Kabuchai, Kenya – August 5, 2011
At 6:30 this morning, as the sun was coming up, Sanet Biketi walked out of his small house made of mud and sticks. Carrying a machete at his side, he headed straight to the edge of his maize field and said a prayer of thanksgiving for the arrival of harvest day.
Then, just as he said “Amen,” he wielded the machete. Whack, whack, thump. He cut down two stalks of maize and threw them to the ground. Whack, whack, thump. Two more stalks added to the pile.
Within five hours, Sanet and a team of relatives and neighbors had cleared his one acre of maize. Then, the rest of the day, led by Sanet’s wife Zibborah, they yanked the maize ears off the stalks and removed the husks. The cobs, heavy with white kernels (preferred by most Africans over the yellow), were then carried from the field to dry in a new storage bin, made of maize stalks, sticks and logs.
The harvest totals weren’t immediately known; after drying, the cobs must be shelled and then the kernels packaged in 90 kilogram bags before the final yield can be calculated. But of this Sanet is sure: he will be at least 15 to 20 bags ahead of last year’s harvest, which yielded barely more than one bag of maize from the one-quarter acre he tilled. That paltry harvest left his family skipping meals and battling hunger in the months leading up to this harvest. This year, for the first time, he will have a maize surplus.
As Sanet stood in his field, amid piles of cobs, I asked, “No more hunger?”
“We are safe now,” he said.
He also stood amid the wreckage of spreading drought and hunger throughout the Horn of Africa, including parts of Kenya. What happened today on the Biketi shamba illustrates the impact of promoting agriculture development along with emergency food relief. While the food aid rushes to feed the hungry, this area of western Kenya, where agriculture development efforts are more intense, is awash in big harvests.
The Biketis are members of the One Acre Fund and one of the families I have been following this year. Through the One Acre Fund, they received seeds and fertilizer on credit and farming advice about planting, weeding, harvesting and storage. The timely delivery of seeds, the little bit of fertilizer, the financing and the knowledge are all things that have been largely unavailable to Africa’s smallholder farmers. This has resulted in woeful underproduction on Africa’s farms and the horrible, oxymoronic phrase “hungry farmers.”
“The harvest is one of the most rewarding times of the year,” says Andrew Youn, One Acre’s co-founder. “It is a time to dream, to chart your path out of poverty.”
While the leaders of other non-governmental organizations and humanitarian agencies are rushing to Somalia and Ethiopia and the drought-stricken sections of Kenya to see their emergency feeding operations, Youn was observing the harvest of One Acre farmers. And participating himself, clearing the cobs from the stalks alongside the farmers.
“We need the relief aid, but the only permanent solution to famine is permanent and sustained increases in food production,” he said. Increasing the quantity and quality of their harvests is the goal for the 50,000-plus farmers in Kenya and Rwanda who are One Acre members. The organization began five years ago with 40 farmers; by 2020 it aims to be working with one million.
“Famine is a horrible tragedy, but it should send the signal that more food needs to be produced,” Youn said. “Famine is a wake-up call to the world. As human beings, we respond to emergency needs. But we can’t band-aid this problem forever. We have to invest in long-term agriculture development.”
“Long-term” is the key. A short burst of investment in agriculture development won’t change much. Nor will the mere promises of rich-world leaders to increase agriculture development investment. That path out of poverty that Youn talks about isn’t a short one-season journey. It is a path that stretches, slowly and steadily, from one harvest to another to another. It is something that politicians and governments and some donors with short attention spans and desires for quick results need to understand and embrace.
It is far better to hear the whack, whack, thump of the maize harvest than the cries of the hungry.