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

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 »