The Last Hunger Season

Roger Thurow

304 pages, PublicAffairs, 2012

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In Bungoma, the main city in western Kenya about an hour’s drive from Leonida’s shamba, activity was also accelerating in warehouse 10 at the National Cereals and Produce Board. The sun was just coming up on a late February morning, peeking over the grain silos that were the tallest structures in Bungoma. At their base was a row of cavernous, concrete warehouses. In the warehouse at the end of the row, rented by One Acre Fund, Andrew Youn began to scale a mountain of seed bags.

He stepped awkwardly from bag to bag, as though he were ascending wobbly stairs. The earthy smell of burlap merged with the dank odor of sweat. Thousands of dust specks twinkled in the rays of sun that streamed through the open warehouse doors. When he reached the summit, Andrew looked down on a conga line of strong-backed men carrying twenty-five- and fifty-kilogram bags on their shoulders. The workers wore an array of rags to protect themselves from the dust—one decided to wear a dress—as they snaked their way through a labyrinth of towering columns of farming ingredients to the fresh air of the loading dock where a fleet of trucks waited.

The One Acre founder looked terribly out of place amid the grunting warehouse labor. He was a skinny, bespectacled, bridge-playing, thirty-two-year-old details geek from Minnesota, the earnest son of Korean immigrants, a Yalie with a Northwestern MBA who would likely stagger under the weight of a big fertilizer bag. But Andrew did his heavy lifting with numbers, calculating his task ahead as nimbly as the burly Kenyan warehouse workers completed their task at hand. Andrew really was in his element. From his lofty perch, he filmed the scene with a small video camera cradled in his right palm. Below the camera was a broad smile. For in each bag of seed or fertilizer he saw a prospering farmer. “One of my favorite days of the year,” he declared to no one in particular.

This was an Input Distribution Day on the One Acre Fund calendar. It was a day when farmers would receive their seed and fertilizer in advance of the rains and the planting season. It was a day of great anticipation. Singing and dancing and prayers of thanksgiving would greet the arrival of the trucks.

For Andrew, it was a day of great fun that provided a measure of how much the organization had grown. But it was also a day of sober assessment of how much more work needed to be done. He descended the mountain of seed sacks and joined Andrew Wanyonyi, One Acre’s purchasing manager who was standing on a stack of empty burlap bags near the warehouse door. He, too, was a slender, bespectacled, numbers man, a Kenyan who had worked with One Acre almost from the beginning when they didn’t even need a warehouse to service the first couple hundred farmers. Now he carried a clipboard heavy with computer printouts, which recorded the needs of every farmer.

“How are we doing?” Andrew Youn asked.

“It’s really hard to imagine what we’ve become,” answered Andrew Wanyonyi (named for the time when weeds were pulled). “I look at what’s going on in this warehouse and say, ‘Wow!’”

Wanyonyi knew his boss wanted hard numbers to back up the exclamations. Flipping through the printouts, he came to the warehouse totals: This year, he reported, they would be moving 201 metric tons of maize seed and 2,010 tons of fertilizer to their farmers in Kenya who were ready to plant a total of 20,100 acres. It would all fill about four hundred ten-ton trucks.

“That is pretty ridiculous,” Andrew Youn said gleefully in his own burst of astonishment. Ridiculous was a favorite word of his. “In our first year, we couldn’t even fill one pickup truck. And this year, four hundred? In five years I hope we’ll laugh at how small this operation today was.”

Actually, he had a little chuckle now, a melancholy little chuckle, as he put this operation into perspective. “Every time I think about the need, it’s amazing how big it is. Four hundred trucks seem like a lot, but each truck is just an eye drop in the ocean of need. A meaningful eye drop, but we need so many more.”

As the warehouse emptied of stock, it filled with a great sense of urgency, for this would be a pivotal year for One Acre as well as for the farmers. It was a year that would test the organization’s ambitious growth projections. On that February morning, One Acre was working with about fifty thousand farmers in western Kenya and Rwanda after only five years of operation. Andrew was eyeing expansion to Burundi and Ghana and points beyond, perhaps even to Asia; he plotted an annual doubling of the number of farmers served. It was a tremendously rapid rate of growth for a humanitarian organization—a “nongovernmental organization,” or NGO, in the parlance of the development world. But for Andrew it was hardly satisfying; in the corporate realm, where he had worked for a couple of years as a consultant to Fortune 500 companies, such ambition was expected. His mid-range goal was to be serving 1.5 million smallholder farm families by 2020. His long-term goal was mindboggling.

