This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, marking the occasion of its annual Global Food Security Symposium in Washington, D.C., which will be held on May 21st. For more information on the symposium, click hereFollow @GlobalAgDev and use #globalag on twitter to join the conversation. 

Ten years after the Ethiopian famine of 2003, when international food aid rushed in to feed 14 million people, another World Food Program (WFP) tent has been erected on an open field.  But this isn’t a scene of food distribution.  It is a scene of food purchase.

The action happens on the grounds of the Sidama Elto Farmers’ Cooperative Union in Awassa, Ethiopia. Sidama Elto is one of 16 cooperative unions in Ethiopia that have signed forward contracts with the WFP for the purchase of more than 28,000 metric tons of maize grown by their smallholder farmer members.  The maize, which is part of 112,000 tons of food the WFP purchased in Ethiopia last year, will be used for WFP relief distributions in the country.  Ten years ago, many of those farmers and their families were receiving food aid from the WFP.

One of the major lessons in agricultural development over the past decade is this: Markets Matter.  The 2003 famine tragically, and incomprehensibly, followed two years of bumper harvests in Ethiopia.  The surplus production overwhelmed the country’s weak and inefficient markets.  There were no export channels; the domestic market’s ability to absorb the harvests was crippled by woeful infrastructure.  The food piled up on farms and prices collapsed, upwards of 80% in some areas.  Farmers lost incentive to plant the next year.  Then the drought hit, and feast turned to famine.  The markets had failed before the weather did.

That gobsmacking turnaround triggered a reversal of the neglect of agricultural development that had set in since the 1980s, as I noted in my TedxChange talk last month.  In the past decade, science and research geared toward improving the work of smallholder farmers (who produce the majority of the food grown in the developing world) have been reinvigorated; so too have trade and business efforts accelerated to provide greater market incentives and opportunities for the farmers.  Prior to 2003, boosting agricultural production – growing more food -- was the primary focus and developing markets was considered to be a “second-generation problem.”  Now, markets share top billing with production, as it should; markets provide incentive to produce more.

In Ethiopia, it started with the creation of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange in the wake of the famine.  Now, the mantra spreads, in radio dramas, government pronouncements, business negotiations: If you grow it, someone will buy it. 

The WFP’s partnership with Sidama Elto is part of its Purchase for Progress (P4P) program, which uses the WFP’s purchasing power to create markets for smallholder farmers.  Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and implemented in collaboration with the government of Ethiopia through the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), P4P works with the farmers to improve the quality of their crops and the post-harvest handling.  Simiret Simeno, deputy manager of Sidama Elto, says that for the first time its 13,000 farmer members see that better quality can bring better prices.  And they can also see their contribution to healthier communities, as one of the markets is an expanding network of school feeding programs supplied by locally grown crops rather than food being shipped in from abroad.

The ultimate goal of the WFP purchases is to demonstrate to commercial buyers that smallholder farmers can reliably produce high-quality food worthy of their business.  Sustainable success here could also bear witness to the potential impact of President Obama’s proposed food aid reform, which would allow for nearly half of the U.S. food aid budget to be used to buy food nearer to the hunger crises – providing markets for smallholder farmers -- rather than shipping it all the way from American farms (as has been the U.S. policy for decades).

These public-private ventures bring both maturity and modernization to markets that hadn’t changed much for centuries.  Working with local banks and donor governments, P4P has introduced forward contracts to participating cooperatives and smallholder farmers.  The ATA has also been crafting links between farmers and commercial buyers of several crops, like teff, barley, sesame and chickpeas.

Above all, says Khalid Bomba, the chief executive officer of ATA, “Smallholder farmers need confidence that there will be buyers for what they grow.”

And confidence that the misery of 2003 – the misery of failed markets -- won’t happen again.

 
 
A mother knows.

“This child is brilliant,” Harriet Okaka says about her one-year-old son, Abraham.  She isn’t bragging, just observing.  “I can tell, just by looking at him,” she says, “the way he plays, the way he is.”

Harriet, 33, is a smallholder farmer in the northern Uganda village of Okii, near the town of Lira.  Abraham is her sixth child.

“The other children started walking by the time they were two years old.  Abraham is walking at one,” she says.  The mother has noticed things.  When Abraham sees an animal, he motions for it to come, she notes.  When he hears music, he claps and dances.  “These are indications that his brain is developing well,” she says.

On a hot afternoon, Harriet and Abraham are sitting under a mango tree, savoring the shade with a dozen other women and their young children.  A mango falls from a branch and bounces in the middle of them.  Abraham is the first to react, quickly crawling a couple of feet to grab the fruit.  Abraham takes a bite.  All the adults laugh.  Harriet beams.

“You see,” she says.

It is no mere coincidence, Harriet believes, that Abraham was born on the day in April 2012 when she and other women farmers had completed their first training session in the art of planting orange-flesh sweet potatoes and a new variety of beans.  They are crops rich in micronutrients essential for the health of women and their children: Vitamin A in the sweet potatoes and iron in the beans.  The crops – particularly beneficial during the 1,000 Days period between when a woman becomes pregnant and the second birthday of the child -- were developed by an organization called HarvestPlus, pioneers in biofortifying staple foods with higher levels of micronutrients, and deployed by the humanitarian agency, World Vision.

