Friday, June 24, 2011  Roger Thurow

The Nigerian ambassador to the U.S., Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye, tells an acerbic joke to illustrate the importance of good leadership:

Someone noticed that God had blessed Nigeria with so much: oil, agriculture, natural resources, industrious people.  Why, God was asked, do you favor this country so greatly?  “Just wait,” God replied.  “Wait until you see the leaders I will give them.”

This is why, in one of the world’s leading oil-producing countries, people line up to fill their cars with gas.  “We have everything to be a great country,” the ambassador noted in a speech at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs Friday.  “Nigeria’s problem has been, pure and simple, leadership.”

Leadership has also been a problem in the fight against hunger.  Namely, the lack of political will to make ending hunger through agriculture development a top priority of every government.  The old maxim of success – where’s there a will, there’s a way – has been stood on its head in the fight against hunger.  We’ve long known the way, but we’ve been missing the will to get it done.

So it was notable this week that the World Food Prize, which honors great achievement in the fight against hunger, announced that this year’s recipients of the award are two leaders who mustered the political will: John Kufuor, the former president of Ghana, and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former president of Brazil.

Under the leadership of their former presidents, Ghana and Brazil are two rare countries on track to exceed the first United Nations Millennium Development Goal of cutting in half extreme hunger before 2015. Kufuor prioritized agriculture development, and Ghana became the first sub-Saharan African country to make huge gains against hunger.  According to the World Food Prize, Ghana’s poverty rate has fallen from nearly 52% in 1991 to about 26% in 2008; about one-third of the population was hungry and malnourished in 1990, but by 2004 that shameful measure was less than one-tenth.

Lula da Silva summoned his entire government to get behind his Zero Hunger program, which harnessed agriculture development to boost rural incomes, widen access to food for the poor, and increase primary school enrollment.

The World Food Prize has mainly honored scientists and humanitarians in its 25 years. 
The scientific breakthroughs are vital, but they don’t go very far without the political will to make sure those discoveries get into the hands of the farmers they are supposed to help.  Today, all over Africa, new seed varieties that could greatly enhance the productivity of smallholder farmers are being kept out of the fields by political mismanagement and stubborn bureaucracies.

Similarly, the political will that has recently been mustered by the U.S. government and a few other countries to reverse the neglect of agriculture development over the past three decades is being challenged by small-minded efforts to whack back such aid and investment for the sake of fiscal austerity.  And the G20 took the initiative this week to convene a summit of agriculture ministers to address food price volatility and the challenge of increasing food production and quality but then pulled its punches in delivering the political will necessary to tackle issues like regulation of commodities’ derivatives markets, biofuel subsidies and putting up new money to fulfill commitments to increase agriculture development spending.

Back at the Chicago Council lunch, the Nigerian ambassador said his new government was serious about deepening its agriculture cooperation with the U.S. to further the country’s ability to feed itself.  He and his long-suffering countrymen know better than most that an absence of leadership and political will is no laughing matter.

Friday, June 17, 2011
Machakos, Kenya

This growing season in south-central Kenya has been a good test for the new drought tolerant maize varieties being bred in Africa.  This is a semi-arid area, but this year they can drop the semi.  Farmers report only three short periods of rain since the February planting time.

“Without this seed, I’d have nothing.  Nothing, like my neighbors,” says farmer Philip Ngolania.  He sweeps his hand to direct the eye first to his maize and then toward a neighbor’s plot.  Philip’s maize stalks, though looking thin and weak, have fairly uniformly produced large ears of corn.  His neighbor’s maize is shriveled and dead, the stalks have toppled in their feebleness and there isn’t a cob to be found.

The neighbor – and many of the farmers in the area – planted the traditional local maize called Mbembasitu, which means “our own maize seed.”  Philip planted the new drought tolerant variety developed by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and other partners under the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa program.  CIMMYT was the long-time home of Norman Borlaug, the Iowa plant breeder whose new wheat strains conquered famine in India, Bangladesh and other Asian countries in the 1960s Green Revolution.  Drought tolerant maize, conventionally bred in and for Africa, could be a significant innovation in holding back hunger on the continent, particularly as climate changes upset traditional planting rhythms. “The rain is very little here, but even with a little rain, this seed does well,” Philip said.  As the late morning sun intensified, Philip took off his jacket and hung it on one of the maize cobs.  The cob and the stalk held firm, refusing to bend.

