This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, marking the occasion of its annual Global Food Security Symposium in Washington, D.C., which will be held on May 21st. For more information on the symposium, click hereFollow @GlobalAgDev and use #globalag on twitter to join the conversation. 

Ten years after the Ethiopian famine of 2003, when international food aid rushed in to feed 14 million people, another World Food Program (WFP) tent has been erected on an open field.  But this isn’t a scene of food distribution.  It is a scene of food purchase.

The action happens on the grounds of the Sidama Elto Farmers’ Cooperative Union in Awassa, Ethiopia. Sidama Elto is one of 16 cooperative unions in Ethiopia that have signed forward contracts with the WFP for the purchase of more than 28,000 metric tons of maize grown by their smallholder farmer members.  The maize, which is part of 112,000 tons of food the WFP purchased in Ethiopia last year, will be used for WFP relief distributions in the country.  Ten years ago, many of those farmers and their families were receiving food aid from the WFP.

One of the major lessons in agricultural development over the past decade is this: Markets Matter.  The 2003 famine tragically, and incomprehensibly, followed two years of bumper harvests in Ethiopia.  The surplus production overwhelmed the country’s weak and inefficient markets.  There were no export channels; the domestic market’s ability to absorb the harvests was crippled by woeful infrastructure.  The food piled up on farms and prices collapsed, upwards of 80% in some areas.  Farmers lost incentive to plant the next year.  Then the drought hit, and feast turned to famine.  The markets had failed before the weather did.

That gobsmacking turnaround triggered a reversal of the neglect of agricultural development that had set in since the 1980s, as I noted in my TedxChange talk last month.  In the past decade, science and research geared toward improving the work of smallholder farmers (who produce the majority of the food grown in the developing world) have been reinvigorated; so too have trade and business efforts accelerated to provide greater market incentives and opportunities for the farmers.  Prior to 2003, boosting agricultural production – growing more food -- was the primary focus and developing markets was considered to be a “second-generation problem.”  Now, markets share top billing with production, as it should; markets provide incentive to produce more.

In Ethiopia, it started with the creation of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange in the wake of the famine.  Now, the mantra spreads, in radio dramas, government pronouncements, business negotiations: If you grow it, someone will buy it. 

The WFP’s partnership with Sidama Elto is part of its Purchase for Progress (P4P) program, which uses the WFP’s purchasing power to create markets for smallholder farmers.  Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and implemented in collaboration with the government of Ethiopia through the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), P4P works with the farmers to improve the quality of their crops and the post-harvest handling.  Simiret Simeno, deputy manager of Sidama Elto, says that for the first time its 13,000 farmer members see that better quality can bring better prices.  And they can also see their contribution to healthier communities, as one of the markets is an expanding network of school feeding programs supplied by locally grown crops rather than food being shipped in from abroad.

The ultimate goal of the WFP purchases is to demonstrate to commercial buyers that smallholder farmers can reliably produce high-quality food worthy of their business.  Sustainable success here could also bear witness to the potential impact of President Obama’s proposed food aid reform, which would allow for nearly half of the U.S. food aid budget to be used to buy food nearer to the hunger crises – providing markets for smallholder farmers -- rather than shipping it all the way from American farms (as has been the U.S. policy for decades).

These public-private ventures bring both maturity and modernization to markets that hadn’t changed much for centuries.  Working with local banks and donor governments, P4P has introduced forward contracts to participating cooperatives and smallholder farmers.  The ATA has also been crafting links between farmers and commercial buyers of several crops, like teff, barley, sesame and chickpeas.

Above all, says Khalid Bomba, the chief executive officer of ATA, “Smallholder farmers need confidence that there will be buyers for what they grow.”

And confidence that the misery of 2003 – the misery of failed markets -- won’t happen again.

 
 
A mother knows.

“This child is brilliant,” Harriet Okaka says about her one-year-old son, Abraham.  She isn’t bragging, just observing.  “I can tell, just by looking at him,” she says, “the way he plays, the way he is.”

Harriet, 33, is a smallholder farmer in the northern Uganda village of Okii, near the town of Lira.  Abraham is her sixth child.

“The other children started walking by the time they were two years old.  Abraham is walking at one,” she says.  The mother has noticed things.  When Abraham sees an animal, he motions for it to come, she notes.  When he hears music, he claps and dances.  “These are indications that his brain is developing well,” she says.

On a hot afternoon, Harriet and Abraham are sitting under a mango tree, savoring the shade with a dozen other women and their young children.  A mango falls from a branch and bounces in the middle of them.  Abraham is the first to react, quickly crawling a couple of feet to grab the fruit.  Abraham takes a bite.  All the adults laugh.  Harriet beams.

“You see,” she says.

It is no mere coincidence, Harriet believes, that Abraham was born on the day in April 2012 when she and other women farmers had completed their first training session in the art of planting orange-flesh sweet potatoes and a new variety of beans.  They are crops rich in micronutrients essential for the health of women and their children: Vitamin A in the sweet potatoes and iron in the beans.  The crops – particularly beneficial during the 1,000 Days period between when a woman becomes pregnant and the second birthday of the child -- were developed by an organization called HarvestPlus, pioneers in biofortifying staple foods with higher levels of micronutrients, and deployed by the humanitarian agency, World Vision.

They were different crops for the Ugandans, especially the sweet potatoes, which are normally white or yellow and lacking in micronutrient content.  But Harriet eagerly planted and tended her fields.  The harvest coincided with the time she was beginning to supplement Abraham’s breastfeeding with complementary foods.  She fed him a mashed up combination of the orange sweet potato and the high-iron beans. 

