This originally appeared on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Impatient Optimist Blog.

Zipporah Biketi didn’t attend the G8 meeting of the rich and powerful nations last weekend at Camp David.  But still she was at the center of it.

President Obama, hosting the summit of the world’s leading industrialized countries, forged a New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.  As the President described it, the alliance is an “all hands on deck” call for African governments to design and implement their own agricultural development projects with the concerted support of donor governments and the private sector.

At the core of the New Alliance and a gathering movement of similar efforts, like those of the Gates Foundation,ONE’s THRIVEOxfam’s GROW, and the World Economic Forum’ Grow Africa  are the smallholder farmers of Africa, who are seen as indispensable if the world is to meet the great challenge of doubling food production by the year 2050 to satisfy the demand of a global population that is growing in size and prosperity.

Farmers like Zipporah.

I first met the 29-year-old mother of four in January 2011 as I began reporting my new book, The Last Hunger Season.  Her family lived in western Kenya in a tiny house made of sticks and mud with a thatched roof that leaked when it rained.  The youngest child, two-year-old David, was often sick; his belly was distended, a common sign of malnutrition, and he was plagued with a persistent cough.  The two daughters were thin as twigs.

“When you, as a parent, see your child not eating enough to be satisfied, you are hurt,” Zipporah told me, “but you are not in a position to control the situation.”

Her shamba, her little farmstead, was failing.  The year before, she lacked the money to buy seeds and fertilizer so she and her husband, Sanet, planted only one-quarter of an acre of maize.  Their harvest in August was merely two 90-kilogram bags.  By November, it was all gone.

When I first met Zipporah, the Biketis were already deep into their hunger season, which is the time between the day when the food from the previous harvest runs out and the day when the next harvest comes in.  It is a period of shrinking portions and disappearing meals.  It is a time when prices soar as shortages spread, making food unaffordable on most days.  It is a season that can stretch from one month to eight or nine.  Zipporah’s would last nine.

But January would also prove to be a turning point.  She had joined a social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund, which was working to overcome the lack of distribution that has plagued Africa’s smallholder farmers for so long.  One Acre provides timely delivery of better quality seeds and micro-doses of fertilizer, along with training in proper farming techniques like planting in straight rows and placing one seed in each hole, and it also provided the credit to pay for these essential inputs.  When I next met Zipporah, in February, she was collecting her seeds and fertilizer and getting ready to plant an entire acre.

Zipporah, who is named after the wife of Moses, was setting off on her own exodus; not an exodus of geographical distance but one of distinct agricultural improvement.

She and Sanet planted in late March with the onset of the rains, and then they diligently tended the maize stalks and weeded the field throughout the hunger season.  The family grew weaker as the months went on; sometimes a cup of tea was their only nourishment for the day.  But the maize grew ever stronger.  By June, the maize stalks were towering over Zipporah.

On August 5, she was up before dawn and lit two kerosene lamps in the sitting room of her little hut.  She sang a hymn as she began her work.  Sanet also rose early.  Barefoot, he walked to the edge of his field with a machete in his right hand.  He too said a prayer.

As I write in the The Last Hunger Season:

“Just as he said ‘Amen,’ he raised the machete above his head and brought it down with a quick, violent slash.  Then, in a blur, came a second slash.   Whack, whack.  He cut down two stalks of maize at dirt level and then,thump, threw them to the ground.  He moved swiftly.  Whack, whack, thump.  Two more stalks added to the pile.

“The maize harvest, so long anticipated, had begun.”

Zipporah and Sanet, with help from friends, cleared the field that day, and then for the next several weeks they dried the cobs and shelled the kernels.  When all this harvest activity was complete, they had produced 20 bags of maize.  They were staggered by their good fortune; for them, it was a miracle.  Their harvest had increased 10-fold.  They calculated it would be more than enough to eliminate the hunger season, to feed their family through the year.

