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Off the Shelf: 'The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change'

November 30, 2012

(Emily Keller is an editorial associate in the Corporate Philanthropy department at the Foundation Center. In October, she reviewed Changing Business From the Inside Out: A Treehugger's Guide to Working in Corporations, by Timothy J. Mohin.)

Last_Hunger_coverLeonida Wanyama sat at her living room table in her mud-and-sticks house at the base of the Lugulu Hills in western Kenya contemplating her assets. Her fifteen-year-old son Gideon had been sent home from boarding school because she couldn't pay the latest tuition bill. Her four-year-old daughter Dorcas was begging for more food, even though the cupboard was bare. Her husband Peter, weak from malaria, a condition worsened by malnutrition, did what he could to feed his family, but the planting season was just beginning and the maize crop wouldn't be ready to harvest for months. Leonida decided to sell her last goat for a thousand shillings -- enough to convince Gideon's principal to take him back as she struggled to come up with the remaining tuition. Food would have to wait.

Welcome to the wanjala, the word for famine in Leonida's Lutacho Valley farming community and one of the most common surnames for boys in a culture where parents name their children for the season in which they were born. Girls who are born during the long months between the last of the prior harvest's food has been consumed and the new harvest is brought in are named Nanjala. Leonida's village is called Malaria; so is the stream that provides the family with water for drinking and washing -- and serves as a breeding ground for the mosquito-borne illness that always grows worse in the wafula, or rainy season.

As he makes clear in his new book, The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change, Roger Thurow believes the one to eight months each year that the people of western Kenya live with "chronic, gnawing emptiness in their bellies" is both morally unacceptable and avoidable. And to make the point, he focuses much of his book on the One Acre Fund, a young nongovernmental organization that works with smallholder farmers -- those with less than two acres of arable land -- in East Africa to double and triple their yields. For a forty-five hundred shilling credit (about $50) that is paid back over the course of the year, the organization, which operates out of Bungoma, a town in Kenya's Western Province, provides fertilizer, modern seeds, and weekly trainings to smallholder farmers in Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi.

The demand for One Acre's services is clearly evident in Thurow's narrative, which depicts the relentless cycle of relative feast and famine in the region and how it dramatically affects the quality of life for the smallholder farmers who comprise the bulk of the food-producing population in Kenya's agriculture-dependent economy. Indeed, the country's Public Health and Sanitation ministry reported that during the wanjala which is the subject of Thurow's book, malnutrition was the underlying cause of more than half the deaths of children under the age of five. In the community of Malaria, unconnected electrical wires hang from the church ceiling because the congregation cannot afford to pay for electricity. Children study at home by the light of kerosene lamps that emit noxious fumes and are a constant fire hazard, and the fee-based high school Gideon attends lacks basic chemistry supplies, audio-visual equipment, even blackboards. The local health practitioner, Janet, has no blood pressure gauge or microscope to help confirm her diagnoses. Villagers get around by foot and bicycle, and families often live for a decade or more in homes that were intended to be temporary structures.

One Acre works to lift these farm families, which are often headed by women, out of the grinding poverty that is their lot and into lives in which they have enough to eat year-round, children are able to attend the area's top schools, and excess profits from agricultural work are reinvested back into the farm or livestock.

As Thurow tells it, Andrew Youn, One Acre's co-founder and executive director, believes East Africa's food insecurity problem is primarily economic rather than agricultural, and he has come up with an innovative business model to address the high rates of malnutrition, depleted soils, lack of access to information, and crop price fluctuations that are characteristic of the region. To start, One Acre arranges the bulk purchase of items for distribution at churches near its clients' modest homes, saving them the effort of having to navigate treacherous roads and lack of quality control at local shops. The organization's field directors then teach local farmers how to rotate and diversify their crops to improve the nutrition and health of the soil, and to measure the distance between seeds while planting, ensuring that each one has access to adequate light and air (methods in use in the United States since the Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930s). One Acre recently added crop insurance and de-worming medication for children to its portfolio of services. Establishing better storage systems that reduce crop mold and losses caused by weevil depredation, thus enabling farmers to keep their crops off the market until prices are high, is another primary goal.

One beneficiary of the program is Zipporah Biketi, who lives with her husband, Sanet, and four children in a hut with a leaky thatched roof. Her youngest child, David, has a protruding belly and a persistent cough — both symptoms of malnutrition. The older children sleep on unpadded wooden couches. Sanet is a livestock trader who also makes and sells clay bricks. The family's only other source of income is milk sales from two skinny cows.

Rasoa Wasike, a mother of three, leads One Acre's Kabuchai Women Self-Help group. She tells Thurow that farming is like gambling, the difference being that the smallholder Kenyan farmer rolls the dice on whether it will rain or not. Her husband, Cyrus, works at a cell phone store collecting payments from farmers who, ironically, have acquired modern communication devices but don't have access to modern seed technology. Cyrus hopes to one day save enough money to purchase a pair of bulls and start a ploughing business.