“It’s good for brain development,” she says a week after Abraham’s first birthday. Her youngest child hasn’t battled sickness as her other children did, she notes.  She believes it must be the new crops.  

She tells the story of her second youngest child, Isaac, now 5, how he was very sick at the end of last year.  He was losing weight.  His skin was rough.  Harriet took him to the nearby clinic several times.  Tests were performed.  None of the doctors knew what was wrong.  Isaac was so thin, so weak, his mother was terrified that he would die.

At wits end, she turned to the new food.  “I just kept feeding him the beans and the orange sweet potatoes,” she says.  “And he got better.”

With the seeds and the vines from HarvestPlus, Harriet had planted a quarter-acre of beans and a small plot of sweet potatoes in 2012.  This year, convinced of the nutritional benefits, she is expanding her efforts.  She rented an additional two acres and in March covered them with the high-iron beans.  By the end of April, she waded through a lush carpet of green plants with Abraham perched on her back, wrapped in a white blanket.  While she pulled weeds, he slept.

Harriet sees a market for the beans and orange sweet potatoes; the demand in the community is high.  Everyone knows the story of Isaac, who has recovered and is once again wearing the chartreuse uniform shirt of the Good Luck Nursery School.  They see Abraham, lively and healthy.  Harriet wants everyone to share in the benefits of the micronutrient rich food.

A mother knows.  “If my children are healthy,” she says, “then the neighbors’ children must also be healthy.”

This post originally appeared on the Global Food for Thought blog.
 
 
In a report launched today – a valuable yardstick called, A Growing Opportunity: Measuring Investments in African Agriculture – ONE reviews the past decade and finds some notable successes in terms of mustering money and political commitment, and the impact of agricultural development.

Ten 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.

The 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. 

The 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.

Something had to change.  And it did.

Amid the misery in 2003, African leaders gathered in Maputo, Mozambique and determined to reverse the neglect.  At an African Union (AU) summit, the heads of state promised to allocate 10% of national budgets to agriculture and seek 6% annual agricultural growth by 2008.  The AU leaders also adopted the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) as a common framework to be implemented by member states to eliminate hunger and reduce poverty through agricultural development.  This would be development led and owned by African countries, and supported by donors.

How have the seeds sown by the Maputo Declaration grown?

In a report launched today, Tuesday, March 26, 2013 – a valuable yardstick called, A Growing Opportunity: Measuring Investments in African Agriculture – the ONE campaign reviews the past decade and finds some notable successes in terms of mustering money and political commitment, and the impact of agricultural development.

As of January 2013, the report notes, 24 countries had signed CAADP compacts and held their business meetings and launched “solid, costed and technically reviewed” plans to accelerate agricultural development.  Another six countries had committed to start the process and develop plans.  The report assessed 19 of those plans:

Eight of those 19 countries are on track to meet the first Millennium Development Goal of halving extreme poverty by 2015.  At least 13 have had 6% annual growth in the agriculture sector.  Leading the way has been Ethiopia; by 2011, the government was spending 19.7% of the total budget on agriculture, almost double the Maputo commitment.  The result is average annual growth of 24.2% in the agricultural sector in the 2008-2011 period, which, in turn, has accelerated poverty reduction, particularly in the rural areas.

Still, the report notes, much remains to be done.

“Despite progress, Maputo financing commitments are off track,” ONE found.  “Disappointingly, our analysis shows that only four of the 19 countries examined have met the target of spending 10% of the national budget on the agriculture section.”  Those countries are Ethiopia, Niger, Malawi and Cape Verde.  Two more countries are close behind (Senegal and Sierra Leone).  And six are at least halfway there (Mali, Tanzania, Gambia, Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda).  Seven countries, though, are seriously off track, spending less than 5% on agriculture; six of them actually lowered their agriculture spending.  The resulting funding gaps of the proposed agricultural development plans in these 19 countries amounted to a $4.4 billion budget shortfall in 2011.

ONE exhorts African leaders to “act with urgency” to fill the gaps in partnership with donors.

As for the donors, their actions also need to match their pledges.  Meeting at L’Aquila, Italy, in 2009, the world’s leading industrial countries, known as the G8, pledged $22 billion over three years to support sustainable agriculture and food security in the developing world.  In 2012, at their Camp David summit, the G8 leaders launched the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a partnership between the governments and private companies to accelerate investments in agriculture with the ambitious goal of lifting 50 million people out of poverty over 10 years.

The ONE report found that these G8 countries may have, in words and intentions, met their $22 billion pledges, but only half of the money has been dispersed and is working on the ground.

When the benefits do reach the fields, progress is remarkable.  “Sub-Saharan African agriculture could, and should, be thriving,” the report concludes.  “Unblocking Africa’s agriculture potential would also unlock its development.”

To accelerate the success, ONE suggests the agriculture development plans need more transparency and greater consultation with civic organizations, particularly farming groups and women’s organizations.  They need a clearer focus on women farmers, who do most of the smallholder farming in many countries.  And they need a stronger emphasis on improving nutrition as well as production.

This year, ONE says, “is a turning point.”  The decade-old commitments to improve African agriculture need to be renewed and bolstered and put into action.  Or the days of negligence could begin again.

Surely, no one wants that – not the Africans who depend on agriculture to drive their economies nor the rest of the world that needs African farmers to be as productive as possible to meet the great challenge of feeding a growing global population.

The hunger season in Africa has gone on far too long.

This was originally posted on Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Impatient Optimists blog.