This commentary originally appeared on Stanford Social Innovation Review.
It was in the middle of a Chicago snowstorm when Andrew Youn and I first met to talk about Africa.
“The existence of a hungry farmer is completely crazy. It’s mind-boggling. A hunger season shouldn’t exist,” Andrew told me on that frightful winter day, as the wind howled and the snow drifted beyond the windows of a bookstore where we nursed warm drinks. “Our mission as an organization is to make sure it never, ever happens.”
I was intrigued by this thin, soft-spoken, unassuming young man. He was 20 years younger than me, but I could sense from the outset that we shared many things, particularly an ambition to conquer global hunger. As he spoke about banishing the phrase, the horrible oxymoron, “hungry farmer”—and the need to do it now, and forever—I recognized his passion. For it was also mine.
I repeated to Andrew what an aid worker with the World Food Program had told me during the Ethiopian famine of 2003: “Looking into the eyes of someone dying of hunger becomes a disease of the soul. You see that nobody should have to die of hunger.”
What I saw then, in Ethiopia, was 14 million people on the doorstep of starvation, being kept alive by international food aid; compounding the tragedy was that it was occurring after two consecutive years of bumper harvests in Ethiopia. It was an epic reversal, from feast to famine, that defied comprehension. What I saw was that indeed nobody should have to die of hunger. Not now, not in the 21st Century. It was that profound, soul-searing experience that led me to write the book Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty with my Wall Street Journal colleague at the time, Scott Kilman. And it was what subsequently led me to leave the Journal after 30 years of reporting from many distant outposts. In the emergency feeding tents of Ethiopia, I found my passion and developed a single-minded pursuit of the story that had come to seem more important to me than any other: Why were people still dying of hunger at the beginning of the new Millennium when the world was producing—and wasting—more food than ever before? For me and my diseased soul, Enough hadn’t been enough.
So there I was, in a blizzard, searching for my next narrative in Africa. I was interested in portraying Africa’s smallholder farmers, who rose every morning to tend their fields yet still couldn’t grow enough to feed their families. They battled through an annual hunger season, the time between when their food from the previous harvest ran out and when the new harvest would come in. It was a time of great deprivation, when food was rationed and meals dwindled from three a day to two to one and then, on some days, to none. My idea was to follow a group of these famers over the course of a year, illustrating their ambitions and fears, failures and triumphs, and, ultimately, chronicling their potential to grow enough food to escape their personal hunger seasons and to benefit all of us as well by adding to the global food chain, which will be facing unprecedented pressure in coming decades to feed an ever-growing and ever-more prosperous world population.
As I explained all this to Andrew, I could see it matched his sense of mission and urgency. A few years earlier he had founded a social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund in western Kenya to reverse the decades-long neglect of smallholder farmers by providing access to the seeds and soil nutrients and planting advice and financial credit that had never made it deep into the rural areas. The “social” aspect was to banish the hunger season; the “enterprise” part was to do it as an efficient business. Andrew believed in attacking hunger through agricultural development rather than food aid. It was a fresh impulse in the war on hunger, a challenge to the old way of doing things, to actually cater to the needs of smallholder farmers rather than giving up on them.
“I really believe,” Andrew told me, “that agriculture is the fundamental humanitarian challenge of our time.”
My diseased soul had found a kindred spirit. I was determined to see One Acre farmers in action. Out in the snow, bracing against the wind, Andrew and I shook hands.
We would next meet in the intense heat of western Kenya.
Read an excerpt from The Last Hunger Season.