The rains were indeed scarce, but they seemed to come at just the right time for Philip’s maize.  He planted the seed in dry soil in February, hoping that the seasonal rain would soon come.  “You can’t wait for it to rain and then plant, because you want to use every single drop of rain on the seeds,” he said.  This is in contrast to the practice of the maize farmers in the more moist and fertile western Kenya area, who wait for three days of rain before they plant.  There, they use the first rain to soften the soil; the three-day wait is to ensure that the rainy season has indeed started and that the first rainy day isn’t a premature start.  These different planting methods in the two regions of the same country, a day’s drive apart, illustrate one of the difficulties of bringing a Green Revolution to Africa; there are a myriad of eco-agricultural zones within each country that each require their own tailored seeds and farming practices.

It turns out that Philip got two days of rain – and fairly light rain at that – the same week he planted.  But it was enough to begin the germination.  Then there were several weeks of no rain.  The maize was ankle high and starting to wither – “I was starting to lose hope,” Philips says -- when a second rain came.  It rained lightly for three days, but it gave his hardy maize another growth spurt.  Another couple of weeks passed with no rain.  The maize was hip high and beginning to tassel when rain fell again.

“Only two days of rain, then it went away,” Philip remembers.  “Since then, no rain.”  Until the night before I visited earlier this week, when a burst of rain passed through.  But you couldn’t tell by the parched soil.  It was very dry, nary a puddle nor a hint of mud.

Still, the new seed variety was giving him a harvest.  Philip was beginning to pick his maize when we arrived.  His neighbors whose crops had failed were starting to poach some of his cobs.

“They ask me for my secret, why I have cobs and they have none, and I tell them, ‘It is the variety I use.’  I’m always telling them they must change from the Mbembasitu to this new variety,” Philip says.

While the farmers usually keep a batch of the Mbembasitu seeds after harvest and use them to plant the following season – a practice which costs them nothing -- the drought tolerant variety costs 270 shillings (a little more than $3) for two kilograms of seeds.  Philip bought four kilograms for 540 shillings, and considers it a good investment.

“Yes, it’s more expensive, but at least I have something to eat,” he says.  “My neighbor, he paid nothing and he gets nothing.”  Philip reckons he may harvest about four 90 kilogram bags of maize on his three-quarters of an acre – that would be a poor harvest in the western region, but in Machakos it is a miracle bounty given the drought.  His neighbor, in contrast, will have to pay about 3,000 shillings to buy just one bag of maize on the market.

Now, Philip asks, who got the better deal?  “I don’t understand the logic” of not paying for better seeds, he says.  He shakes his head, repeating an earlier statement: “You pay nothing, you get nothing.”

Farmers, he says, need to adapt to newer technology because “the climate is changing very fast.  Ever since I was born, I haven’t witnessed drought seasons like this year and last.”  That would be since 1942.

That, he insists, makes a drought tolerant maize variety essential.  He is a retired English and Kiswahili teacher who also plants pigeon peas, cow peas, tomatoes, pumpkins and cassava.  “If you are a keen farmer, you won’t go hungry,” he says.

Philip first used the drought tolerant variety during the October 2010 planting period (farmers in the Machakos area plant maize twice a year).  It was the first time the seed was available through Dryland Seed Ltd., a company that is multiplying the drought tolerant seed.  They sold out before the season began.  The same thing happened for the February planting season.  Now, farmers are already buying seed for October.

“They want to make sure they get it,” says Joseph Masila, Dryland’s marketing officer.

He had been spreading word of the drought tolerant variety a year before it hit the market.  He offered farmers small bags of trial seed.  In three days, he had run out, so eager were the farmers for something new.

Joseph also planted demonstration plots in key locations.  As we drove down the main paved road out of Machakos, he pointed to a small to a patch of flourishing maize.  It is right beside the Kasinga Redeemed Gospel Church.  The maize is visible to all those who pass by on the road, and to all the faithful who stop to worship.

“People can see it coming out of church,” Joseph says with a broad smile.  “We’ve asked the pastor to preach about it.  ‘If you want to end hunger, you must plant this seed.’  You know, pastors are very influential.”

