By Roger Thurow
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.