They were different crops for the Ugandans, especially the sweet potatoes, which are normally white or yellow and lacking in micronutrient content.  But Harriet eagerly planted and tended her fields.  The harvest coincided with the time she was beginning to supplement Abraham’s breastfeeding with complementary foods.  She fed him a mashed up combination of the orange sweet potato and the high-iron beans. 

“It’s good for brain development,” she says a week after Abraham’s first birthday. Her youngest child hasn’t battled sickness as her other children did, she notes.  She believes it must be the new crops.  

She tells the story of her second youngest child, Isaac, now 5, how he was very sick at the end of last year.  He was losing weight.  His skin was rough.  Harriet took him to the nearby clinic several times.  Tests were performed.  None of the doctors knew what was wrong.  Isaac was so thin, so weak, his mother was terrified that he would die.

At wits end, she turned to the new food.  “I just kept feeding him the beans and the orange sweet potatoes,” she says.  “And he got better.”

With the seeds and the vines from HarvestPlus, Harriet had planted a quarter-acre of beans and a small plot of sweet potatoes in 2012.  This year, convinced of the nutritional benefits, she is expanding her efforts.  She rented an additional two acres and in March covered them with the high-iron beans.  By the end of April, she waded through a lush carpet of green plants with Abraham perched on her back, wrapped in a white blanket.  While she pulled weeds, he slept.

Harriet sees a market for the beans and orange sweet potatoes; the demand in the community is high.  Everyone knows the story of Isaac, who has recovered and is once again wearing the chartreuse uniform shirt of the Good Luck Nursery School.  They see Abraham, lively and healthy.  Harriet wants everyone to share in the benefits of the micronutrient rich food.

A mother knows.  “If my children are healthy,” she says, “then the neighbors’ children must also be healthy.”

This post originally appeared on the Global Food for Thought blog.
 
 
As word spread earlier this week of the food aid reform section of President Obama’s 2014 budget, I wondered how Jerman Amente would greet the news.  He was a wiry 39-year-old Ethiopian farmer and grain trader when I first met him back in 2003.  The country was tipping toward a disastrous food crisis – 14 million people would be on the doorstep of starvation that year – when he invited me to see his warehouse in the crossroads town of Nazareth.  He unlocked the door and threw open its large metal panels, revealing, astonishingly, a room full of food.

It was a gobsmacking site in a country that would be receiving more than one million tons of international food aid.  Bag upon bag of Ethiopian grown wheat, corn, beans, peas and lentils were stacked in towering columns stretching toward the ceiling.  It was the bounty from the two previous farming seasons, when Ethiopian farmers reaped bumper harvests.  Those surpluses overwhelmed the weak markets and prices plunged 80% in some areas, to levels below their cost of growing the food.  It was a catastrophe for the farmers; their success had led to failure.  Without a market, the food piled up in warehouses or rotted on farms.

Just a few blocks away, though, trucks laden with international food aid, most it from the United States, raced down the main highway.  This is how I described the scene in the book ENOUGH, Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, with Jerman at his warehouse:

“He could feel the trucks rumbling in from Djibouti, massive double-load wagons stacked to the top with 220-pound white woven-plastic bags bearing the characteristic red, white and blue markings of American food intended for hungry foreigners.  The trucks came in waves….The ground shook as they rolled over the potholes.

“Jerman shook with anger whenever he saw those trucks.…(He) scrambled to the summit of one of his mountains of grain and comically posed for pictures.  “I should hold a sign saying, ‘Please send food.  In Ethiopia we have no food!’ ”  He howled wickedly.  “I don’t think Americans can imagine this.”

“No, Americans imagined their food aid arriving to save the day amid blighted landscapes of misery where everything was brown, dying and grim.  Their perceptions of the situation – and of their own best intentions – were perhaps most clearly expressed on one of the trucks that rolled up to the Ethiopian government’s strategic grain storehouse in Nazareth, groaning under the weight of American wheat and corn to be unloaded there.  The truck’s passenger-side window had been converted into a stained-glass painting of Jesus.  It was perfect imagery: Jesus, in Nazareth, bringing salvation to the Ethiopians.

“Americans certainly didn’t imagine their food aid arriving in green fields, rolling past warehouses full of local food.  They didn’t imagine African countries producing grain surpluses, certainly not those countries with all those starving people.”

It was eminently clear to me, standing there with Jerman, that something was wrong with the U.S. food aid system, which, since the 1940s, mandated that the U.S. provide American-grown food on American flagged ships.  No matter that it doubled the cost and the time of food delivery to the hungry.  There was no room, no flexibility, for American dollars to be spent buying up food that was grown locally, in the same country or the same region where hunger reigned.

It was hard to fathom.  Why not buy up the food here first?  It would be cheaper.  It was already here, so it didn’t need to sail on the high seas for months.  And it would be a great help to local farmers, who saw their own markets collapse from their surpluses.  Instead of solely shipping in surplus food from America, why not buy up local surpluses first?