Life on a small farm, or shamba, in Kenya is, as Thurow shows, labor intensive throughout the year. The annual cycle begins with the soil being ploughed by oxen or with small hand shovels known as jembes; use of the latter forces farmers to remain stooped for hours on end. Once the ploughing is completed, villagers gather and pray for rain. If it comes, they dig and fertilize hundreds of holes for seed. This is followed by strenuous daily weeding of the plot, even as last year's food supply runs low, reducing their strength. Once the crops have matured, farmers gather with machetes and jembes to chop them down. During harvest season, or wekesa, the farmers face the additional daily task of spreading maize in the sun to dry, keeping an eye out for rain and thieves, and returning the crops to storage at night. This is followed by shelling, which takes over living room floors and involves the whole family. Many farm families also raise goats, hens, chickens, or cows, primarily for milk sales or for trading rather than for food; incomes are too erratic to sacrifice their most valuable asset for a meal or two.

As the harvest nears, the market price of maize per single-serving bag, or goro-goro, increases to five or six times the previous year's post-harvest price. Many farmers, out of desperation, sell their surplus when the price is low and struggle to purchase maize when the price is high. Family finances are further compromised by the academic calendar, which starts in January, meaning tuition fees are due before the harvest.

Thurow, who worked for thirty years as a Wall Street Journal reporter before joining the Chicago Council on Global Affairs as a senior fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy, vividly portrays the farmers' plight while drawing attention to the region's natural beauty -- the caves, mountains, and lush greenery of the wafala -- and showing the community's generosity and joy as well as suffering. One student earns a government scholarship. The farmers reap more than ever before and celebrate with a Christmas feast. Janet gives malaria medication to Leonida's family on credit, even during the wanjala. There is something to hope for throughout the year.

Yet climbing out of such deep poverty is dependent on several years of good harvests, Youn says. And the gradual nature of that transition is the most difficult part of the story to convey. Thurow, who is also the co-author (with Scott Kilman) of Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, uses the One Acre story to argue that international food aid is fleeting, expensive, and disruptive to market prices, and that increasing crop production through education and agricultural development is the only long-term solution to hunger in developing countries like Kenya. But as Leonida goes without food and Zipporah sells a cow to re-pay the family's loan, the less positive realities of the One Acre approach surface as well.

Of course, the extension of credit and the return of borrowed funds is a fundamental aspect of One Acre's social enterprise model. The organization, which receives funding from donors and funders focused on innovative, early-stage projects that can be scaled, is part of an emerging movement in the social good space known as social impact investing, a movement that champions market-based solutions to social problems with a focus on measurable results and a measurable return on investment.

Youn, a 32-year-old graduate of Yale and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, launched One Acre Fund with $7,000 of his own money. The organization subsequently received start-up funding through the Kellogg School of Management's Levy Entrepreneurial Institute and an Echoing Green Fellowship. It also received grants from the Draper Richards Foundation, Mulago Social Investments, the Skoll Foundation, the Pershing Square Foundation, and the Jasmine Charitable Trust, all of which are focused on advancing the field of social entrepreneurship, and the David Weekley Family Foundation, which funds microenterprise development.

With the backing of these and other donors and organizations, Youn is fighting more than just poverty and hunger; he's doing battle against a variety of structural impediments and entrenched interests. They include widespread corruption within the Kenyan government (illustrated in the book by a fraudulent attempt to steal some of Leonida's land), inept or unresponsive bureaucracy that blocks the release of high-output hybrid seeds, and decades of neglect by donor governments. Thurow ferries readers between Kenyan farms and congressional debates in Washington over international aid programs, including the Obama administration's Feed the Future initiative, which was introduced in 2009 to bring farming assistance to struggling nations but has been stymied by the budget stalemate. Similarly, the World Food Programme fed millions of people in northern and eastern Kenya during a period of extreme drought in 2011, even as farmers in western Kenya were largely denied the chance to sell their crops to fill the yawning need created by the drought. In a phenomenon known as the feast-famine paradox, surplus food sat spoiling in one part of Kenya while a neighboring district was starving.

As The Last Hunger Season makes clear, the challenges in East Africa are many and the stakes are high. Thurow is an optimist and believes that hunger and poverty are issues of global concern and that solving them will benefit the whole planet. "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 applying technologies and infrastructure and financial incentives that are common most everywhere else," he writes. "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."

Beyond the historical challenges, farmers in East Africa must contend with the effects of new weather patterns linked to climate change. Farmers and forecasters alike say the rains in Kenya are becoming less predictable, and many fear that a more pronounced pattern of too little rain followed by too much rain will drastically reduce maize yields in the coming decades. It's a predicament that should resonate with the millions of Americans who lost power, heat, or the roof over their heads after Superstorm Sandy made landfall in late October. At the same time, the application of human ingenuity to alleviate the suffering of those less fortunate or in desperate need, regardless of political or class divides, should also resonate -- and gives this reader hope. If projects like Youn's succeed, the benefits with respect to global food supplies, demographic trends, and economic growth could be significant. On the other hand, those who ignore East Africa's hunger problem, regarding it as too removed from their own concerns or as someone else's problem -- may be in for a rude surprise if food- and climate-related trends in Africa begin to spill beyond the borders of that continent. As the old saw has it, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

-- Emily Keller

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