You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
Today's Wild Card author is:
and the book:
PublicAffairs (May 29, 2012)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Visit the author's website.
SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:
Africa's small farmers, who comprise two-thirds of its population, toil in a time warp, living and working essentially as they did in the 1930s. Without mechanized equipment, fertilizer, or irrigation; using primitive storage facilities, roads, and markets; lacking capital, credit, and insurance they harvest only one-quarter the yields of Western farmers, half of which spoil before getting to market. But in 2011 one group of farmers in Kenya came together to try to change their odds for success-and their families' futures. Roger Thurow spent a year following their progress.
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?
My take: This isn't an easy book to read. I like nice, easy reads.
But this is an important book to read. I like important books too.
The whole idea of the One Acre Fund is to help out those small farms in Africa... farmers who have less than five acres of land. Which of course gets me thinking too.
Such a small amount of money makes such a huge difference to the yields of these farmers. $45 is a figure I saw a couple of times. Such a small amount of money that can transform the life of a family.
Why aren't we doing more with the space we have too? I know the point of the book is that Africa is where we have hungry farmers, and I agree. Bringing small farmers in Africa to a point where they can be self-sufficient, and have some food to actually sell, will make a huge difference.
But can't something like that help the 'food insecure' or whatever the current pc term is for people who are hungry in America? I know that the working poor in urban areas don't have an acre of land to plant, but there are community gardens, and vertical gardens. Though undoubtedly more than $45 investment to get a family up and running, isn't it something worth investigating?
The rural hunger problem in America though... I know in my area almost everyone has access to some land. It's just that the soil is poor and the climate is fairly harsh. We grow tumbleweeds quite well, and cactus. Everything else takes some effort. What if I marked out an acre and really worked at making it productive? What if...?
Anyway, none of that is exactly the point of the book. At least not exactly. The "What if?" That is definitely huge.
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
P R O L O G U E
I wasn’t in western Kenya long before I met my first Wanjala.
He was Francis Mamati, a smallholder farmer, unfailingly gra- cious, who smiled relentlessly as he lugged chairs and tables from the dark sitting room of his little house to the expansive shade of an avocado tree. With a slight breeze stirring, Francis began telling the story of his life as a farmer. He mentioned that he was born in 1957. We were the same age. I asked the date of his birth.
“I don’t know a day,” Francis said, “but I think it must be May or
“Because my mother gave me a third name: Wanjala,” he said. “Wanjala is our word for hunger, for the time of year when we run low on food. The hunger season. And that is usually May and June.”
Francis Wanjala Mamati. “You can call me Hunger,” he said.
In western Kenya, the Luhya people like to name their children for the time of year in which they are born. Sitawa, for instance, is a girl born during the time of flying termites. Wamalwa is a boy who arrived during the brewing season. Nasimiyu is a girl delivered during the hot, dry months. Particularly popular are boys’ names that match the rhythms of the growing season: Wafula (rains), Wanyonyi (weeding), Wekesa (harvest).
The most common name of all, it seems, is Wanjala. There are an awful lot of people called Hunger. That is because the hunger sea- son can be the longest, stretching from the time the food from the previous harvest in August and September runs out to the time when the new crops begin to come in. It is a time when food prices soar with the shortages, and parents scramble for whatever income they can find and scrounge whatever assets they can sell to afford daily nourishment. Household food rations are cut and meals elimi- nated. Three meals become two, then one, and then, on some days, none. Work in the fields slows, children drop out of school, the lit- tlest battle for survival. May and June are the high season for hunger in western Kenya, but for some families the wanjala can begin in April or even in January.
After Francis, I would meet many more Wanjalas, and Nanjalas, the female version of the name. Teachers, preachers, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, aid workers, farmers. Especially farmers.
HUNGRY FARMERS. That is perhaps the most confounding, trou- bling phrase on a confounding, troubled continent. “Hungry farm- ers” should be an oxymoron. How can farmers, who rise every morning to grow food, be hungry? 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 truisms: her small- holder farmers, the people who grew their own food, were also her hungriest people.