It seemed like common sense.  But common sense had long ago left the U.S. food aid system.  As the years went by, U.S. business and political interests had come to wield ever more influence over food aid policy, keeping the focus on what was best for American agribusiness and for the politicians it supported rather than on what was best for the world’s hungry.  Even as American generosity grew – half of all international food aid has routinely been provided by the U.S. – so did its self-interest.

Jerman and other farmers who had gathered with him told me that they were grateful for international assistance because the need in their country was so great.  But couldn’t some of that assistance be to also help local food systems?

Again from ENOUGH:

“Jerman reported that some farmers hauling their own grain up from the south, hoping to sell it on the markets, had pulled a U-turn in Nazareth when they met the food-aid trucks coming in from the east.  They returned to their farms and stashed the grain in flimsy storage facilities, breezy bins open to the elements, where insects and pests and the heat would ruin it in a matter of months.  What kind of incentive was this for farmers to improve their harvest?  With food aid flooding into the country, what was the use of producing a surplus?”

Back then, Jerman told me: “If we take the perspective of the American farmer, it is logical to supply food aid to the world.  This is the right policy for America.  But if the main aim of aid is not only to support American farmers but to support the poor country, then the donors must do what is best for the Ethiopian farmers and the Ethiopian people.  If this is the aim, to solve the hunger problem, then the U.S. must change.  Don’t only send your food.”

It’s taken 10 years, but finally change may be coming, pending approval from Congress.  There have been modest moves toward what is called “local purchase” in past U.S. budgets, but they have been tentative pilot projects.  Now the President was proposing that nearly half of America’s $1.5 billion food aid budget could be used to buy local food when that food was available in hunger areas.  Just like Jerman had pleaded a decade ago.  Imagine that.

 
 
In a report launched today – a valuable yardstick called, A Growing Opportunity: Measuring Investments in African Agriculture – ONE reviews the past decade and finds some notable successes in terms of mustering money and political commitment, and the impact of agricultural development.

Ten years ago, Africa’s hunger season reached new levels of desperation.  Hunger crises gripped the continent from the Horn to the southern tip.  In Ethiopia, the feast of successive bumper harvests had incredibly, swiftly turned to famine, with 14 million people on the doorstep of starvation, surviving on international food aid.  A drought spread through central Africa and crept down the east coast, destroying harvests.  In southern Africa, AIDS was creating a new kind of famine where it wasn’t the crops that were dying but the farmers who planted them.

The suffering was immense.  And it exposed the folly of international development philosophy and practice of the preceding three decades: agricultural development and sustained resilience, particularly for the smallholder farmers, had been woefully neglected. 

The farmers who grew the majority of the continent’s food, who made up the majority of the population in many countries, were seen as too poor, too remote, too insignificant to be worthy of development efforts.  This had been the shared attitude of rich world donor governments, African governments themselves, the mighty development institutions and the private sector.

Something had to change.  And it did.

Amid the misery in 2003, African leaders gathered in Maputo, Mozambique and determined to reverse the neglect.  At an African Union (AU) summit, the heads of state promised to allocate 10% of national budgets to agriculture and seek 6% annual agricultural growth by 2008.  The AU leaders also adopted the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) as a common framework to be implemented by member states to eliminate hunger and reduce poverty through agricultural development.  This would be development led and owned by African countries, and supported by donors.

How have the seeds sown by the Maputo Declaration grown?

In a report launched today, Tuesday, March 26, 2013 – a valuable yardstick called, A Growing Opportunity: Measuring Investments in African Agriculture – the ONE campaign reviews the past decade and finds some notable successes in terms of mustering money and political commitment, and the impact of agricultural development.

As of January 2013, the report notes, 24 countries had signed CAADP compacts and held their business meetings and launched “solid, costed and technically reviewed” plans to accelerate agricultural development.  Another six countries had committed to start the process and develop plans.  The report assessed 19 of those plans:

Eight of those 19 countries are on track to meet the first Millennium Development Goal of halving extreme poverty by 2015.  At least 13 have had 6% annual growth in the agriculture sector.  Leading the way has been Ethiopia; by 2011, the government was spending 19.7% of the total budget on agriculture, almost double the Maputo commitment.  The result is average annual growth of 24.2% in the agricultural sector in the 2008-2011 period, which, in turn, has accelerated poverty reduction, particularly in the rural areas.

Still, the report notes, much remains to be done.

“Despite progress, Maputo financing commitments are off track,” ONE found.  “Disappointingly, our analysis shows that only four of the 19 countries examined have met the target of spending 10% of the national budget on the agriculture section.”  Those countries are Ethiopia, Niger, Malawi and Cape Verde.  Two more countries are close behind (Senegal and Sierra Leone).  And six are at least halfway there (Mali, Tanzania, Gambia, Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda).  Seven countries, though, are seriously off track, spending less than 5% on agriculture; six of them actually lowered their agriculture spending.  The resulting funding gaps of the proposed agricultural development plans in these 19 countries amounted to a $4.4 billion budget shortfall in 2011.

ONE exhorts African leaders to “act with urgency” to fill the gaps in partnership with donors.