And for any Doubting Thomas, there is that demonstration plot.  “Seeing,” says Joseph, “is believing.”

Friday, June 10, 2011 Roger Thurow - Outrage and Inspire -
Kakamega, Kenya

For some farmers in western Kenya, the hunger season I wrote about last week is coming to a mercifully early end.  A new variety of bean is ready for harvest.

“The farmers say this bean meets the hunger,” says Reuben Otsyula, the scientist who bred this little black bean.  “They can see the hunger is coming and the bean meets the hunger and pushes it back.”

It is called KK15 in agriculture nomenclature, but farmers call it a savior.  The bean is early maturing and high yielding – usually a champion combination.

The early maturing means it is ready to harvest perhaps two months before the maize, the country’s staple which won’t be ready to harvest until the end of July at the earliest.  So the bean dramatically shortens the hunger season by providing farmers with something to eat in May and June while waiting for the maize.  And, with the bean naturally containing good levels of zinc and iron, it is important in the fight against micro-nutrient deficiency.

The high yield means it provides a crucial income boost to farmers when they have little else to sell.  A 90 kilogram bag of these beans can fetch 4,000 shillings on the market, which is the equivalent of about three bags of maize at harvest time.  Farmer Judith Akaniche says the beans help keep her children in school by providing income at a time when tuition fees are due. “Farmers like these beans because they are really economical,” said Lucas Malupi, the chairman of a local farmers’ group.  He was bending over in a field, inspecting the bean plants.  “You can grow them in a small plot.  They get a good price.  It matures quicker, in about two-and-a-half months, so you can harvest one crop and then plant another one.”

Best of all, KK15 and a number of other beans from Otsyula’s lab at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute have been bred to resist a disease called root rot, which devastates many other bean varieties.

But here’s the strange thing about this bean: It is available to very few farmers.  Otsyula has had it ready for distribution for a couple of years already, but it has reached only a smattering of farmers who have been participating in some trials.  The reason is a sad refrain for African agriculture: new seed varieties developed to benefit the continent’s vast legion of smallholder farmers are often held up in bureaucratic wrangling and missteps before they become commercialized.

“It’s disheartening,” says Otsyula, whose beans have traveled a most circuitous route for three years and are probably still a year from wider commercial distribution.  Only now are his seeds getting into the hands of a private seed company for further development.

Much of the funding of Otsyula’s work has come from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.  “If the beans don’t get to the farmers,” says Joe DeVries, who heads AGRA’s seed program, “then it’s like we did nothing.”

The long odyssey of Otsyula’s beans, from his lab to the farmers, is a cautionary lesson for President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative, which prizes research as a top priority in accelerating agricultural development in the world’s poorest country.  All the research, and all the money spent on it, comes to naught if there isn’t a policy framework in the individual countries that urgently ushers the benefits of that research to the farmers.

And there’s a second lesson: listen to the farmers.  They will tell you what they need.

“When we take the beans to the market,” Lucas Malupi says, “all the farmers are asking, “Where can I get that?”

The demand is there.  Now the farmers need the supply to match.

Friday, June 03, 2011 Roger Thurow - Outrage and Inspire -

Lutacho, Kenya

The hunger season is especially cruel this year.

Farmers in this part of Africa call this time of year the hunger season because household stockpiles of food are dwindling and disappearing before the next harvest arrives in a couple of months.  They cope, if you can call it that, by rationing portions and skipping meals.

This daily desperation has been deepened by the global rise in food prices.  “Rise” is hardly the word to use in Kenya.  “Skyrocket” is much more appropriate.

The cost of maize, the national staple, is up six-fold since the beginning of the year.  In January, consumers were paying a bit more than 20 shillings for the standard household measure of 2 kilograms.  Now, the price is 120.  That’s higher than anyone can remember.

I’ve asked Leonida Wanyama, one of the maize farmers I’ve been following this year, to keep a diary of her maize purchases and meals.  The fact that a maize farmer is buying maize is one of Africa’s paradoxes.  The combination of pressure to pay bills and avoid shabby storage conditions that can quickly lead to spoilage often forces farmers to sell any surplus production shortly after harvest, when prices are generally at their lowest.  Then they re-enter the market as buyers, paying ever-higher prices as the year goes on for the commodity they themselves produce. In January, Leonida sold most of her maize – about one metric ton -- for nearly 30 shillings per 2kg.  She needed to make a down-payment on her son’s high school tuition fees.  Then she entered the market to buy maize to feed her family – maize in various forms is the mainstay of many Kenyan meals, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner.

