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.

 
 
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.