As for the donors, their actions also need to match their pledges.  Meeting at L’Aquila, Italy, in 2009, the world’s leading industrial countries, known as the G8, pledged $22 billion over three years to support sustainable agriculture and food security in the developing world.  In 2012, at their Camp David summit, the G8 leaders launched the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a partnership between the governments and private companies to accelerate investments in agriculture with the ambitious goal of lifting 50 million people out of poverty over 10 years.

The ONE report found that these G8 countries may have, in words and intentions, met their $22 billion pledges, but only half of the money has been dispersed and is working on the ground.

When the benefits do reach the fields, progress is remarkable.  “Sub-Saharan African agriculture could, and should, be thriving,” the report concludes.  “Unblocking Africa’s agriculture potential would also unlock its development.”

To accelerate the success, ONE suggests the agriculture development plans need more transparency and greater consultation with civic organizations, particularly farming groups and women’s organizations.  They need a clearer focus on women farmers, who do most of the smallholder farming in many countries.  And they need a stronger emphasis on improving nutrition as well as production.

This year, ONE says, “is a turning point.”  The decade-old commitments to improve African agriculture need to be renewed and bolstered and put into action.  Or the days of negligence could begin again.

Surely, no one wants that – not the Africans who depend on agriculture to drive their economies nor the rest of the world that needs African farmers to be as productive as possible to meet the great challenge of feeding a growing global population.

The hunger season in Africa has gone on far too long.

This was originally posted on Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Impatient Optimists blog.

 
 
As the ballots were being counted in the recent Kenya election, I saw photos of people displaying the encouraging message: Give Peace a Chance.  So far, that sentiment seems to be holding.

Equally important for the future of the country is this imperative message for the new government: Give Peas a Chance.  And Maize.  And Beans.  And Sweet Potatoes.  And Millet.  And Sorghum.  And Peanuts.

The planting season is at hand in many parts of Kenya, and a good agriculture season should be a top priority for the government.  The violence that followed the previous nationwide election in 2007 displaced many smallholder farmers and disrupted the planting season, which would result in significantly reduced harvests.  I traveled with Josette Sheeran, who was then the executive director of the World Food Program, as she spoke with the leaders of the quarrelling parties.  The visit came in the throes of the 2007-2008 food crisis, when global stockpiles of major crops were shrinking and prices were skyrocketing; Ms. Sheeran was scrambling mightily to procure enough food, on a limited budget, to feed the increasing number of hungry people.  The last thing she needed to worry about was feeding displaced farmers in Kenya, a country that ought to be able to feed itself.

After touring camps of displaced farmers, who should have been tending their fields, Ms. Sheeran had a curt message to the political leaders about the violence their disputes had unleashed: Knock it off, and get your agriculture back on track.

Agriculture is key to Kenya’s economic growth and social stability.  The majority of the population lives in rural areas, and most of those people are smallholder farmers.  These farmers produce the majority of the country’s food.

Thus, the new government’s main concern should be dealing with a maize disease that had been spreading through the western region of Kenya, threatening production in one of the country’s breadbaskets.  The virus bears a frightening name: maize lethal necrosis disease.  Carried by insects, it dries up leaves and stunts cobs, damaging the country’s staple crop.

The disease was on a rapid advance in the second half of last year, demanding a decisive response by the government and the agriculture industry to work on resistant varieties and get those seeds from the labs into the hands of the farmers.  At the same time, the maize disease presented an opportunity to promote crop diversity that would be good for the farmers’ diets, good for their income, good for their soils.  Improved resilience would be the silver lining.

When I visited them in January, the smallholder farmers of western Kenya featured in the book The Last Hunger Season were pondering their options.  Other grains like millet and sorghum have strong markets and would provide income.  Sweet potatoes and cassava would help with food security.  Beans, peas and greens would assure varied nutrition.

“We must adjust,” said Rasoa Wasike, one of the farmers.  Her husband Cyrus, who had become a field officer for the social enterprise organization One Acre Fund, agreed.  “We can’t stick with maize only,” he said.  “Our ancestors used to eat these other crops, so we will just go back to those habits.  We want our families, our children, to know these different meals rather than always chasing the price of maize.”

It would be good to have choices, he said.  “That is what will save us this year.”

As planting time nears, the farmers wait for rain and pray for peace.  In Kenya, both are needed to help the seeds take root and the crops to flourish.

 
 
Kabuchai, Kenya

There’s a building boom going on in this western Kenya village.

The blueprint for Zipporah and Sanet Biketi’s new house is coming to life.  The walls, made of some 4,000 bricks formed by Sanet’s hands, are standing tall just as they planned: two bedrooms, a sitting room, a storage room and a narrow bathroom which will feature a water basin for washing-up.

When I visited them last month, Zipporah and Sanet proudly led me on a tour of their house.  It was still open to the sky, the floor was dirt, and weeds were sprouting in the rooms.  They hoped to have the roof completed before the rainy season begins in a month or two; they still lacked a few iron sheets and the wooden poles for the ceiling frame.

