Why would they say that?, he wondered.
Sitting under a shade tree in front of his little house in western Kenya, Francis had just been told that there are people who think African smallholder farmers are better off planting seeds saved from previous harvests than planting newer, fresher seeds purchased every year. The rationale behind this thinking is that these saved seeds are cheaper; annual purchases would trap these very poor farmers in a cycle of higher expenses, leaving them beholden to seed companies.
“You mean they would rather we be trapped in a cycle of hunger?,” Francis asked incredulously.
For years, he and neighboring farmers had routinely used saved seeds or purchased cheap, tired varieties that have been in use for decades. And for years they have struggled through a hunger season, unable to grow enough food to feed their families throughout the year. Francis knew the misery of the hunger season all too well. In fact, his middle name, bestowed by his mother, is Wanjala, the local word for hunger. He was born during the hunger season of 1957.
Thus, Francis and tens of thousands of other farmers in his area jumped at the chance to purchase better-quality hybrid corn seed when a social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund presented the opportunity. Crucially, One Acre also provided the financing in the form of micro-credit to enable the farmers to afford the seed, as well as tiny amounts of fertilizer. We’re not talking about the new generation of seeds called gmo’s, or genetically modified organisms – they aren’t even available in Kenya or in most of Africa -- but about seeds produced through conventional hybrid breeding techniques that adapt for disease or climate or soil conditions. The result can be harvests with double or triple yields.
“We will all pay more for seeds if they give us much better harvests,” Francis explained. “Who wouldn’t? It doesn’t cost anything to be hungry. Starvation is cheap! You mean these people would rather we not spend money and be content with low yields?”
He continued: “We’ve come to discover that the seed you save in your house and use year after year doesn’t perform as well as the hybrid seed. One, it is too easily attacked by disease; no changes have been made to resist new disease. Two, the cobs are smaller than with hybrid seed.”
“Look,” he said, “life is going on. There is new technology in the world. So you should follow the technology rather than hold on to old customs that are leaving you hungry. We look forward to our better harvests.”
I write about this conversation in my book The Last Hunger Season. And I repeat it here because as I speak about the horrible oxymoron of “hungry farmers”, of the need to end hunger through agricultural development, a frequently asked question is the very one that was put to Francis: are we somehow trapping farmers in the expense of buying seed every year?
My reply: Listen to the famers.
Listening should be the most cherished skill of anyone doing international development work. Ask and listen. Don’t assume. Don’t dictate. Don’t impose your notions of what is best.
I thought of Francis while watching former President Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democrats’ convention this week. “Arithmetic!,” Clinton shouted when revealing the secret of balancing the national budget.
Arithmetic was also key to Francis’ farming rationale. He acknowledged that hybrid seeds cost more than the traditional varieties, a couple of hundred shillings per half acre more. But he said it was well worth the cost if he could harvest an additional five or six bags of corn, each worth more than 1,000 shillings (and perhaps as much as 4,000 shillings, depending on the time of year and the market price). Who, he asked, wouldn’t make that transaction, particularly if their children were hungry?
Listen. There is wisdom in these voices.