October 12, 2012 | By Roger Thurow

The Nutrition Dialogues

The most difficult conversations were about the malnourished children.

“When you, as a parent, see your child not eating enough to be satisfied, you are hurt, but you are not in a position to control the situation,” Zipporah Biketi told me when we first met in western Kenya last year.  Her two-year-old son David was manifestly malnourished with a swollen belly, and he was plagued with a persistent cough from a weakened immune system.  His sisters Cynthia and Tabitha were very thin.

David’s middle name was Wanjala; Tabitha’s was Nanjala.  Those are the names (a male version and a female version) often given to children born during the annual hunger season known locally as the Wanjala – it is a time of profound deprivation, when the family has run out of food from the previous harvest and is still waiting for the next harvest to come in.  David and Tabitha seemed trapped in the time of their birth.

Leonida Wanyama, another farmer I profile in my new book The Last Hunger Season, wore a pained expression when talking about four-year-old Dorcas, her youngest child.  The toll of the hunger season fell most heavily on the littlest; Dorcas, Leonida worried, was quieter and sicker more often than she should be for her age.

From these women farmers, I learned that the deepest form of misery was to be a mother unable to silence the crying of a hungry child.

These conversations are painful, but they are so necessary as we move agricultural development and improved nutrition to the top of the international discussion.  These are the central topics of ONE’s Thrive campaign.  Producing more food and more nutritional food – they go hand in hand.

Over the course of last year, while reporting the book, I followed Zipporah’s progress.  In 2010, she had enough money only to plant one-quarter of an acre; her meager harvest was barely two 90-kilogram bags of corn.  It lasted only a couple of months; her Wanjala stretched on for nine or ten months.

In 2011, she became a member of the social enterprise organization One Acre Fund, which now works with more than 130,000 farmers in several African countries.  One Acre provides access to the essential elements of farming – seed, soil nutrients, field training and micro-financing to pay for it all – that had for so long been beyond the reach of small-holder farmers.  With these materials, Zipporah was able to plant a full acre of corn, and her harvest multiplied 10-fold, to 20 bags.  It was wealth beyond her imagination.

Inspired by the leap in production of her staple crop, she turned her attention to improving the nutrition of her family.  She was able to afford seeds and tiny amounts of fertilizer for a second planting season of diversified crops on her one acre: beans, peas, kale, sweet potatoes, peanuts.  By the end of the year, with the Wanjala defeated, little David’s cough was largely gone and his malnutrition was abating.  Zipporah’s family was moving from merely surviving to robustly thriving.

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve heard much talk about agricultural development and nutrition at the United Nations General Assembly and the Clinton Global Initiative.  This in itself is progress – though perhaps not as dramatic as the improvements on the farms of Western Kenya.  For so long, agriculture and nutrition were rarely heard in the top-level dialogues on international development.

“Food Security is now at the top of our national and foreign policy agendas, as well as that of so many other nations in the world, because we understand it is a humanitarian and moral imperative, but it also directly relates to global security and stability,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed at a UN event featuring the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative, which has at its very core creating opportunities for farmers like Zipporah and Leonida.  She continued: “I’ve seen in my travels how increased investments in agriculture and nutrition are paying off in rising prosperity, healthier children, better markets, and stronger communities.”

The movement to grow more and better food is itself growing, presenting a great opportunity for whoever wins next month’s elections to keep expanding.  Now is not the time to slow down or retreat on the agriculture and nutrition front.  But to move full steam ahead.

Archive



| By Roger Thurow

African Farmers: Surviving or Thriving?

It is one of Africa’s cruelest ironies that as the planting season begins, as it is now across much of the continent, so does the hunger season. The food stocks from the previous harvest are running low and it will be several months before the next harvest comes in. Whatever food remains in the household is rationed: portions shrink, meals are skipped, malnutrition rises.


| By Roger Thurow

Relief to Resilience

There is little mail service in rural Africa, so the smallholder farmers there wouldn’t have received last week’s annual letter of U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah.  But they certainly would welcome his words.

| By Roger Thurow

Developments at the Development Bank

I’m surprised that “surprise” is a word being used to describe President Obama’s nomination of Jim Yong Kim to head the World Bank.  Surprise, perhaps, over the specific name, because Dr. Kim hadn’t figured prominently in the speculation of who would replace current World Bank president Robert Zoellick.

| By Roger Thurow

The Rising Power of Women Farmers

The most common tool in African agriculture is also the most impractical.  Or at least it appears to be.  It is the hoe, which is used for plowing, planting, weeding and harvesting.  It is a simple tool that produces the majority of the continent’s food, and yet it has remained unchanged over the centuries, defying any technological advance.

| By Roger Thurow

Looking Back, Moving Forward

At President Obama’s first international summit, the G8 meeting in L’Aquila, Italy in July 2009, he rallied his fellow rich world leaders to commit to investing $22 billion to conquer global hunger through agricultural development.  He spoke passionately about both the moral obligation and the global security imperative of ending hunger and the despair and hopelessness such deep poverty breeds.

| By Roger Thurow

Mr. Xi Goes to Iowa

Those were interesting photos from the dusty archives that appeared in various newspapers and TV reports this week, pictures of a visitor from China inspecting hogs, vegetable farms and grain processing facilities in Iowa back in 1985.  It became downright fascinating when it turned out that visitor, Xi Jinping, was now returning to the U.S., and to Iowa, as the vice president of China.  Oh, and he is presumed to be China’s next president.

| By Roger Thurow

Global Collaboration

At the foot of Mount Kenya, a patch of maize stalks are defying the odds.  They are standing tall and robust in a trial field where the soil had been intentionally depleted of nitrogen, one of the essential nutrients for maize.

| By Roger Thurow

Learning by Doing

Learning by doing is the philosophy of the Pan-American agricultural school known as Zamorano in Honduras.  Students come to class every day dressed in their uniform of blue jeans and blue shirt.  They come to work, not just to study; more often than not, their classrooms are the fields and the food production plants on campus.  They plant seeds and pull weeds and milk cows and nurture fish and make ice cream and inseminate queen bees.

| By Roger Thurow

Sidetracked

A not so funny thing happened on the way to the G20 meeting in Cannes last week.

| By Roger Thurow

The Right Vote

We’ll keep this short:

“Vote for the Appropriations Committee recommendation for foreign operations and against any cuts that would hurt hungry and poor people.”

| By Roger Thurow

Girls Grow

The teenagers of rural western Kenya I have met during the past year have no shortage of ambition.  Especially the girls.  They want to be doctors and nurses and teachers and lawyers and pilots.


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?

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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 »