The house was a work in progress, but still it was a glorious site to behold.  I had first caught a glimpse of their dream at the end of 2011, as I was reporting The Last Hunger Season book.  The Biketis had reaped the best maize harvest of their lives – twenty 90-kilogram bags, a mighty increase from just two bags the year before.  As new members of One Acre Fund, for the first time in their lives they had access to better-quality certified seeds, micro-doses of fertilizer, farming advice and credit to pay for it all.  With their bumper harvest secured, the Biketis had enough food to feed their four children throughout the year and to act on other goals.

In the days before Christmas that year, we discussed their dreams in the dark sitting room of their house, a tiny bungalow made of mud and sticks.  We sat under a thatched roof that leaked in a couple of places.  Zipporah left the room and quickly came back with a sketch of the new house they hoped to build.  They would use some of their harvest to get started. And now, a bit more than a year later, here it was, a new home rising beside their old one.

Zipporah’s friend, Rasoa Wasike, was also building a new house, thanks to improved prosperity on her small farm.  In fact, the entire village of Kabuchai, populated with smallholder farmers, was expanding.  The technical training school had a new wing of classrooms.  A housing block with rooms for rent neared completion.  Several new shops had been built in the market in the past year: a men’s barber, Mercy’s Hair Salon for women, B. Cycle for bicycle sales and repairs, and a second M-Pesa agency for money transfers had opened.

“Competition,” Rasoa said, smiling brightly.  She was spending more time running Kabuchai’s first M-Pesa now that her husband, Cyrus, had become a One Acre Fund field officer.  “The market is growing.”

As I returned to western Kenya, I found that the dreams of the smallholder farmers I had come to know were being realized as the nightmares of the hunger season receded.  Francis Mamati, confident of better harvests, was taking driving lessons, a long-deferred goal; he hoped to get a job driving a small truck or a school bus to supplement his work on his farm.  And Leonida Wanyama was tending all manner of crops on her shamba as she gathered money to keep her children in school and improve their educations; Gideon had completed high school – the first in the family to do so! – and Jackline was about to begin.  Gideon, as I mentioned in my last column, was taking a short course on climate change and conservation agriculture while awaiting word on college possibilities.

There are many people in the rich world who consider agricultural development to be tedious and uninteresting.  “Obama’s Fantastic Boring Idea,” trumpeted a New York Times headline on a Nicholas Kristof column about the president’s Feed the Future Initiative, which seeks to end hunger and secure the global food supply through the development of smallholder farmers.  “At a time when there’s a vigorous political debate in America about foreign aid,” Kristof wrote last July, “outreach to African farmers doesn’t wow Congress or the American people.”

Well, let’s shout from the ramparts:

WOW, smallholder farmers with harvest surpluses are building new houses, opening new businesses, creating new jobs!

WOW, the children of thriving smallholder farmers are graduating from high school and dreaming of college!

WOW, smallholder farmers are diversifying their crops, increasing household income and eliminating the malnourishment of their children!

WOW, the goal you thought was impossible to achieve – the last hunger season – is within reach for millions of smallholder farmers!  “I am going to win!,” Leonida says.

WOW, agricultural development works!

Boring?  Anything but.  The progress of smallholder farmers in Africa and elsewhere is the most exciting news in international development.  Now, the challenge is to keep it going.

As the threat to international development programs still looms in Congress and the European Union, this exciting news needs to spread: investments in rural areas that benefit smallholder farmers is money well-spent.  Progress is being made, and it needs to be secured and furthered with new investments in storage technology and roads and markets, and new research to combat pests and droughts.

Listen to the words of new high school graduate Gideon Wanyama: “Forward ever, backward never.”

And consider the joy of a mother once burdened with worry over a malnourished child: One morning last month, Zipporah prepared lunch in the cooking room of the old house.  Sweet potatoes and porridge were on the boil.  Just after noon, the children came home from school.  Little David, who was sick with a cough and a distended belly throughout 2011 when I was reporting The Last Hunger Season, was now in kindergarten.  He was looking smart in a blue sweater and short pants and green plastic sandals; he was clutching a fistful of purple flowers he had picked on the walk home.  The signs of malnourishment had vanished, his cough was gone.  He giggled often and even showed off his English.

“How are you doing?,” I asked. “I am fine,” he said, proudly repeating the first line of conversation that every Kenyan schoolchild learns. Zipporah laughed.  “David, you are fine,” Zipporah said.

Wow.

 
 
Kimilili, Kenya

The young man from the farm was looking smart in an olive green suit, salmon tie and cufflinks.  His black shoes were a bit scuffed, but his English was polished.  “We are moving forward,” he said.  “Forward ever, backward never.”

When last I saw Gideon Wanyama, at Christmastime 2011, his high school education was wavering in the balance.  He had just finished his third year, but it had been a mighty struggle.  All year long, his family had sacrificed to scrape up enough money for his school fees.  His mother, Leonida, a smallholder farmer, sold their maize harvest, prolonging the family’s hunger season.  Still, that wasn’t enough; several times, the principal of the high school sent Gideon home to bring back more money to complete the tuition payment.  Leonida, prizing the education of her children above all else, sold off other assets.  Then, days before the final exams, Gideon was stricken with a bad case of pneumonia.  He recovered in time to take the tests and, as the year came to a close, he was back home on the farm awaiting the exam scores.  During the holiday he helped his mother and father improve their mud-and-sticks house by slinging a new layer of mud on the walls. 