When I visited at Christmas, Zipporah showed me the blueprint of the new house she and Sanet were planning to build.  A house of solid bricks they would make themselves, with a metal roof they could now afford from a maize surplus.  David’s belly was nearly back to normal size, his cough was gone, the family was healthy.  As they gathered for a bountiful meal, the Biketis were living proof of how agricultural development works, how in one year it can eliminate hunger and increase incomes and improve living standards.

Zipporah had gone a long way on her exodus from subsistence farming to sustainable farming.  Her New Year’s wish was that no longer would they merely survive but that they could now robustly thrive.

The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change by Roger Thurow will be released on May 29.

 By Roger Thurow

Too poor, too remote, too insignificant.  That was the unofficial mantra behind the neglect of smallholder farmers in Africa for the past four decades.  It was recited by the farmers’ own governments, by rich world governments, by development institutions large and small, by the private sector.  It has left Africa’s farmers far behind those in the rest of the world.  It has left them unable to feed their own families throughout the year.  It has given rise to that horrible oxymoron “hungry farmers.”

Hopefully, that mantra – and the mindset it fronted – was junked forever this weekend and the neglect reversed.  At the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Food and Nutrition Security and at the G8 summit at Camp David, the smallholder farmers were put on center stage – although few were actually in attendance – and showered with attention.  The powerful and the rich trained their focus on the hungriest and the poorest.  Their overwhelming consensus was that the smallholder farmers of Africa – most of whom are women -- are indispensable in the great global challenge of doubling food production by 2050 to meet the demands of a population that is growing in both size and prosperity.

Finally, the potential and performance of Africa’s smallholder farmers – as I chronicle in The Last Hunger Season -- was recognized and saluted and embraced.  Well done.

But, as was also often noted at the Symposium, this recognition needs to go beyond the conference halls and into the fields, to the women working their soil at the end of the rural dirt roads.

So, how do we get from here to there?

President Barack Obama, speaking at the Symposium, unveiled the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.  He said it demanded the concerted efforts of governments in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world to design and prioritize their own agricultural development plans, of the donor countries to support those plans and of the private sector to help implement them.  He called it an “all hands on deck” effort.

It was a rousing start.  But then the G8 failed to fully seize the moment and turbo-charge the New Alliance with concrete promises and money and commitment.  A number of advocates and organizations on the front line of the fight against hunger hailed the initiative for reversing the neglect but were quick to say more needed to be done to maintain the momentum.

“While some countries appear to have really stepped up to the plate, the G8 collectively missed an opportunity to build the New Alliance at the scale that is needed to get the job done,” Michael Elliott, president and CEO of ONE, said in a statement.  “So while this plan is a bold beginning, it must not be the end of the G8’s ambition on food security and nutrition.  The Alliance needs to be built out across the 30 developing countries with plans for agriculture if we are to meet the goals of lifting 50 million people out of poverty and prevent stunting in 15 million children due to chronic malnutrition.”

Perhaps the key player in achieving these goals will be the private sector, particularly the international agriculture industry, which has in the past dismissed some 50 million African smallholder farmers as potential customers.  To poor, too remote, too insignificant.  It defied any common business sense.

One industry, the continent’s cell phone purveyors, saw the potential in this market and it has thrived.  Cell phones are common throughout rural Africa; the farmers see them as a life transforming technology and they are willing to pay for the phone and for the calling time.  They use the phones to reduce distance (it eliminates the long walks to check up on family and friends), to do their banking, to get agriculture advice, to monitor crop prices at the nearest markets.  The sad irony is that they don’t have the essential elements provided by the agriculture industry – seed, soil nutrients, tools, credit, storage facilities – to increase their production to take advantage of the information they can get with the cell phones.  It’s wonderful to be able to dial a number and check the prices, but few farmers grow enough to have a surplus that they can actually sell.

Access to the basics of farming technology can double, triple, quadruple their harvests.  For the smallholder farmers, that is even more life transforming than cell phone technology.  And so they will pay for better quality seeds and micro-doses of fertilizer and time-saving equipment.  “Absolutely we will.  We know the benefits,” says Francis Mamati, one of the smallholder farmers I follow in The Last Hunger Season.

