Farmers in Bomokora, Kenya prepare to carry the seed and
fertilizer they have received from a One Acre Fund delivery home. Credit:
Photo courtesy of the One Acre Fund blog.
One Acre Fund is an NGO in Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi that helps 137,000
smallholder farmers grow their own way out of poverty by providing a
"market bundle" that includes education, finance, seed and
fertilizer, and market access.
years ago, Africa’s hunger season reached new levels of desperation.
Hunger crises gripped the continent from the Horn to the southern tip. In
Ethiopia, the feast of successive bumper harvests had incredibly, swiftly
turned to famine, with 14 million people on the doorstep of starvation,
surviving on international food aid. A drought spread through central
Africa and crept down the east coast, destroying harvests. In southern
Africa, AIDS was creating a new kind of famine where it wasn’t the crops that
were dying but the farmers who planted them.
suffering was immense. And it exposed the folly of international
development philosophy and practice of the preceding three decades:
agricultural development and sustained resilience, particularly for the
smallholder farmers, had been woefully neglected.
farmers who grew the majority of the continent’s food, who made up the majority
of the population in many countries, were seen as too poor, too remote, too
insignificant to be worthy of development efforts. This had been the
shared attitude of rich world donor governments, African governments
themselves, the mighty development institutions and the private sector.
Water, climate, and agricultural experts connect the changing
climate with the capacity to sustainably feed a growing global population.
Extreme weather in 2012
demonstrated the impacts of climate disruption on global food systems. Farms
across three continents saw decreased yields due to record drought and heat in
the U.S. and Europe and below average rainfall during India’s monsoons. Serious
climatic challenges are just one factor affecting global food security. Growing
global populations and rising incomes in developing and transition countries
are reshaping global food demand.
Higher incomes, urbanization and
entrance into an expanding middle class affect how much and what people eat. Agriculture
now accounts for roughly 70 percent of global water use. Without a significant
boost in water-use efficiency, agricultural water demand would grow by 45
percent by 2030 as increasingly affluent consumers demand higher value food,
especially meat, eggs, and dairy.
Changing consumption patterns are
already taking shape in India, where spending on animal-based food doubled
between 2005 and 2010. The International Water Management Institute projects
that Indians will consume 64 percent more of their calories from animal
products in 2025 than in 2000.
Forty years after the green revolution dramatically
increased agricultural output in much of the developing world a new revolution
is taking place.
As Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations special
rapporteur on the right to food spotlighted in an
op-ed in the New York Times earlier this month, men are leaving
farms for work in the cities across much of the developing world and leaving
management of the family farm to their wives.
De Schutter’s op-ed on the feminization of farming is
correct on many levels. The women left behind on the family farms face “pervasive
discrimination” that inhibits their climb out of poverty. This further burdens women who are already
bearing a disproportionate responsibility for uncompensated household
But De Schutter’s outline of the challenges women face: “discrimination
denies small-scale female farmers the same access men have to fertilizer,
seeds, credit, membership in cooperatives and unions, and technical
assistance,” misses one central issue: women
very often have very limited rights even to the land they farm.
In many parts of the world, women do not
enjoy the same rights to land that men do, and the overwhelming majority of
women farmers lack legal control over the land they rely on to survive. In many cases they do not have access to the
critical items De Schutter mentions like credit and training because they lack
legal or socially accepted rights over land.
For example, in India, women farmers tell us that they can’t access
agricultural extension services without the benefit of a land document. In Rwanda, women farmers tell us that before
they had land titles in their names (the result of a government initiative
launched five years ago), they could not buy the good quality, heavily
subsidized fertilizer available through the government’s agricultural program.
Indeed, although the op-ed does not mention land, De
to the UN Human Rights Council points out that access to land is critical
to women’s ability to fully participate in the economy and in society. As he explains, “land is more than an
economic asset that women should be allowed to use productively. It is also a means of empowerment, as the
greater economic independence that results from land ownership enhances the
woman’s role in decision-making and allows her to garner more social, family
and community support.”
As the ballots were being counted in the recent Kenya election, I saw photos of people displaying the encouraging message: Give Peace a Chance. So far, that sentiment seems to be holding.
Equally important for the future of the country is this imperative message for the new government: Give Peas a Chance. And Maize. And Beans. And Sweet Potatoes. And Millet. And Sorghum. And Peanuts.
The planting season is at hand in many parts of Kenya, and a good agriculture season should be a top priority for the government. The violence that followed the previous nationwide election in 2007 displaced many smallholder farmers and disrupted the planting season, which would result in significantly reduced harvests. I traveled with Josette Sheeran, who was then the executive director of the World Food Program, as she spoke with the leaders of the quarrelling parties. The visit came in the throes of the 2007-2008 food crisis, when global stockpiles of major crops were shrinking and prices were skyrocketing; Ms. Sheeran was scrambling mightily to procure enough food, on a limited budget, to feed the increasing number of hungry people. The last thing she needed to worry about was feeding displaced farmers in Kenya, a country that ought to be able to feed itself.
After touring camps of displaced farmers, who should have been tending their fields, Ms. Sheeran had a curt message to the political leaders about the violence their disputes had unleashed: Knock it off, and get your agriculture back on track.
Agriculture is key to Kenya’s economic growth and social stability. The majority of the population lives in rural areas, and most of those people are smallholder farmers. These farmers produce the majority of the country’s food.
Thus, the new government’s main concern should be dealing with a maize disease that had been spreading through the western region of Kenya, threatening production in one of the country’s breadbaskets. The virus bears a frightening name: maize lethal necrosis disease. Carried by insects, it dries up leaves and stunts cobs, damaging the country’s staple crop.
The disease was on a rapid advance in the second half of last year, demanding a decisive response by the government and the agriculture industry to work on resistant varieties and get those seeds from the labs into the hands of the farmers. At the same time, the maize disease presented an opportunity to promote crop diversity that would be good for the farmers’ diets, good for their income, good for their soils. Improved resilience would be the silver lining.
When I visited them in January, the smallholder farmers of western Kenya featured in the book The Last Hunger Season were pondering their options. Other grains like millet and sorghum have strong markets and would provide income. Sweet potatoes and cassava would help with food security. Beans, peas and greens would assure varied nutrition.
“We must adjust,” said Rasoa Wasike, one of the farmers. Her husband Cyrus, who had become a field officer for the social enterprise organization One Acre Fund, agreed. “We can’t stick with maize only,” he said. “Our ancestors used to eat these other crops, so we will just go back to those habits. We want our families, our children, to know these different meals rather than always chasing the price of maize.”
It would be good to have choices, he said. “That is what will save us this year.”
As planting time nears, the farmers wait for rain and pray for peace. In Kenya, both are needed to help the seeds take root and the crops to flourish.
TechnoServe farmer trainer Rewuda Nuradin (left) consults with Eshetu Abote,
a member of the Shegole coffee farming cooperative, in his corn field in western
Ethiopia. With training and advice from TechnoServe, Eshetu and thousands of
other Ethiopian farmers are learning farming and business skills that will help
them increase production of both food and cash crops. TechnoServe believes that
a successful farm should be an integrated and diversified system, where multiple
crops help to ensure food security, maximize income and manage risk. Photo Credit: TechnoServe
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