It was this discordant fact that brought me to the hardscrabble homesteads of western Kenya, a paradoxical region of breathtaking beauty and overwhelming misery. The area that stretches from Lake Victoria north to the slopes of Mount Elgon on the border with Uganda is one of Kenya’s breadbaskets, especially for the produc- tion of corn, which is known across much of Africa as maize. But it is also the region that leads the country in malnutrition and poverty. Collectively it may boast the nation’s highest agriculture output per acre, yet individually millions of smallholder farmers struggle to grow enough to feed their families throughout the year. Few fami- lies escape the annual wanjala.
Hungry farmers are the legacy of the “criminal negligence” of agricultural development 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 extenua- tion, if we permit future famines,” Borlaug warned back then. And that is indeed what came to pass. After Borlaug’s new breeding sys- tem produced a wheat strain that conquered famine in India, Pak- istan, and other places in Asia in the 1960s and ’70s, and after the Malthusian worry that the world would run out of food was dif- fused by the transformation of formerly hungry countries into new food powers, a long era of abundant and cheap food dawned, and the world turned away from agricultural development. The move- ment to spread new farming advances to hungry countries derailed before it could reach Africa. Aid to farmers and investment in rural areas in Africa by both the international community and the conti- nent’s governments declined precipitously, shrinking to negligible levels through the 1980s and ’90s and into the twenty-first century. The private sector, particularly the agriculture industry, likewise largely ignored the smallholder farmers tending less than five acres of land, deeming them too poor and remote for its attention. Neglecting the well-being of the largest segment of the population
on the world’s poorest continent defied logic. Yet this was the pre- vailing development philosophy in the United States and other rich precincts of the world: our farmers, who are heavily supported by our governments, are producing vast stockpiles of food cheaper than farmers anywhere else. Better the poor countries buy their food from us than produce it themselves. And if they are hungry—if famine were to flare from drought, turmoil, or evil politics—we’ll feed them with our food aid.
And so it went for decades, even as the world’s population grew and strains mounted on the global food chain—until the worldwide food crisis of 2007 and 2008. Shrinking stockpiles of some major grains sent prices skyrocketing, triggering food shortages and riots in dozens of countries. The ranks of the chronically hungry on the planet soared past one billion. The era of cheap, abundant food was over. Once again, the prospect loomed of a wanjala for all mankind.
I FIRST MET ANDREW YOUN in the middle of a Chicago snow- storm at the end of 2009. He was just back from western Kenya, where the hot, dry season reigned, but he insisted on keeping our appointment, even as blizzard conditions escalated. We ordered warm drinks in the café area of a bookstore.
Andrew eagerly told me about the farmers he had encountered when he arrived in western Kenya a few years earlier. He was a budding social entrepreneur, then working on his MBA at North- western University’s Kellogg School of Management. He didn’t know much about farming, but he did know that what he was see- ing on the rural homesteads didn’t add up. With all of the agricul- tural advances in the world, he wondered, how was it that the farmers he met couldn’t feed their families for the entire year? The rain was plentiful; the soils, though overworked and depleted, were laden with potential. Yet the wanjala persisted.
It was there, during the hunger season, that Andrew had his epiphany. For the first time in his life, he had come face-to-face with hunger. He watched one farmer ’s adolescent daughter stretch a thin mixture of maize porridge for the family’s only meal of the day. It was an image he couldn’t shake from his mind. He founded a social enterprise organization to reverse the neglect of the smallholder farmers by providing access to the seeds and soil nutrients and planting advice that never made it deep into the rural areas. The “social” aspect was to banish the hunger season; the “enterprise” part was to do it as an efficient business. He called his operation One Acre Fund.