By mid-February, the price was approaching 50 shillings.

By mid-March it was 85 shillings, which put it over the $1 level.

On March 22, Leonida noted that she paid 90 shillings .

On April 18, she paid 95 shillings.

On May 1, she wrote the shocking figure of 120 shillings in her notebook.

And there it has hovered, at the equivalent of $1.50, which is more than the average smallholder farmer in Kenya earns in a day.  The result: there are days when Leonida and her family go without food, relying only on a cup of weak tea for breakfast and for dinner.  Her stockpiles of potatoes, sweet potatoes and cassava have largely disappeared.  When she can scratch together money by selling milk from her cows, or selling a chicken or a calf, it buys less food now than it did a few months ago.  The hunger season drags on and on.  Energy is sapped.  Children have difficulty focusing in school.  Adults are less productive at work.  Farmers have little strength to do the vital weeding of their crops. 

Kenya, which imports maize to satisfy national demand, is impacted heavily by the global price (as is much of Africa).  There are also various domestic reasons pushing up the price: lower maize production last year, drought in several areas of the country, inefficient distribution from areas of surplus to areas of scarcity.

At last week’s Chicago Council Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security, rising food prices and the imperative to reverse the decades-long neglect of agriculture development was front and center.  But most of the discussions, in a conference center in Washington DC, were in the abstract.  Here, on the small farms of western Kenya where the hunger season is biting hard, the issue is viscously real.

Several symposium speakers talked about the impact of malnutrition on the mental development of children under five.  Here, the newspapers routinely cite the national statistic that about one in every three children suffers stunted growth, both physically and mentally.  On the homesteads of the smallholder farmers, these numbers come to life, a very listless life.

Yet it is these smallholder farmers who are indispensable to us all if the world is to meet the challenge of doubling food production by 2050 to satisfy the demand of a growing population.  At the symposium, World Food Program executive director Josette Sheeran said, “The world can’t feed itself over the next 30 years without the African farmer.”

This week, Oxfam amplified that imperative as it launched a new campaign to reform the global food system so that smallholder farmers will have the tools and the incentives to be as productive as possible.  And to help prevent a global hunger season.

Friday, May 27, 2011 Roger Thurow - Outrage and Inspire -

Little brains were on the minds of some pretty big brains in the fight against hunger at the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security this week.

Bill Gates, USAID administrator Rajiv Shah and World Food Program executive director Josette Sheeran all talked about the impact of malnutrition and stunting on the children of the developing world, particularly Africa.  We are all familiar with the pictures of the outward manifestation of hunger, but we give little thought to the harm it causes to a young person’s ability to think.

The deficit of micro-nutrients in the diets of many people around the world is called “hidden hunger.”  Hidden, too, is the mental damage of hunger – the stunting of the development of the brain.

These three speakers brought it out into the open.

First, the USAID administrator highlighted the tragic loss of brain power. “Hunger,” Raj Shah said in his prepared remarks, “does more than upset our economic or political security. It upsets our conscience as a people.

“Thirty years ago, we thought stunting was simply a symptom of children who weren't getting enough to eat - a physical manifestation of scarcity.

“About ten years ago, we started to get economic data that conclusively showed that a population too malnourished to work suffered long-term economic consequences. Individuals suffered a 10% reduction in lifetime earning potential, while countries saw 3% annual reductions in their GDP.

“Then, just recently, we began to see MRI scans of the brains of malnourished children, side-by-side with those who had been well fed. Clear in those images is the stark and permanent loss of individual human potential. We could begin to understand that a child suffering from malnutrition at a young age has diminished her lifelong potential before the majority of her life has even begun.”

Then, the co-chair of the The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation fielded a question about the broader impact of hunger.  “If you have malnutrition as a child, you never recover,” Bill Gates said.  He talked about children across Africa “being crippled in a way they will never fulfill” their potential.

The head of the World Food Program displayed the proof.  Josette Sheeran held up MRI scans of the brains of children, the malnourished beside the well fed.  The brain of the malnourished child, she indicated, showed distinct signs of underdevelopment.