I featured Gideon and his quest for an education in my new book, The Last Hunger Season, and often readers ask, “What has happened to Gideon?  Has he finished school?”

After a week of reporting in western Kenya, visiting the farmers in the book, I am happy to report that Gideon has indeed completed high school, likely near the top of his class.  He won’t know the precise final scores for another month or two, but he says, confidently and with a broad smile, “I passed, I’m sure of it.”  If those scores are good enough, he hopes to enroll later this year at a university in Kakamega, a larger town in the region, “and my education will continue,” he says.  He still harbors an ambition to study law, but he knows that could take eight more years of school, which would require a longer stretch of sacrifice by his family.  So he is focusing on an alternate course: environmental studies.

Which is why I found him sharply dressed in the lyrically named town of Kimilili.  He was in the middle of a three-week course taught by Worldstar International Climate Change Educators.  It is an opportunity to obtain a certificate as an environmental officer, which could lead to a job and income to help pay for college.

While he studies the importance of trees and rain and clean water and learns about ozone depletion and changing climates, he thinks back to how his mother sold one of the family cows last year to help cover the tuition for his final year of high school.  He now believes that a healthy environment which allowed trees and grass to grow on his family’s small farm even during the dry season helped him get through his senior year.

“In high school, I heard that my mom sold a cow to pay school fees,” he says.  “If there’s  no grass around my house for the cow to graze, my mom can’t have a cow.  If there’s no cow, there’s no income.  If there’s no income, there’s no school.  I couldn’t have finished high school.”

He is quiet for a moment.  “You can see,” he says, “it is a circle of life.”

Back home on her small farm, called a shamba, Leonida also sees a circle of life spinning.  With his education, Gideon can get a better paying job beyond the farm and then help pay for the schooling of his three younger sisters.  “I am getting old,” says Leonida, who is in her mid-40s.  “I might not be able to work like I do now for my daughters.  But Gideon will be able.” 

Shortly after Gideon greeted me at the classroom in Kimilili, Leonida and her husband, Peter, arrived on the back of a motorcycle.  They beamed when they saw Gideon in his vest and tie.

“You see,” she said to me, proudly sizing up her son.  And then she repeated what she had told me the day before on her shamba: “We are going to win.”

Stay tuned for more updates on the farmers of The Last Hunger Season.
 
 
In the vast assembly room at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, overlooking one of the nation’s premier food banking facilities, Drexton Granberry joyfully came to the end of his speech.  He and 25 others were graduating from Chicago’s Community Kitchens (CCK), a 14-week program that teaches culinary skills to unemployed and underemployed adults.  One of them was the 1,000th graduate since the program’s beginning in 1998; many of them have gone on to begin careers in the foodservice industry.

Concluding his touching speech, Drexton said, “CCK didn’t just give me a fish, they taught me how to fish.”

I have heard that phrase many times writing about global hunger and poverty.  It’s an old chestnut of development practitioners.  But this was the only time it brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye.  For I knew what the graduates had endured, not only in the class but in life.  When I was writing for The Wall Street Journal, I followed one of the Chicago classes from start to finish; similar classes were also being taught at a number of food banks across the U.S.  Among the students in that class were former inmates and addicts, homeless people, men and women down on their luck and looking for a way back up.

On graduation day in mid-December, the assembly room at the Food Depository, filled with friends and relatives of the students, was bursting with smiles and pride.  For some students who hadn’t finished high school, this was their first real graduation day.  For many of them, it was their first chance at a real career.  More than three-quarters of the graduates from the previous ceremony already had landed jobs in Chicago’s vast foodservice industry.

Drexton Granberry, a 47 year-old father for four and grandfather of three, told the gathering he had worked odd jobs throughout his life, never anything that was a semblance of a career.  He was in Minnesota, working in a warehouse for a potato chip company, when his mother had an accident earlier this year.  He moved to Chicago to be near her, to help her get around.  He couldn’t find a job.  “I felt like a broken toy on Christmas Day,” he said.

Then he saw an advertisement announcing the beginning of a new CCK class.  He applied and studied hard and hustled through the tasks.  During the daily classes, the students helped to prepare nearly 2,000 meals each day for children in afterschool programs and for seniors.  Along the way, Drexton latched on to the prospect of a cooking career.  “The program gave me a can-do attitude,” he said.

Kate Maehr, the executive director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, dabbed at her moist eyes.  Speaking earlier in the ceremony, she spoke poignantly of the 1,000 CCK graduates.  “For 14 years, they have come filled with hope,” she said.  “For some, hope of finding a better job.  For others, hope of finding any job.”  Sometime during the course, she noted, hope turns to opportunity.

It is true for both the individual and for the Food Depository.  “It wasn’t good enough just to be a warehouse that moved food out into the community,” she said.  “We also needed to move out of hunger and bring opportunity into the community.”

Community-based responses that work from the bottom-up are key to ending hunger and poverty at home and abroad.  And long-term solutions that result in self-sufficiency, rather than short-term emergency food handouts, are vital to attacking the root of the problem and ending hunger permanently.  As the keynote speaker observed, the importance of learning to fish.