In the New Alliance, the private sector is moving to embrace this vast market, rallied by the African Union, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, and the World Economic Forum.  Nearly 50 businesses (multinational and local African enterprises alike) and farmer organizations have announced $3 billion worth of New Alliance deals, and that is said to be a conservative number.  This number needs to multiply greatly as the New Alliance model spreads from the three initial target countries – Tanzania, Ethiopia and Ghana – to the rest of the continent.

Imagine, Africa’s smallholder farmers finally in the spotlight.  Too poor no more, too remote no more, too insignificant no more.

Roger’s new book, The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change, is now available at and your favorite online booksellers including Barnes & Nobles, Indiebound, and Powells.

President Barack Obama issued an “all hands on deck” command to combat chronic hunger and malnutrition, which he said was “an outrage and an affront to who we are.”

Speaking at the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security, the president said the G8 – while dealing with global problems like job creation, the struggling Eurozone, and sustaining economic recovery – would also “focus on the injustice of hunger, and the need for long-term food security.”

He said the G8 leaders would open another front in the fight: a New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. It is an alliance that will foster partnerships between governments from the rich world and the poor, donor countries and the private sector.

Governments, President Obama said, will agree to take the lead in building on the plans designed by developing countries to improve their agriculture. Donor countries will agree to more closely align their assistance to further these plans. And the private sector will agree to make concrete and continuing commitments to boost their investments.

The G8, he said, would sustain its commitments of three years ago to invest $22 billion in agricultural development, “and to speed things up.” Things like the development of new innovations, such as better seeds, better storage facilities and better communications for smallholder farmers to better deal with changing prices and changing climate.

He said the first three focus countries under the New Alliance will be Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania; in coming months, six more countries will be added.

And he said 45 companies, ranging from multinationals to local African enterprises, are kicking off the private sector contributions with investments of more than $3 billion.

The focus of the New Alliance, President Obama said, will be on boosting farmers’ incomes so that during the coming decades 50 million men, women and children will be lifted out of poverty. And equal focus, he said, would be on boosting nutrition along with incomes.

The New Alliance, the president said, “would put the fight against hunger where it should be, at the forefront of global development.”

“True development,” he added, “means not only delivering aid but promoting broad-based economic growth.” The purpose of aid, he said, should be to create the conditions where assistance is no longer needed; this, he noted, is the aim of his Feed the Future initiative, which seeks to create the conditions for smallholder farmers to grow enough food to feed their families and their communities so food aid isn’t needed to begin with.

Ending hunger, he said, was imperative on three fronts: moral, economic and security. A surging global population, he said, needs to be “matched by surging food production.”
Fifty years ago, he said, Africa was a food exporter. “There is no reason why Africa shouldn’t be feeding itself and exporting food. No reason at all.”

The Chicago Council Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security opened with a jolt of urgency and possibility.

“The transformational day begins,” proclaimed Dan Glickman, co-chair of the Council’s Global Agricultural Development Initiative and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Symposium, bringing together leaders from governments around the world and multinational corporations, is setting the tone for this weekend’s G8 summit at Camp David.  Glickman said the G8’s deliberations on will be “critical in determining food and nutrition security of future generations.”

Michael Froman, assistant to President Obama and deputy national security advisor for international economic affairs, said a focus on nutrition security will be a central G8 theme.

Tom Arnold, chief executive of Concern Worldwide, hailed this focus on nutrition – on improving food quality in addition to increasing food production – as “unprecedented.”

At Camp David, the leaders of the top industrial nations will be joined by African presidents and private sector CEOs in advancing the G8 commitment to increased agricultural development investments made three years ago in L’Aquila, Italy.

Froman said President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative was beginning to produce results on the ground in some 20 countries.  He noted that agricultural productivity in those countries was eight times higher than the global average.

He also said the administration was “fully committed to an assistance agenda” in a time when Congressional budget cutters have been targeting foreign.  But, he added, “Government assistance alone is not sufficient.  It takes commitment on the ground” from all those involved on the agricultural development front.

