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.

 
 
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.