“Today we’re satisfying a fraction of 1 percent of the market,” Andrew told his colleagues who had gathered around him on the warehouse loading dock. “The total potential market is over one hundred million farm families in the world. We think fifty million at least in sub-Saharan Africa. We have our work cut out for us.”

Andrew and his One Acre cohorts knew their warehouse work was in stark contrast to what was happening in warehouses in other parts of Kenya. The newspapers had recently been filled with stories describing the escalating relief effort to feed Kenyans who had been left hungry by the spreading drought. The United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP) was distributing maize and rice and beans, most of it coming in from foreign countries, to feed about 1.6 million Kenyans; predictions were that the number of hungry would soar to more than five million in coming months. Thus, in warehouses in the eastern and northern parts of the country, it was bags of food aid that were being loaded into trucks also making their way to hungry farmers.

Andrew shook his head and frowned when he contemplated the contrast. He appreciated the need for emergency food aid to keep people from starving. But, he wondered, “How much more efficient is one bag of seed than one bag of food? Each bag of seed produces ten bags of food.” Indeed, in One Acre’s experience, one five-kilogram bag of hybrid maize seed produced an average of ten ninety-kilogram bags of maize. “The idea of bringing in food aid to feed farmers, whose profession is to grow food, is totally absurd, feeding them, creating dependence, rather than empowering people to grow food themselves and feed themselves.” There was a rare flash of frustration in his voice. “That’s terribly uncreative. The human race is much more creative. We can do better than that.”

This determination—“We can do better than that”—placed Andrew and One Acre at the vanguard of a new wave of social entrepreneurs who were upending the development doctrine and practices of the past generation. Talk of poor African farmers succeeding, of growing enough to feed themselves and others, of managing an agricultural enterprise that would improve their standard of living, would have been preposterous a decade or two earlier when those same poor African farmers were being ignored by the development community. At institutions like the World Bank, proposing an agricultural development project was a surefire way to be booted down the career ladder. Hungry smallholder farmers were seen as the problem; they must get out of farming to end their poverty.

Now here was Andrew Youn in a warehouse filled not with food aid but with farming aids, sounding like a revolutionary with his talk of catering to the needs—the business needs!—of the world’s poorest and hungriest. He dared called them “customers.” He refused to see them as welfare recipients and wanted One Acre’s approach to stand in contrast to NGOs that came to Africa and freely handed out food and supplies for a couple of years and then left. “The minute you feed one person, another one hundred are lined up with their hands outstretched,” he told his colleagues. “You realize that handouts won’t solve a thing, unless you’re ready to feed millions of people every year, forever. The only way to make a real difference is to somehow empower the poor to solve their own problems.”

Andrew and One Acre were determined to go beyond the old Band-Aid approach of charity relief and emergency aid and pursue new business-based methods of long-term, sustainable agricultural development. He had the audacity to believe that Africa’s farmers should see farming as a business, as a way to make a living, rather than merely farming to live.

In the past, very few enterprises had been willing to take on Africa’s smallholder farmers as clients. That was why the higher-yielding hybrid seed that had boosted yields in the United States seventy years earlier was so minimally used across Africa, why fertilizer use—even just a thimbleful per plant, as the continent’s agronomists prescribed for smallholders—was so rare, why the farming methods were so ancient. Agriculture suppliers simply dropped off seed and fertilizer and tools at supply stores in the big cities. If the remote smallholder farmers needed any of that, the suppliers reckoned, they would come into town and get it.

Andrew didn’t understand that philosophy. From business school, he knew there were plenty of case studies that emphasized distribution. He had zeroed in on Coca-Cola’s strategy to put a bottle within arms’ reach of every person on the planet. Indeed, Coca-Cola had pushed its products out to the remotest points of the African bush. He had also studied the ubiquity of cell phones in rural areas and the customer service tailored to those needs. Similarly, Andrew believed it was possible to inundate every corner of Africa with farm services. “Our secret business ingredient,” he often told the One Acre staff, “is distribution.”

In passion and ambition, he was the agriculture version of Paul Farmer, the American physician and anthropologist who for twenty years had been challenging the way the world was dealing with health inequalities, be it HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis treatments or horrible hospital infrastructure. Farmer cofounded Partners in Health and went to work in some of the most difficult places on earth, such as Haiti and Rwanda. Andrew greatly admired Farmer. He liked how Farmer lived with the poor to understand their problems, liked how he tirelessly pushed for greater innovation, liked how he asked questions too daring for most set-in-their-ways development organizations. Andrew particularly liked the question, “How can the world do this better?”

From the book The Last Hunger Season by Roger Thurow. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs (, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.

Read author Roger Thurow’s introduction to this excerpt.