The CCK graduates and the current class of students showed off their culinary chops at the lunch they prepared for their 200-or-so guests.  It was a veritable feast of marinated chicken, barbecued beef medallions, vegetable rice, cubed sweet potatoes, assorted breads, holiday cookies and cupcakes and hot apple cider.

As I moved through the buffett line, I recalled the feast I had observed nearly a year earlier in the Lugulu Hills of western Kenya.  Chicken, beef, beans, tomatoes, kale, a mound of corn meal and a plate of flat bread.  Leonida Wanyama, a smallholder farmer, and her family were celebrating a year of bountiful harvests.  Following the lead of a social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund, she finally had access to the essential elements of farming – better quality seeds, soil nutrients, financing to pay for it and extension advice.  It was a solution that involved entire communities of farmers, a solution that aimed for a permanent end to the farmers’ hunger season.  The Christmas before, following a typically meager harvest, Leonida had served only boiled bananas.

The pride and joy I saw at that home-grown Christmas feast in western Kenya I now witnessed again at the CCK graduation ceremony.  The students laughed about a phrase they repeatedly heard in class as the teachers stressed the importance of a well-ordered, efficient kitchen: mise en place.

Everything in place.

It is a culinary phrase.  And, in the CCK, it is also a metaphor for life.

I think it should also be a slogan for the war on hunger:

Put hunger in its place.  Which is to say, in the dustbin of history.

 
 
The smallholder farmers of Africa know all about fiscal cliffs.

“Everybody wants money,” Leonida Wanyama despaired as she neared the precipice of her own personal cliff during the hunger season. She had no food in the house and no money, either. Many forces were pushing her to the edge. Her children were being sent home from their classes by headmasters demanding that the school fees be paid. She was running up a tab at the local pharmacy, where she picked up malaria medication on the promise of future payment. She needed to pay off her credit for maize seeds and fertilizer. Most pressing of all was the daily need to scrounge up something to feed her family now that the food from her own harvest had run out. Every morning when she awoke after a fitful night tormented by worry, she felt the cliff was just beyond the door of her mud-and-sticks house.

Leonida and her neighbors in western Kenya have been peering into the abyss long before the phrase “fiscal cliff” became a buzzword in Washington. Zipporah Biketi, another farmer in western Kenya, told me about the daily battle to pull her children back from malnutrition. The children, she said, “don’t know the hardships that their parents pass through…They just want to eat.”

For a nation like the United States, burdened with debt and budget deficits – and this applies to all of Europe as well – falling over the cliff is a scary proposition. But for the billion or so people who exist on one or two dollars a day – like the smallholder farmers of Africa – it is a daily terror.

If a deficit reduction deal doesn’t get done in Washington by the end of the year, the tumble over the cliff would trigger mandatory across-the- board spending cuts. Programs that support the poor and hungry in the U.S. and abroad have already been hit in previous budget-cutting rounds. New indiscriminate slashing will thus be disproportionately harsh for them. The cuts may be equally applied, but they won’t be equally felt.

Programs that pull people back from their personal cliffs will be devastated. That would be domestic programs like food stamps and women and infant care, and international programs like the presidential emergency AIDS assistance and food for education. The estimated $4.7 billion cut that would befall the International Affairs budget would include nearly $100 million from the President’s Feed the Future initiative, which aims to improve the harvests and profits, and thus the health and nutrition, of smallholder farmers in Africa like Leonida and Zipporah.

In my new book, The Last Hunger Season, we see how agricultural development and nutrition programs can succeed. We see harvests double, triple, quadruple in just one season. We see family incomes rise and health improve. We see farmers suddenly adding the all-important AND to their lives. They can feed their families throughout the year AND pay school fees AND afford medication AND improve their houses AND their farms.

In The Last Hunger Season, we see farmers retreating from their personal fiscal cliffs.

So this much is clear: A deal in Washington to avoid the fiscal cliff needs to get done. And it needs to get done fairly.

America’s deficit wasn’t caused because too much was spent on poverty and hunger programs; in fact, foreign assistance is less than 1% of the federal budget. So cutting here won’t save much at all. What it would do is save fewer lives.

As Bono told a full house of Georgetown students last month, “Budget cuts shouldn’t cost lives.” In his lyrical way, he declared that we shouldn’t let “economic recession become a moral recession.” That, he insisted, would be doubly cruel.

The United States can’t step back from its cliff by pushing millions of the world’s poor over their own cliffs.
 
 
The following is a guest blog by Roger Thurow, author, senior fellow for global agriculture and food policy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and ONE Campaign fellow. We asked Thurow a few questions about food security.

Traditionally centered around a big meal to celebrate good harvests and time with family, Thanksgiving is also an opportunity to reflect on what we’re thankful for and our wishes for the future. At the top of our list is the hope for a future in which no one goes to bed hungry. What is yours?

Exactly the same: a world free of hunger. Some may dismiss that as an unrealistic goal, but ending hunger through agricultural development is within our grasp. We certainly have precedent on our side, for we have seen agricultural development work in so many countries. Be it here in the United States, or in Europe, or in India or China or Brazil. So we know it can be done: We have the science, the technology, the experience. We know the “way”, but what has been missing is the “will”.

