The Last Hunger Season

One Acre Fund's Andrew Youn: "Agriculture is the fundamental humanitarian challenge of our time."

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.

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  • BY Kathleen Colson

    ON September 24, 2012 11:53 AM

    Roger Thurow is right: Nobody should have to die from hunger. I applaud One Acre Fund and its mission to eliminate the “hungry season” for smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and to “attack hunger through agricultural development rather than food aid.”

    But it’s not just smallholder farmers of food crops who are struggling to stay alive in Africa.  In 2011, the worst drought in 60 years triggered a hunger crisis in East Africa that impacted 13 million people and left an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 dead. The United Nations estimated the cost of the humanitarian response at $1.5 billion. That crisis happened not in the agricultural regions of sub-saharan Africa but in the dryland regions of Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. 

    Marginalization, the lack of infrastructure investments and the provision of basic services like health care and education have all contributed to this growing crisis. But these regions share a number of other things in common.  As the climate changes, we are seeing an alarming rise in extreme poverty, hunger and armed violence. Drought is disrupting the traditional livestock industry and clashes between ethnic groups over increasingly scarce natural resources are rising. 

    The focus for avoiding hunger crises in the drylands of Africa, from the Horn of Africa to the Sahel and western regions of the continent, lies in enhancing the resilience of pastoral communities.  The focus should be on building infrastructure investments and diversifying livelihoods, especially for women and their dependent children who are particularly hard hit when they are left with no means of support as men travel with herds for months in search of ever-more-elusive pasture. Most are forced to rely on humanitarian food aid, a short-term solution that saves lives but reinforces the cycle of poverty and dependency in the African drylands.

    Long term solutions are desperately needed.  Our organization, The BOMA Project, works to identify the most vulnerable women in dryland, pastoral communities and graduate them out of extreme poverty by putting them through a two-year program that addresses low incomes, inconsistent cash flows and inadequate financial instruments that are characteristic of the rural poor who have no access to traditional financial services like banks and cell phones. We move women out of extreme poverty, from beggars to lenders, so that they have increased assets, a committed savings income, usefully large sums of money for bigger expenditures like healthcare and education for their children, and most importantly, the ability to respond to shocks like extreme droughts. 

    The remote drylands of Africa are not easy to work in.  Most are lawless regions with no police or military presence; pastoralists are forced to be armed in order to protect their assets.  But 40% of Africa is classified as arid or semi-arid. They capture headlines and are portrayed by the media as a disaster in cycles that generate high profile short-term solutions.

    We don’t see it that way.  We see communities of pastoralists who have been adapting for centuries.  Our women entrepreneurs enjoy the support of pastoralist men who face the daily challenges of providing for their families in an increasingly devastating cycle of droughts.  We see success every day.  97% of the businesses we launch are still in operation at three years. 

    The international community needs to focus on solutions for the drylands of Africa where hunger doesn’t exist and aid is no longer needed. That, in the end, is the only sustainable solution.

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