“The existence of a hungry farmer is completely crazy. It’s mind- boggling. A hunger season shouldn’t exist,” Andrew said on that cold Chicago day, as the wind howled and the snow drifted beyond the bookstore’s windows. “Our mission as an organization is to make sure it never, ever happens.”
In that bleak winter setting, far from Africa, I recognized this passion, for it was also mine. I repeated to Andrew what an aid worker for the World Food Program (WFP) had told me during the Ethiopian famine of 2003: “Looking into the eyes of someone dying of hunger becomes a disease of the soul. You see that nobody should have to die of hunger.” It was that profound connection that led me to write the book Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty with my Wall Street Journal colleague Scott Kilman. And it was what subsequently led me to leave the Journal to continue to pursue the story that had come to seem more important to me than any other, and one I felt unable to stop covering regardless what else was dominating news headlines that day or that year: Why were people still dying of hunger at the beginning of the twenty-first cen- tury when the world was producing—and wasting—more food than ever before? For me and my own diseased soul, Enough hadn’t
been enough. From my new post as senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, I set out in search of smallholder farmers I could follow for a year to both chronicle the impact on people’s lives of the “criminal negligence” Dr. Borlaug had warned of, and to illustrate these farmers’ potential to grow enough to escape the hunger season and benefit the global food chain.
Andrew told me that One Acre was then working with nearly twenty thousand farmers who were doubling and tripling their maize yields. He was optimistic they had the wanjala on the run. “I really believe,” he said, “that agriculture is the fundamental human- itarian challenge of our time.”
The urgency of attacking that challenge was palpable. We both believed that smallholder farmers, who were the majority of the population in most African countries, would be central to any suc- cess. In the wake of the 2007–2008 food crisis, agriculture econo- mists and development theorists had begun clamoring that the world needed to nearly double food production by 2050 to keep up with a growing global population and the growing prosperity of that population. Estimates placed another 2.5 billion people on earth in that time, which would be the equivalent of feeding another two Chinas or two Indias. In addition, there were already one billion people in the world who were chronically hungry. Adding to the challenge, this doubling would need to happen on roughly the same amount of arable land and with less water than was being used in the existing agricultural breadbaskets. All the while, a growing demand for biofuels that was channeling more and more food, corn especially, into gas tanks instead of stomachs, and extreme climate patterns that were wreaking havoc on harvests from the Russian steppe to the Texas panhandle, would be adding to the unprece- dented strains on the global food chain.
Where would the needed doubling come from? Likely not from the present breadbaskets of the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia, where the great jumps in yields over the past decades have been narrowing. Nor can we confidently count on repeat per- formances of the large gains in productivity in green revolution stars such as India, China, and Brazil, where future growth depends on continued costly investments in infrastructure and research. In fact, under some scenarios, water scarcity in India and China could cut wheat and rice production by 30 to 50 percent by 2050, even as demand for these crops in those countries was expected to rise by the same amount over the same period.
From where, then, will come the quantum leaps in production?
Only from Africa, food’s final frontier. Because it is so far behind
the rest of the world agriculturally, Africa now has the potential to record the biggest jump in food production of any region by apply- ing technologies and infrastructure and financial incentives that are common most everywhere else. Africa, where the hybrid seeds that revolutionized American agriculture in the 1930s are only now beginning to spread, is the one continent where yields of maize, wheat, rice, beans, and an array of local crops, have yet to have their growth spurts, and lag as much as 90 percent behind the yields of farmers elsewhere. With only 4 percent of its farmland irrigated, Africa has water resources that are underutilized. With one-third to one-half of its harvests routinely going to waste, Africa could give an immediate boost to the world’s food supplies with improved storage facilities and more efficient markets.
