This originally appeared on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Impatient Optimist Blog.

Zipporah Biketi didn’t attend the G8 meeting of the rich and powerful nations last weekend at Camp David.  But still she was at the center of it.

President Obama, hosting the summit of the world’s leading industrialized countries, forged a New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.  As the President described it, the alliance is an “all hands on deck” call for African governments to design and implement their own agricultural development projects with the concerted support of donor governments and the private sector.

At the core of the New Alliance and a gathering movement of similar efforts, like those of the Gates Foundation,ONE’s THRIVEOxfam’s GROW, and the World Economic Forum’ Grow Africa  are the smallholder farmers of Africa, who are seen as indispensable if the world is to meet the great challenge of doubling food production by the year 2050 to satisfy the demand of a global population that is growing in size and prosperity.

Farmers like Zipporah.

I first met the 29-year-old mother of four in January 2011 as I began reporting my new book, The Last Hunger Season.  Her family lived in western Kenya in a tiny house made of sticks and mud with a thatched roof that leaked when it rained.  The youngest child, two-year-old David, was often sick; his belly was distended, a common sign of malnutrition, and he was plagued with a persistent cough.  The two daughters were thin as twigs.

“When you, as a parent, see your child not eating enough to be satisfied, you are hurt,” Zipporah told me, “but you are not in a position to control the situation.”

Her shamba, her little farmstead, was failing.  The year before, she lacked the money to buy seeds and fertilizer so she and her husband, Sanet, planted only one-quarter of an acre of maize.  Their harvest in August was merely two 90-kilogram bags.  By November, it was all gone.

When I first met Zipporah, the Biketis were already deep into their hunger season, which is the time between the day when the food from the previous harvest runs out and the day when the next harvest comes in.  It is a period of shrinking portions and disappearing meals.  It is a time when prices soar as shortages spread, making food unaffordable on most days.  It is a season that can stretch from one month to eight or nine.  Zipporah’s would last nine.

But January would also prove to be a turning point.  She had joined a social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund, which was working to overcome the lack of distribution that has plagued Africa’s smallholder farmers for so long.  One Acre provides timely delivery of better quality seeds and micro-doses of fertilizer, along with training in proper farming techniques like planting in straight rows and placing one seed in each hole, and it also provided the credit to pay for these essential inputs.  When I next met Zipporah, in February, she was collecting her seeds and fertilizer and getting ready to plant an entire acre.

Zipporah, who is named after the wife of Moses, was setting off on her own exodus; not an exodus of geographical distance but one of distinct agricultural improvement.

She and Sanet planted in late March with the onset of the rains, and then they diligently tended the maize stalks and weeded the field throughout the hunger season.  The family grew weaker as the months went on; sometimes a cup of tea was their only nourishment for the day.  But the maize grew ever stronger.  By June, the maize stalks were towering over Zipporah.

On August 5, she was up before dawn and lit two kerosene lamps in the sitting room of her little hut.  She sang a hymn as she began her work.  Sanet also rose early.  Barefoot, he walked to the edge of his field with a machete in his right hand.  He too said a prayer.

As I write in the The Last Hunger Season:

“Just as he said ‘Amen,’ he raised the machete above his head and brought it down with a quick, violent slash.  Then, in a blur, came a second slash.   Whack, whack.  He cut down two stalks of maize at dirt level and then,thump, threw them to the ground.  He moved swiftly.  Whack, whack, thump.  Two more stalks added to the pile.

“The maize harvest, so long anticipated, had begun.”

Zipporah and Sanet, with help from friends, cleared the field that day, and then for the next several weeks they dried the cobs and shelled the kernels.  When all this harvest activity was complete, they had produced 20 bags of maize.  They were staggered by their good fortune; for them, it was a miracle.  Their harvest had increased 10-fold.  They calculated it would be more than enough to eliminate the hunger season, to feed their family through the year.

When I visited at Christmas, Zipporah showed me the blueprint of the new house she and Sanet were planning to build.  A house of solid bricks they would make themselves, with a metal roof they could now afford from a maize surplus.  David’s belly was nearly back to normal size, his cough was gone, the family was healthy.  As they gathered for a bountiful meal, the Biketis were living proof of how agricultural development works, how in one year it can eliminate hunger and increase incomes and improve living standards.

Zipporah had gone a long way on her exodus from subsistence farming to sustainable farming.  Her New Year’s wish was that no longer would they merely survive but that they could now robustly thrive.

The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change by Roger Thurow will be released on May 29.

 


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