Books: hungry for change

The Last Hunger Season by Roger Thurow is the story of a group of Kenyan farmers working to transcend lives of dire poverty and hunger. It highlights the challenges, and necessity, of transforming African agriculture.

The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change
Roger Thurow
Public Affairs, 2012

The world will need to nearly double food production by 2050 in order to keep up with a growing global population and its soaring appetite, writes Melody Wilson. In The Last Hunger Season, Roger Thurow explores how such a transformation might come to the hungriest and fastest-growing continent, Africa.

Much of Africa’s agricultural technology has lagged behind that of the rest of the world, but with the right seeds, fertilizer, and training, Africa’s smallholder farmers have the potential to make the biggest gains.

Typical is the western region of Kenya. Even though this region is often described as the country’s breadbasket, many of its farmers – the majority of whom are women – still suffer from chronic food insecurity. Between poor roads, no mechanization, unstable markets, inefficient storage, and outdated farming techniques, the smallholders’ yields have fallen as much as 90 percent behind farmers elsewhere in the world.

Thurow follows a year in the life Leonida Wanyama, Rasoa Wasike, Zipporah Biketi, and Francis Mamati, smallholder farmers in western Kenya who decide to join the One Acre Fund, a business begun by Americans and supported by Kenyans that will provide them with better seeds, fertilizer, and planting advice.

In Kenya, the hunger season—or wanjala—can be the longest, stretching from the time the food from the previous harvest runs out until the new crops are harvested in August and September. How long the hunger season lasts depends on how much food the farmers are able to keep from one harvest to the next.

During 2011’s wanjala, prices rose from 90 shillings at the end of March to 150 in July.
That’s five times more than one farmer received when she sold her maize at the beginning of the year to cover her children’s school fees. The high prices made this the most desperate hunger season in recent memory.

If the government agreed to buy maize from smallholders instead of paying to import and transport it from other countries, prices in Kenya would stabilize, the farmers argue. Until then, Kenya sees both feast and famine at the same time in different regions—what Thurow calls the “great African paradox.”

But the farmers are nothing if not resilient. “They knew the wanjala would end with the next harvest,” Thurow writes. “But their poverty they hoped would end with education.” For the smallholder farmers, education is everything. Aside from feeding their families and covering health expenses, giving their children high school educations is a primary concern among the majority of the farmers Thurow spoke to.

Andrew Youn founded One Acre Fund on the teach-a-man-to-fish concept. “The only way to make a real difference is to somehow empower the poor to solve their own problems,” he says.

It costs American aid agencies five or six times more to deliver a ton of maize to starving farmers than it does to provide smallholder farmers with the seed and fertilizer that would produce an extra ton of maize themselves. “Emergency aid won’t prevent the next famine,” Andrew Youn says. “Only agricultural development will.”

Hybrid seeds have the potential to double or triple the farmers’ yields, but the farmers often don’t have access to better seeds. With One Acre, the farmers are eager to pay for the seeds each year. It’s better than saving old seeds from previous years that succumb to new diseases and produce smaller cobs.

The fertilizer that One Acre provides is as important as the seed because African soils are some of the poorest in the world. The farmers rarely practice crop rotation or allow the soil to rest and replenish itself before replanting, and few have access to enough fertilizer.

One farming family saw tenfold increase in their harvest after using the One Acre products and planting advice. Even those affected by heavy rains harvested two or three times more maize than their non–One Acre neighbors.

The smallholders receive the seeds and fertilizer on credit, and paying it back is the core of One Acre’s method: Nothing’s free. Youn wants the farmers “to be empowered to change their own lives, through their own work, not through handouts.”

It seems to be working. In 2011, One Acre would move 201 metric tons of maize seed and 2,010 tons of fertilizer to Kenyan farmers who planted a total of 20,100 acres. Over the course of the book, which follows the farmers for a full year, those numbers more than double to 500 metric tons of seed and 5,000 tons of fertilizer provided.

After only four years of operations in 2011, One Acre was serving 50,000 clients in western Kenya and Rwanda, and was considering expansion to Burundi, Ghana, and even Asia. Andrew’s “mid-range goal”—to be achieved by 2020—is to reach 1.5 million out of an estimated 150 million smallholder families in the world.

One Acre is also looking into composting and no-till programs, which would enrich the soil while preventing erosion and the loss of nutrients. In addition, they’ve added insurance to the bundle of services they offer, since most insurance companies won’t touch African smallholders.

For their part, the smallholders are ready for change. Like cell phone technology, which has been adopted widely even remote areas, agricultural improvements has the potential to change the farmers’ lives for the better.

In a style that is for the most part clear and persuasive, Thurow, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal for two decades, outlines a way to solve both global food shortages and local African economic problems with the simple application of modern agricultural technology in rural areas.

Review by Melody Wilson