As the Camp David summit opens, he said, “it will take all of us represented here to achieve our goals.  As you look to the G8, we look to you.”


Go to the end of most any dirt road in rural Africa and you will see a smallholder farmer, most likely a woman, tending her crops.

Those farmers, so neglected and marginalized over the years, will be front and center in the discussions of food security this weekend, at the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Advancing Food and Nutrition Security in Washington DC on Friday and at the G8 meetings at nearby Camp David. There will be declarations of renewed commitments and new partnerships to improve agricultural development in the poorest countries of the world.

And then what?

“We want to make sure that they are connected all the way into the field. It is the problem of the last mile,” says Ritu Sharma, the co-founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide. 

Paul Schickler, the president Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont business, nodded his head enthusiastically. “We are the last mile,” he said. “My business is unique. We touch that last person who puts the seeds in the ground." Going that last mile, bringing the benefits of agricultural development to the farmers at the end of the road, is the challenge within the challenge. The overarching challenge confronting the world is the need to double food production by 2050 to meet the demands of a global population that is growing in both size and prosperity. The smallholder farmers of Africa and other developing regions of the world are indispensable if any success is to be achieved. The challenge of going the last mile is creating the conditions for these smallholder farmers to be as productive as possible, so they can eliminate the hunger season and feed their families throughout the year and add to the global food supply.

Since the majority of these farmers are women, this will mean not only overcoming decades of neglect of smallholder farmers in general, but also overturning generations of entrenched gender inequality. This inequality is evident in women generally having less access to the essential elements of farming: land ownership, seed and fertilizer, capital and credit, education and training.

“If we are going to ensure global food security and make tangible progress, women farmers are an essential part of the solution,” Paul said.

“And it is important that we ask them what they need,” Ritu added. “The solutions need to be in sync with women farmers.”

“Giving them what they need, not what we think is right,” Paul agreed. He pointed to a rural education center that Pioneer built on the advice of the farmers; the company then turned over the center to the local village.

The two leaders on the agricultural development front came together for a Chicago Council conversation shortly before the Symposium. They are both members of the advisory group of the Council’s Global Agricultural Development Initiative.

One of the things women farmers say they most need is time. More time. Labor saving devices are at a premium. Like irrigation pumps that can bring water to the fields rather than the women having to haul it in buckets balanced on their heads. Like machines that grind the grains rather than the women having to do the arduous and tedious pounding themselves. Like better seeds that increase the yields of their work.

Just hauling water from a stream or a well, Ritu said, can consume the equivalent of 6 months of full time labor. It has been said, she noted, that the real energy crisis in the rural areas of the developing world is women’s time. “They work 17 to 18 hours a day. The extra time they need to learn, to improve, comes out of something else. It is less time for water hauling, less time to care for sick children. Only then can they spend more time on their crops.” She added: “Women farmers are agnostic about what is the right solution. They want to haveaccess to all the solutions.”

The solutions are so myriad, Paul said, “that no one can do it by themselves.” Public-private partnerships are critical, he maintained, be they cooperative ventures with local schools, agricultural research institutions, seed producers, or 4-H clubs. “We need to have that collaboration,” he said.
And, he added, they must be long-term programs that deal with the entire agricultural value chain at the same time. For instance, efforts that increase the access of women farmers to better seeds and fertilizer and farming advice, and thus lead to greater harvests, are wonderful. But they must also, at the same time, solve the problem of the woeful storage facilities of most smallholder farmers and the inefficient markets that are often unable to absorb any surplus production. “It will be a real tragedy if all this (production) rots,” Ritu said.

It is a matter of going the last mile literally and figuratively. “It’s really important to expand our lens,” Ritu added, “to see what’s happening on a bigger scale.”

One of those bigger scale items is ensuring that women farmers have greater access to land. In many countries in Africa, culture and tradition preserve land ownership for men.

“What we’re seeing is more women having legal rights to land. Next will be inheritance rights,” Ritu noted. “When women have joint title or sole title to land is when incentive begins. It makes no sense to improve the land if someone can just take it away.”

