September 3, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

From Subsistence to Success

Accra, Ghana

“Today a hoe. Tomorrow a tractor.”

That’s how Kofi Annan described the ambitions of a group of farmers he had met on a visit to Mali before arriving here to head up the African Green Revolution Forum.

“I heard their hope for a future,” said the former United Nations secretary general. “To do better year after year.”

Amid the Forum’s talk of improved seeds, and better fertilizer use, and micro-financing, and building harvest storage facilities and creating markets, another crucial element for transforming African agriculture is gaining prominence: shifting farmer ambitions from merely obtaining sustenance to making profits, from merely living to making a living.

“Leave behind subsistence farming and run farms as a business, create surpluses,” Annan told the gathering.

It is one of the strange realities of Africa that all of these subsistence farmers, growing food to feed their families and living on the far margins of any economy, add up to the biggest business in Africa. “For a long time we’ve been taking agriculture as a way of life. But agriculture is the largest business there is in Africa,” said Namanga Ngongi, the president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which itself was formed from an alliance between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Agriculture gives employment to 60-70% of the people, 35-40% of a nation’s gross domestic product. Clearly it’s a business. It’s big business. The food crops (mainly grown by the small farmers) are worth something like $200 billion, the cash crops $15-20 billion. We need to support smallholder farmers in the biggest business in Africa.”

One of the big concerns expressed at the Forum is that without cultivating a business sense along with cultivating crops, the agriculture revolution will quickly lose steam. What good will bumper harvests do, if the farmers don’t know what to do with them?

“Once a farmer goes from one ton of maize per acre to four tons, there is a surplus. Now, the farmer must think of what to do with that surplus,” said Ngongi. “The farmer must think like a businessman.”

Where is the market? What is the price? How can I maximize profit from my labor? These questions rarely enter the mind of a farmer who is growing only to feed her family – which she might be able to do if the weather cooperates.

On the small-holder farms in Africa, the profit motive has been as scarce as a white rhino. Financing, to support any entrepreneurial zeal, has also been rare in the rural areas. Commercial banks have been very reluctant to lend to people with very little collateral and little produce to market. Only in recent years have micro-financing organizations come to the bush bearing small loans so farmers can purchase better seeds and fertilizer. Credit has been the life-blood of farmers everywhere, except in Africa.

“Like business people everywhere, farmers need money to make money,” noted Annan, chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. “Until now, they haven’t been able to get it.”

But with the financing comes an added risk to farmers already depending on rain patterns and mercurial markets. So in addition to thinking like businesspeople, the small farmers of Africa will also need the real tools of the agriculture business, like crop insurance and futures contracts and commodities markets.

Risk mitigation will help make farming a better business bet. The other tools of a green revolution – scientific advances in seeds and fertilizer and irrigations systems – will help make it a better business.

All of which – along with recasting farming’s image from something you do to live from day to day into a business that’s about making a living – will also, Ngongi hopes, attract younger people to stay on the farms and entice students to pursue agriculture as a profession. “We need to have youth look at agriculture as a business,” he said. “Then they can be agents of change.”


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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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