied any common business sense.

One industry, the continent’s cell phone purveyors, saw the potential in this market and it has thrived.  Cell phones are common throughout rural Africa; the farmers see them as a life transforming technology and they are willing to pay for the phone and for the calling time.  They use the phones to reduce distance (it eliminates the long walks to check up on family and friends), to do their banking, to get agriculture advice, to monitor crop prices at the nearest markets.  The sad irony is that they don’t have the essential elements provided by the agriculture industry – seed, soil nutrients, tools, credit, storage facilities – to increase their production to take advantage of the information they can get with the cell phones.  It’s wonderful to be able to dial a number and check the prices, but few farmers grow enough to have a surplus that they can actually sell.

Access to the basics of farming technology can double, triple, quadruple their harvests.  For the smallholder farmers, that is even more life transforming than cell phone technology.  And so they will pay for better quality seeds and micro-doses of fertilizer and time-saving equipment.  “Absolutely we will.  We know the benefits,” says Francis Mamati, one of the smallholder farmers I follow in The Last Hunger Season.

In the New Alliance, the private sector is moving to embrace this vast market, rallied by the African Union, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, and the World Economic Forum.  Nearly 50 businesses (multinational and local African enterprises alike) and farmer organizations have announced $3 billion worth of New Alliance deals, and that is said to be a conservative number.  This number needs to multiply greatly as the New Alliance model spreads from the three initial target countries – Tanzania, Ethiopia and Ghana – to the rest of the continent.

Imagine, Africa’s smallholder farmers finally in the spotlight.  Too poor no more, too remote no more, too insignificant no more.


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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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» 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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