Paul embraced the importance of creating incentive, noting it applies to large corporations as well as to women smallholder farmers. As land rights spread, so does respect for the rule of law, which is particularly attractive to investors. “With rule of law and a stable investment climate, businesses will invest and invest aggressively,” he said.

Women owning land has benefits far beyond the field, reaching into the house and into the community. “Women having assets lessens potential for violence,” Ritu said. “You see women playing a greater role in the household, in financial discussions.” And in those discussions, women will generally demand that a greater share of the income goes to caring for their children.

“Let’s make sure,” Ritu said, “that at the last mile, women farmers do get their fairshare of the land.”

For many Moms, their biggest wish on Mother’s Day is to hear those special three little words from their children: I Love You.

For the mothers and women farmers of Africa, they also dearly wish to hear three little letters: A-N-D.

And.  It’s a tiny word, perhaps the most common of all conjunctions.  But in rural Africa, it is so often missing from the ambitions of mothers.

It is the goal of mothers everywhere to provide their children with proper daily nourishment and to educate them as best as possible.  In the U.S. and other rich precincts of the world, the AND in that sentence is taken for granted. 

But for many smallholder farmers in Africa, that three-letter word is nowhere to be found.  Instead, they are stuck with an even tinier word: OR.  Feed my children OR send them to school.  Often, they can do one OR the other.  Often, they can’t do either.

I saw the impact of that missing conjunction in January 2011, as I was beginning the reporting for my new book, The Last Hunger Season.  Leonida Wanyama, one of the smallholder farmers in western Kenya I would be following throughout the year, told me with great pride how she had tripled her harvest from previous years when she finally had access to the essential elements of farming: better seed, micro-doses of fertilizer and financing to pay for it.  She had reaped a bumper harvest, 10 bags of maize compared to only three the year before.  She believed it would be enough to conquer the hunger season, to feed her family all through the year until the next harvest.

But when I visited her shamba, her farm, a few days later, the maize was gone.

“I sold it to pay school fees,” she told me.  January marked the beginning of the school year; Leonida’s second oldest son, Gideon, was entering his third year in high school and a down payment on the tuition was due.  Her maize was the only asset she had left that was valuable enough to raise the money.  (The first two years, she had sold trees and chickens.)

The bright future she saw after the harvest was limited for want of a simple AND.  She had to make a choice: Feed the family, educate the children.  One or the other.  Not both.  Leonida reckoned that they were used to coping with the hunger season and Gideon was so close to becoming the first of her children to complete a high school education.  The three oldest hadn’t made it; for Gideon to drop out now, too, would be a bitter defeat.  Leonida strongly believed education was the surest route out of poverty, for her children and for her family.  So she chose the long-term gain of education over the short term satisfaction of eating well.  She sold the maize.

On my subsequent visits to her shamba throughout the year, I often found Leonida burdened by her choice from the lack of an AND.  The hunger season was biting harder than ever, particularly because the price of maize on the market (she was a buyer now that she had sold her harvest) would rise fivefold over her sale price.  Meals dwindled from three to two to one and, on too many days, none.  Her younger children suffered most; she lamented that the littlest, Dorcas, was smaller and quieter than normal.

Leonida and her fellow women farmers felt failure on two fronts: as farmers unable to grow enough to feed their families and as mothers unable to properly nourish those she brought into the world.  They defined for me the deepest form of misery: being a mother unable to stop a hungry child from crying, and then watching that child retreat into the shrinking shell of malnutrition.

Ah, for an AND.

President Obama set out to provide those three little letters on his first day in office.  Let’s remember again that passage from his inaugural address:  “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow, to nourish starved bodies, and feed hungry minds.”  Two ANDs.  Zero ORs.

Now it’s time for President Obama and his fellow rich world leaders, at next week’s G8 and NATO summits, to commit to the AND by renewing and strengthening their support of increased investment in agricultural development.  In advanced of the G-8 summit, President Obama will deliver the keynote at the Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security next Friday.  Of all the lofty rhetoric and ambitious strategies we’ll be hearing from their meetings on U.S. soil next week, the mightiest may be the simplest and tiniest.