With all this potential, Africa’s long-neglected smallholder farm- ers, who produce the majority of the continent’s food, have thus become indispensable for our future. It will be impossible to multi- ply global food production without creating the conditions for them to grow and bring to market as much as they possibly can—to at least feed themselves, their communities, and their countries—and to not only stop being a drain on the world’s food supply, but to add to it. They need to be at the vanguard of a new agriculture economy for the twenty-first century, an economy where all farmers are encouraged to grow as much nutritionally beneficial food as possi- ble and then be rewarded through the global market for doing so. The farmers who have been fed by the world’s food aid are now needed to help feed the world. We continue to neglect Africa’s smallholder farmers at our own peril.
Andrew Youn embraced all this. He invited me to come to western Kenya and meet the farmers.
INCREDIBLY, much of rural Africa is the same today as it was in the 1930s when a classic tale was told about farming in Kenya.
“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” begins Karen Blixen’s endearing and enduring memoir, Out of Africa. Her farm, a coffee plantation in the central Kenyan highlands, was in many ways typical of white landholdings during the colonial period in Africa. It was a sprawling six thousand acres, full of var- ious crops, and wildlife, too. But even more typical were the farms of her African neighbors, who worked on her farm and tilled their own small plots called shambas in a corner of her land. She wrote,
Whenever you walk amidst the Kikuyu shambas, the first thing that will catch your eye is the hind part of a little old woman raking in her soil, like a picture of an ostrich which buries her head in the sand. Each Kikuyu family had a number of small round peaked huts and store-huts; the space between the huts was a lively place, the earth hard as concrete; here the maize was ground and the goats milked, and children and chickens were running.
That stooped farmer raking in her soil, children and chickens running over concrete-hard dirt between her tiny mud house and the flimsy small round storage huts with peaked thatched roofs— that’s Leonida Wanyama and Rasoa Wasike and Zipporah Biketi, and it is Francis Wanjala Mamati. You will meet them all in the pages of this book. One Acre Fund farmers, they have been working their shambas at the foot of the Lugulu Hills in western Kenya in much the same manner as Karen Blixen described three-quarters of a century ago. The political landscape of Kenya has changed greatly since the time of Out of Africa; the country gained its independence in 1963. But life on the shambas is still very similar. Kenya’s, and Africa’s, smallholder farmers toil in a time warp, living and work- ing essentially as they did in the 1930s.
If anything, the rhythm of the seasons has grown harsher, and the harvest yields more miserly over the years. The romantic ideal of African farmers—rural villagers in touch with nature, tending bucolic fields—has hardened into a horror scene of malnourished children, backbreaking manual work, and profound hopelessness. No one should dare mistake the romantic for the reality, for rural Africa is a nightmarish landscape of neglect. There is, in the main, no electricity or running water. Health care is distant and meager. Sanitation is rudimentary. Roads are wretched. Growing food is the driving preoccupation; buying additional food consumes almost every spare shilling. And still the farmers don’t have enough to eat. The wanjala abides.
THIS IS THE STORY of a year in the life of African farmers, in par- ticular four farmers in western Kenya—Leonida, Rasoa, Zipporah, and Francis—on the brink of change.
As their year began, international efforts to finally reverse the neglect of agricultural development couldn’t have been more
important—or more threatened. In the first days of 2011, staple food prices were soaring to record highs around the globe. In another part of Africa, north of the Sahara, the outrage ignited when a food vendor in Tunisia lit himself on fire was spreading. Unrest partly fueled by the escalating cost of food and deepening poverty was roiling North Africa and the Middle East, toppling governments. A drought was creeping across East Africa, including Kenya, threatening millions with famine. In Kenya itself, commod- ity prices and the value of the country’s currency, the shilling, were beginning a turbulent ride (the shilling/U.S. dollar rate jerked from 80 to more than 100 and back to 80 again). In rich world capitals, the building debt crisis was eroding promises to invest more in agricultural development. In Washington, DC, President Barack Obama and his administration were readying for battle with Con- gressional budget cutters to save his Feed the Future initiative, which sought to assert American leadership in the push to end hunger through agricultural development, particularly among smallholder farmers.
And on the shambas of western Kenya, the farmers were stirring with the fervent hope that this would be their last hunger season.