How Africa can feed itself and the world
Known as Africa's "tree of life," the baobab has branches that stretch to heaven, according to legend.
On a hot January morning in 2011, dozens of farmers in western Kenya gather to prepare for the planting season. They have formed small cooperatives and given them inspirational names like Hope, Faith, Happiness, and Success.
“Amua,” declares Leonida Wanyama, stating her group’s name in Swahili. She pauses, searching for the word in English. “Amua. Decide. We have decided.”
“Decided what?” I ask.
“We have decided,” she replies, “to move from misery to Canaan” – the Old Testament land of milk and honey, a place of abundance.
And thus begins a modern-day exodus for these African farmers, as they move from lives of chronic hunger and deep poverty to a future where they grow enough food to feed their families – and reap a surplus that allows them to pay school tuition for their children.
This is not a journey from one place to another, but a shift to a new philosophy that champions agricultural development and increased yields among the world’s vast legion of long-neglected smallholder farmers.
Wanyama and her neighbors – indeed, the majority of these farmers in Africa, who own less than 5 acres of land – know misery. They toil in a time warp, living and working essentially as their forebears did a century ago. With tired seeds, meager soil nutrition, primitive storage facilities, wretched roads, and no access to capital or credit, they harvest less than one-quarter the yields of farmers in the richer parts of the world.
The romantic ideal of African farmers – rural villagers in touch with nature, tending bucolic fields – is in reality a horror scene of malnourished children, backbreaking manual work, and profound hopelessness. Growing food is their driving preoccupation, and still they don’t have enough to feed their families. They suffer through an annual hunger season that can stretch from one to nine months – from the time the food from their previous harvest runs out, to the time when the next harvest comes in. The majority of small farmers in Africa are women; for them, as mothers, the deepest form of misery is being unable to stop the crying of a chronically hungry child.
Hungry farmers. It is perhaps the most confounding, troubling phrase on a confounding, troubled continent. Hungry farmers should be an oxymoron. But in my frequent travels to Africa’s hunger zones as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, I knew that phrase to be one of the continent’s saddest truths: Its small farmers, the people who rise every morning to grow their own food, are also its hungriest people.
On that January morning, Wanyama and her neighbors attend a training session with a new social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund. Founded by an American, Andrew Youn, it is based in western Kenya. For about $60 per half acre, the nonprofit will provide, on credit, the better-quality seeds, soil nutrients, and agricultural expertise unknown in rural Africa. The farmers agree to repay their loans throughout the year. The goal is to double or triple the yields.
They fight the same fears that rattle any farmer trying something new: Will it work? Should they trust the new seeds, the new planting techniques? But how else could their children grow up healthy and educated? How else could they break the cycle of the annual hunger season?
Amua. They have decided. Their exodus begins.
A year earlier, I had decided to begin a journey of my own, one that took me from reporting on famine to campaigning for change. Since 2003, I had been haunted by words I’d heard when I descended into a hunger zone for the first time, in Ethiopia. My guide was a veteran of the World Food Programme. “Looking into the eyes of someone dying of hunger becomes a disease of the soul,” he told me. “You see that nobody should have to die of hunger.”
He was right. What I saw in that famine, when 14 million people were on the doorstep of starvation, when hungry farmers were carrying their emaciated children to emergency feeding centers, just one year after they had carried bumper crops to markets in the same villages, changed me as a person and as a journalist. How could feast have turned so quickly to famine? After years of reporting in Africa, of traveling the world as a foreign correspondent, I saw injustices I hadn’t noticed before; I saw the negative impact of Western agriculture and food policies gone awry.
I needed to stop and focus on one story: hunger. I decided to explore how we had brought hunger with us into the 21st century, in ever-increasing numbers, when we’d been producing – and wasting – more food than ever. I wanted to outrage and inspire, to tell the world how the policies of the West and of Africa itself perpetuated famine on the continent, and then show how the neglect could be reversed.
In 2010, I left the Journal after 30 years. From my new post as senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, I set out to further examine the cruel paradox of hungry farmers.