For there can be no greater gift to the farming moms of Africa than to put a little AND in their lives.

(I now have a twitter account, follow me @rogerthurow)

Friday, May 04, 2012 Roger Thurow - Outrage and Inspire -  NO FOOD, NO PEACE

You can’t build peace on empty stomachs.

Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, was fond of saying that.  He may not have been the first to formulate that philosophy, but he certainly was one of its most ardent purveyors.  He said it to politicians and economists and journalists and students.  And he said it to generals and their lieutenants as well.

It would be a good slogan for this month of May, packed as it is with crucial international summits.

The clamor is rising for the G8 leaders to accelerate their action to attack hunger and malnutrition and secure the global food chain for future generations when they meet in two weeks at Camp David.  And it should also be directed at the NATO leaders who will be gathering in Chicago later that same weekend.

For the heads of state of the leading industrial nations, increasing agricultural development in poorer countries is of paramount economic importance.  It is vital if the world is to meet one of its greatest challenges: doubling food production by 2050 to meet the demands of a global population that is growing in size and prosperity.  It will contribute to more stable commodity prices.  And it would confront one of our great moral failings: every night, one person in seven goes to bed hungry, and tens of millions of children are in danger of life-long physical and mental stunting because of lack of proper nutrition.

For the NATO brass, ending hunger through agricultural development should be embraced as an important element of their military strategies.  Ensuring food security was a cornerstone of the Marshall Plan to secure the peace in Europe after World War II.  Today, bringing prosperity to farmers is certainly essential for the long-term stability of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Food shortages and rising prices have ignited the two most recent convulsions of regional turmoil: the rioting that hit dozens of countries during the food crisis of 2007-08 and the street uprisings that were a prelude to the Arab Spring last year.

As for promoting global peace, agriculture development is one issue that should bring all countries together – be they friends or enemies.  For every country is impacted by strains on the global food chain; the challenge of doubling food production is not an issue for one country but for all.  It is an equally pressing matter for the U.S. and its NATO allies as it is for China and the countries of the Middle East.  When it comes to food security, the tensions of other issues should ease, inequalities should be erased.  On this front, the developed world needs the developing world; long neglected, the smallholder farmers of Africa are now indispensable to securing the food chain.

President Obama’s Feed the Future Initiative and other programs of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are central to the administration’s National Security Strategy.  Feed the Future, which seeks to increase investment in agriculture development and create the conditions for poor smallholder farmers to be as productive and prosperous as possible, is a key weapon in the deployment of American “soft power.”

I have said here before that a legion of well-equipped farmers can be mightier than a battalion of tanks.  Even those who command those tanks tend to agree.  Here are several statements from members of the U.S. defense establishment over the past two years, compiled by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.

  • “In many respects, USAID’s efforts can do as much – over the long term – to prevent conflict as the deterrent effect of a carrier strike group or a marine expeditionary force. … While the hard power of the military can create trade, space, time, and a viable security environment, the soft power of USAID and the development community can deliver strategic effects and outcomes for decades, affecting generations.” – Lieutenant General John Allen, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, May 2011.
  • “Economic development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers.” “Development produces stability and contributes to better governance.” – former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, September 2010.
  • “National security is not just dependent on military power.  It’s dependent on diplomatic power.  It’s dependent on the State Department being able to provide foreign aid, being able to work with countries, being able to provide development money, being able to provide education money.” – Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, December 2011.
  • “Development and diplomacy keep us safer by addressing threats in the most dangerous corners of the world and by preventing conflicts before they occur.” – 70 top military leaders in USGLC National Security Advisory Council’s letter to Congress, March 2011.
Hopefully, we will hear more – and see more action -- on the food security front from the NATO meeting in two-weeks.  NATO could supply firepower to a renewed G8 food security initiative.  It’s not called food “security” for nothing.