For smallholder farms—usually those supporting a single family—expenses come early in the season before the planting while income arrives only several months later with the harvest. How, then, can these farmers access the cash they need to plant their crops and, more importantly, to survive between harvests?
That basic question has been the burden of millions of smallholder farmers in Africa. It’s also why access to financial services—especially credit—is crucial to their survival. Yet only a miniscule amount of commercial lending goes to rural areas, even though that is where a majority of the continent’s population resides and works.
As I reported in my book, The Last Hunger Season, African smallholder farmers toil in a time warp, working in pretty much the same conditions as their grandparents. What’s more, their yields are essentially the same. As a result, many of these farmers are unable to grow enough food to feed their families throughout the year. Year after year, they endure the misery of a hunger season—the time between when the food from the previous harvest runs out and the next harvest comes in.
Access to credit—and, thus, access to seeds, soil nutrients, equipment, extension advice, and improved technology—can help change that. That’s what I learned from the farmers I followed over the course of a year while researching The Last Hunger Season.
Zipporah Biketi was one of them. When I first met Zipporah near the west Kenya town of Bungoma, she told me her family was already deep into the hunger season just a few months after the harvest. With little money and no access to credit, she only had enough maize seeds to plant one-quarter of the acre of farmland beside her house. Her harvest was barely two 90-kilogram bags, which was sufficient for only a couple of months. She was rationing food in her family; meals were shrinking from three a day, to two, then one. Some days they had nothing for nourishment beyond a cup of tea.
(Ambassador Ken Quinn, former Prime Minister Tony Bair, Howard G. Buffett and Howard W. Buffett at the Borlaug Dialogue)
The World Food Prize recognizes individuals, who have advanced human development by increasing the quality, quantity, and availability of food in the world, thereby helping to eradicate hunger and poverty. We sat down with Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, President of the World Food Prize Foundation, to find out more about its efforts to educate the public about agricultural development and food security.
What is the greatest challenge facing us today? The issue of having enough food to feed the 9 billion people who will be on our planet by 2050 is the single greatest challenge that we face today. To meet this challenge, we are going to have to produce more food, produce it sustainably, ensure it is nutritious, and distribute it equitably, particularly to those who need the food.
What is the role of science and technology in agricultural development? Dr. Norman Borlaug—the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, father of the Green Revolution, and the founder of the World Food Prize—used to put it this way: if you take all the grain that was produced since the first farmer planted that first seed 11,000 years ago, from then until today, that is how much grain we have to produce in the next 40 or 50 years to feed the world population.
Science is the multiplier of the harvest. For the last several hundred years, agricultural science truly has produced miracles. In the last 60 years alone, it has produced the single greatest period of food production and hunger reduction in human history. So we look to science for breakthroughs to address the adverse impacts of climate change.
No single solution or sector can tackle all challenges farmers face. So science is not just research; it is understanding, working with farmers in the field and with extension workers. We have to understand that sometimes very simple agro-ecological techniques can be very valuable to boost agricultural production. We need to take a comprehensive approach that includes science, research, technologies and education to sustainably boost agricultural production.
How do you educate the public about global hunger and poverty issues? We use several different means to educate and inform the public. The primary means is the Borlaug Dialogue. Every October, we bring together about 1,200 people from more than 70 countries around the world. By bringing together people from very diverse backgrounds, you get the opportunity for interaction and for the stimulation of ideas.
Moreover, Dr. Borlaug himself, before he passed away in 2009, always looked to inspire the next generation. So we also bring in about 150 high school students and 150 high school teachers through our Global Youth Institute. We also recently launched 40 Chances Fellowship Program in partnership with The Howard G. Buffet Foundation and former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s African Governance. These $150,000 grants will be awarded in October 2014 to individuals with innovative ideas or programs in Malawi, Rwanda, Liberia, or Sierra Leone.
You spent 32 years in the Foreign Service and as an Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia. What motivated you to work on global hunger and agricultural development? When I joined the State Department in 1967, I envisioned a career and an assignment in a European capital such as London, Paris, or Vienna, where I would attend fancy parties in chandeliered ballrooms. Ten months later I was getting off a single engine plane that had landed on a dirt road in the Mekong Delta for an assignment as a rural development officer during The Vietnam War. It was there that I came face-to-face with the pain and suffering experienced by refugees whose homes had been destroyed during the war and were struggling to put their lives back together. At the same time, I saw how the introduction of IR-8 miracle rice, combined with improved farm-to-market access, transformed every aspect of village life in a very short time.
In looking back, it was the up-close witnessing of human suffering as well as the power of the same forces that had transformed the heartland of America – roads and agricultural technology – that inspired me to focus my career in the State Department on issues of alleviating hunger and promoting global food security.
There's no shortage of organizations around the world who are working to create a more sustainable, more just food system. Food Tank is honored to highlight many of these groups every week, showing the world that solutions to alleviating hunger, poverty, obesity, food waste, and environmental degradation not only exist, but have huge potential to be replicated and scaled-up.
Organizations like La Via Campesina, are encouraging small farmers to pursue local solutions to regional food security; the Savory Institute is teaching holistic management practices to ranchers; and organizations, like Oldways and Slow Food International, are determined to preserve the benefits of traditional foods.
To help readers stay up to date, Food Tank has compiled a list of 101 organizations to watch in 2014.
All of these organizations are playing a vital part in creating a better food system and Food Tank is excited to highlight their stories of success, hope, and innovation in 2014.
African Biodiversity Network—This regional network was established in 1996 to preserve Africa's biodiversity. African Biodiversity Network educates and engages citizens in developing healthy communities based on biological, cultural, and spiritual diversity.
Africa Rice Center—Africa Rice Center aims to contribute to poverty alleviation and food security in Africa through research and development. One of the major tasks of the Africa Rice Center is the advancement and introduction of rice varieties that create resilience in agriculture.
Ag Innovations Network—Part of Ag Innovations Network’s mission is to bring people together to create a better food system. With a deep interest in sustainable agriculture, Ag Innovations Network creates opportunities for individuals and communities to understand what needs to change to create a better future for food and farming.
Catherine Simiyu from Bunambobi, Kenya, spreads the beans she just harvested to dry in the sun. Drying will help keep them from rotting when she stores them. Photo by Kelvin Owino.
Photo courtesy of the One Acre Fund blog. One Acre Fund is an NGO in Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania 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.
Mauricio Antonio Lopes, president of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, explains Brazil's national efforts to invest in agricultural development and the importance of scientific investment to achieve global food security.
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