By Roger Thurow

Too poor, too remote, too insignificant.  That was the unofficial mantra behind the neglect of smallholder farmers in Africa for the past four decades.  It was recited by the farmers’ own governments, by rich world governments, by development institutions large and small, by the private sector.  It has left Africa’s farmers far behind those in the rest of the world.  It has left them unable to feed their own families throughout the year.  It has given rise to that horrible oxymoron “hungry farmers.”

Hopefully, that mantra – and the mindset it fronted – was junked forever this weekend and the neglect reversed.  At the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Food and Nutrition Security and at the G8 summit at Camp David, the smallholder farmers were put on center stage – although few were actually in attendance – and showered with attention.  The powerful and the rich trained their focus on the hungriest and the poorest.  Their overwhelming consensus was that the smallholder farmers of Africa – most of whom are women -- are indispensable in the great global challenge of doubling food production by 2050 to meet the demands of a population that is growing in both size and prosperity.

Finally, the potential and performance of Africa’s smallholder farmers – as I chronicle in The Last Hunger Season -- was recognized and saluted and embraced.  Well done.

But, as was also often noted at the Symposium, this recognition needs to go beyond the conference halls and into the fields, to the women working their soil at the end of the rural dirt roads.

So, how do we get from here to there?

President Barack Obama, speaking at the Symposium, unveiled the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.  He said it demanded the concerted efforts of governments in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world to design and prioritize their own agricultural development plans, of the donor countries to support those plans and of the private sector to help implement them.  He called it an “all hands on deck” effort.

It was a rousing start.  But then the G8 failed to fully seize the moment and turbo-charge the New Alliance with concrete promises and money and commitment.  A number of advocates and organizations on the front line of the fight against hunger hailed the initiative for reversing the neglect but were quick to say more needed to be done to maintain the momentum.

“While some countries appear to have really stepped up to the plate, the G8 collectively missed an opportunity to build the New Alliance at the scale that is needed to get the job done,” Michael Elliott, president and CEO of ONE, said in a statement.  “So while this plan is a bold beginning, it must not be the end of the G8’s ambition on food security and nutrition.  The Alliance needs to be built out across the 30 developing countries with plans for agriculture if we are to meet the goals of lifting 50 million people out of poverty and prevent stunting in 15 million children due to chronic malnutrition.”

Perhaps the key player in achieving these goals will be the private sector, particularly the international agriculture industry, which has in the past dismissed some 50 million African smallholder farmers as potential customers.  To poor, too remote, too insignificant.  It defied any common business sense.

One industry, the continent’s cell phone purveyors, saw the potential in this market and it has thrived.  Cell phones are common throughout rural Africa; the farmers see them as a life transforming technology and they are willing to pay for the phone and for the calling time.  They use the phones to reduce distance (it eliminates the long walks to check up on family and friends), to do their banking, to get agriculture advice, to monitor crop prices at the nearest markets.  The sad irony is that they don’t have the essential elements provided by the agriculture industry – seed, soil nutrients, tools, credit, storage facilities – to increase their production to take advantage of the information they can get with the cell phones.  It’s wonderful to be able to dial a number and check the prices, but few farmers grow enough to have a surplus that they can actually sell.

Access to the basics of farming technology can double, triple, quadruple their harvests.  For the smallholder farmers, that is even more life transforming than cell phone technology.  And so they will pay for better quality seeds and micro-doses of fertilizer and time-saving equipment.  “Absolutely we will.  We know the benefits,” says Francis Mamati, one of the smallholder farmers I follow in The Last Hunger Season.

In the New Alliance, the private sector is moving to embrace this vast market, rallied by the African Union, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, and the World Economic Forum.  Nearly 50 businesses (multinational and local African enterprises alike) and farmer organizations have announced $3 billion worth of New Alliance deals, and that is said to be a conservative number.  This number needs to multiply greatly as the New Alliance model spreads from the three initial target countries – Tanzania, Ethiopia and Ghana – to the rest of the continent.

Imagine, Africa’s smallholder farmers finally in the spotlight.  Too poor no more, too remote no more, too insignificant no more.

Roger’s new book, The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change, is now available at and your favorite online booksellers including Barnes & Nobles, Indiebound, and Powells.



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