She carries these images in her ever-present tote bag.  The bag also holds a red plastic cup, which has come to symbolize the WFP’s school feeding programs.  For several years, Sheeran has taken the cup with her wherever she goes, imploring her audiences to support WFP’s school feeding efforts by “filling up the cup” with donations needed to purchase and distribute the food.  And not just fill the cup with sufficient food, but with better, more nutritious food.

Last year, the U.S. and Ireland and a number of humanitarian agencies launched a campaign that carries the fight against malnutrition to pre-school children as well: “1000 Days: Change a Life, Change the Future – Partnering to Reduce Child Undernutrition.”  It is intended to lead a movement to improve child nutrition through programs targeted at the 1,000 days window of opportunity beginning with a woman’s pregnancy and continuing until a child is two years old.  These are formative years in the development of the brain.

We are talking here, literally, of food for thought.

“Yes,” Raj Shah continued in his symposium remarks, “the world must increase its productive yields over the next decades; that much is clear. But let us remember the true yields of food security. Let us remember the fundamental American value that says everyone should be given the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential to live a healthy, productive life.

“And the next time we debate the necessity of the investments we make in food security, let us remember what is truly lost when we turn away.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2011 By Roger Thurow

Bill Gates came to the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security with a confession.  “I’ve never been a farmer,” he said.  “Until recently, I rarely set foot on farm.”

Farmer Gates, no.  But Innovator Gates, certainly.

So this was one of his messages to a standing room crowd.  In ending hunger through agriculture development, innovation is the key.

First, the challenge:

“Right now,” he said.  “the average farmer in sub-Saharan Africa gets just over a ton of cereal per acre.  An Indian farmer gets twice that; a Chinese farmer five times that; an American farmer seven times that.  Why is there this huge disparity?  Farmers in other regions have tools and techniques and resources that African farmers do not.  By offering farming families in Africa and South Asia those advantages, the least productive farms can come closer to the most productive.”

“How,” he asked, “can the world help the poorest farmers grow and sell more?  The key is in innovation – combining the best of what’s worked in the past with new breakthroughs, customized to the needs of small farmers.

“Innovation in seeds brings small farmers new high-yield crops that can grow in a drought, survive in a flood and resist pests and disease.

“Innovation in markets offers small farmers access to reliable customers.

“Innovation in agriculture techniques helps farmers increase productivity while preserving the environment – with approaches like no-till farming, rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation.

“Innovation in foreign assistance means that donors now support national plans that provide farming families with new seeds, tools, techniques and markets.  This approach is reducing overlap and keeping developing countries in the lead.”

Innovation needs good ideas, and money.  Here, Gates said, “The U.S. has a pivotal role to play in helping farming families lift themselves out of poverty and hunger.  At the same time, of course, we have a big budget deficit and foreign assistance is an easy target for reduction.  We need to tell people over and over why this spending is a good investment, why it’s worth it even in tight economic times.”

First, he said, “these investments are going to countries committed to change.”

“The second reason agricultural investments are worthwhile,” he added, “is that farming is a business.  As you provide poor farmers business assistance through new tools and technology and access to markets and capital, it allows them to move to self-sufficiency with the help of market forces.”

“The third reason agricultural development is a smart investment is how effective it is.  In country after country, these approaches have improved the livelihoods of small farmers while reducing poverty and increasing economic growth.  It’s proving the point again and again: helping poor farming families grow more crops is the world’s single most powerful lever for reducing poverty and hunger.

These comments from Bill Gates, whose foundation with his wife Melinda has committed $1.7 billion to help farming families over the last five years, suggest again, as we’ve often said in this column, that we have arrived at a moment of potential opportunity that shouldn’t be squandered.  The budget crisis, he suggested, shouldn’t be reason for the U.S. to cut back on its promises to increase agriculture development aid, to scale back its Feed the Future ambitions.

“This is the first stage of sweeping change for farming families in the poorest parts of the world,” Gates said.  “We have an historic chance to help people and countries move from dependency to self-sufficiency – and fulfill the highest promise of foreign aid.  In the past we’ve invested aid in Brazil and India and South Korea, and they are all now dynamic actors in the global economy – some even joining to help provide aid to others.  This is our hope for the countries of Africa and South Asia as well.”