At this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful that we are now seeing this “will” emerging in so many places. As we sit down to our traditional national feast—to celebrate our harvests and our abundance—this is the ideal time to commit to ending hunger no matter where it may be, whether here at home or in Africa or anywhere else in the world.

Even as we are seeing progress in our efforts against global poverty and undernutrition, we know there is still work to do and that we must remain focused. Why do you think this is important, and why do you think Americans should care about global hunger and food security?


First, the very word “security” is important, for how secure can the world truly be with nearly one billion chronically hungry people? During the food price spikes of 2007 and 2008, when stockpiles of major grains dwindled, prices soared, and shortages spread, we saw how quickly gaps in the global food supply can lead to widespread unrest.

Second, how stable can the world economy be when such extreme poverty keeps so many people outside the global economic and trade system? Securing the global food system is also one of the biggest—if not the biggest—challenge facing us in the coming decades. With the planet’s population expected to increase by more than two billion people by 2050, it is estimated that we need to increase our food production by as much as 60 percent to meet this rising demand. And it is important to not just focus on increasing production, but to put nutrition—growing a cornucopia of more nutritious food—at the center of our efforts as well.

So yes, indeed, Americans should care deeply about global hunger and food security.

Also, it’s what America does—and does best. We are the world’s breadbasket, with the mightiest farmers. Spreading agricultural development has been one of America’s top “soft power” achievements of diplomacy and international relations over the decades. Think of the Marshall Plan and the Green Revolution. Now, the Obama Administration’s Feed the Future initiative continues this lineage.

Feed the Future is a key piece of the U.S. Government’s effort to reduce global hunger and improve global food security. Having spent time observing Feed the Future’s work and reporting in depth about agricultural development, what do you see as different or unique about Feed the Future?

Feed the Future has set out to reverse the neglect of international agricultural development over the past several decades. Feed the Future also recognizes that food security is not just about increasing production, but increasing the nutritional value of the food as well; it focuses on not only the necessary ingredients of growing food but also on the elements farmers need to translate their harvests into profits, determined by the countries themselves. So post-harvest issues like storage and efficient markets are central to Feed the Future. It also stresses the importance of partnerships with the private sector and the governments of developing countries as well as with universities, foundations and humanitarian organizations. These partnerships were vital to the success of the Green Revolution 50 years ago.

I see two other important aspects of Feed the Future: an emphasis on long-term agricultural development (rather than solely focusing on short-term emergency food aid relief) and a focus on the smallholder farmers of the developing world. This means facilitating access to the essential elements of farming—seeds, soil nutrients, training and micro-financing—so that the smallholders can be as productive as possible. These farmers are indispensable in meeting the great challenge of food security I mentioned earlier. If they succeed, so might we all.

And they can succeed. This is the central message of The Last Hunger Season, which brings readers into the lives of four smallholder farmers in western Kenya.

Let’s talk about your book. After spending time with these farmers in Kenya, what did you see as the role and importance of food security, particularly agriculture and nutrition, in their community?

It is absolutely vital. While reporting the book, The Last Hunger Season, I learned that securing enough food for their families is the top priority of women smallholder farmers in Africa. All things flow from that accomplishment. With greater harvests, these women farmers can conquer the dreaded hunger season and the malnutrition of their children, and also have a surplus that can provide income to pay school fees, to afford proper health care and medicine, and to diversify their crops for better nutrition.

You’ve written two books on food security now and you often blog about it in your role at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs—what first interested you in this topic and why are you so personally invested in it?

Covering the 2003 famine in Ethiopia for The Wall Street Journal. It was the first famine of the 21st century; 14 million people were on the doorstep of starvation, dependent on international food aid. On my first day in Addis Ababa, I received a briefing about the extent of the famine by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). One of the WFP workers told me: “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.”

The next day, I was down in the hunger zones, in an emergency feeding tent filled with dozens of severely malnourished children. What I saw in those eyes did indeed become a disease of the soul; I saw that nobody should have to die of hunger, not now, not in the 21st century when more food was being produced in the world than ever before. It was a turning point in my career as a journalist. All other stories began paling in comparison. I knew I needed to stop the usual routine of a foreign correspondent—moving from story to story, place to place—and focus on this one story: hunger in the new millennium. This led me to write my first book, with fellow WSJ reporter Scott Kilman, ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty.

But for me, ENOUGH wasn’t enough, so I plunged deeper into the issue of hunger and agricultural development. This propelled me to write The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change. And I intend to continue writing, taking readers into the eyes of the hungry, spreading the disease of the soul.

Do you have hope that things can change for the better? Why?

Yes, because I see a burgeoning movement, a gathering momentum, to end hunger through agricultural development. I see it in renewed American leadership, manifest in Feed the Future. I see it at universities, at faith-based gatherings, on the ground in Africa. Earlier this year, at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ symposium on global agriculture, food security and nutrition, President Obama called for an “all hands on deck” effort to end hunger in the 21st century. I see these many hands getting to work.