These farmers are the victims of an agricultural crisis foretold by Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution,” for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. “We will be guilty of criminal negligence, without extenuation, if we permit future famines,” Borlaug warned. And that is indeed what has come to pass.
After Borlaug’s new breeding system produced a wheat strain that conquered famine in India, Pakistan, and other Asian countries in the 1960s and ʼ70s, a long era of abundant and cheap food dawned, and the world turned away from agricultural development. The movement to spread new farming advancements to hungry countries derailed before it reached Africa. Aid to African farmers and investment in rural areas by the continent’s governments and the international community declined precipitously, shrinking to negligible levels in the 1980s and beyond.
The private sector, particularly the agriculture industry, likewise ignored small farmers, deeming them too poor, too remote, too insignificant for attention. And this became the prevailing development philosophy throughout the Western world: Our farmers, who are heavily subsidized by our governments, are producing vast stockpiles of food cheaper than farmers anywhere else. If farmers elsewhere go hungry – if famine flares from drought, turmoil, or corrupt politics – we’ll feed them with our food aid.
This is what brought me to western Kenya: the desire to study the impact of the “criminal negligence” of which Borlaug had warned and to illustrate the potential of these farmers to escape the hunger season. I would follow Wanyama and a few other farmers, chronicling their efforts in a book published in May, called The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change.
The need to end the cycle of hunger in Africa is critical not only so Wanyama and other farmers can feed their families, their communities, and their continent, but so they can help feed the rest of the world. Experts predict the global population will increase by 2.6 billion people by 2050 – the equivalent of adding two Chinas. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the world needs to nearly double food production to keep up with this growth and the increasing prosperity of the its people.
And this needs to happen on roughly the same amount of arable land, with less available water. Meanwhile, a growing demand for biofuels is channeling more crops, especially corn, into gas tanks, and extreme weather patterns are wreaking havoc on harvests around the world, adding to the unprecedented strains on the global food chain.
Where will this doubling come from? Not from the present breadbaskets of Australia, Canada, the United States, and many countries in Europe, where the great jumps in yields over the past decades have slowed. Nor can we count on repeat performances in green revolution stars like Brazil, China, and India.
The quantum leaps must come from Africa. The hybrid seeds that revolutionized American agriculture in the 1930s are only now beginning to spread across Africa. Just 4 percent of the farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated, and one-third to one-half of its harvest routinely goes to waste, rotting before it can be eaten or sold, because of inadequate storage facilities and antiquated markets.
The farmers who have been fed by the world’s food aid now need to help feed the world. We continue to neglect Africa’s smallholder farmers at our own peril. “Agriculture is the fundamental humanitarian challenge of our time,” Youn says.
The urgency was highlighted throughout 2011 as food aid was rushed into Kenya and other countries in East Africa to counter yet another drought and famine. Food aid is vital in saving lives. But only agricultural development – increased access to the seeds, soil nutrients, financing, and expertise common everywhere else – can prevent the next famine.
This principle is at the center of the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative and the efforts of big donors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. Momentum for boosting agricultural development is building in the once-indifferent hallways of institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as well as in countless corporations and humanitarian organizations. The Rotary Foundation is helping small farmers for the long term, through a new focus on sustainable economic development and projects that deliver wells and irrigation systems.
When harvest time came in August, Wanyama and her neighbors reaped yields that were double, triple, or quadruple their harvests before they began working with One Acre Fund. With these bounties, they began to dream of feeding their children throughout the coming year and having enough left over to sell, generating income to cover school fees or diversify their farmsteads. Wanyama’s harvest helped her pay for hospital treatments that saved the lives of two of her children – a daughter giving birth and a son with a severe bout of malaria.
Wanyama and the other smallholder farmers know they face a long and difficult exodus from deep poverty. But they also know that increasing their agricultural productivity with new farming methods is their only chance to escape the hunger season, and to improve the health and the education of their children.
They long to move from being subsistence farmers on the edge of survival to being farmers who can sustain improved harvests over many years. They want to advance from farming to live, to farming to make a living.
If they succeed, so might we all.