Outrage & Inspire
Roger Thurow

Kajiado, Kenya - August 19,2011

With drought devastating farms from the Horn of Africa to the Panhandle of Texas, I journeyed to one of the frontlines of climate change to “chew the news,” as the Maasai say.

“Climate change for us is what is visible,” explained Leina Mpoke, the rural livelihoods manager in Kenya for Concern Worldwide, the Irish humanitarian agency.

What the Maasai in southern Kenya see are shorter drought cycles, ever-more unpredictable rains, less defined seasons.  “The cold season used to end in July, but now it can extend into September,” Leina said on a cool day in mid-August.  “And when the sun shines, people say the sun is closer to us.  It’s noticeably hotter.  By 9 in the morning, people are already sweating.  It used to be 11 or 12 before you would sweat.”

Leina was driving to his home village, a Maasai settlement outside the larger town of Kajiado, south of Nairobi.  He recalled his days in secondary school, at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro near the Tanzania border, where maize was once a major crop.

“I remember in 1985-86, there was a bumper harvest.  It was the second biggest maize producing area in Kenya,” he said.  Elsewhere in the Horn of Africa, drought and hunger were raging; in Ethiopia, where the communist government initially denied any problems, hundreds of thousands were dying from famine since 1984.  Food aid from around the world rushed into the region.

“When all of Kenya was eating yellow maize from the U.S., we never saw it in our school,” Leina recalled.  “We just had the white maize that was grown locally.  There was plenty.”

But then, he said, “the climate changed.”  Rains were less abundant.  Smallholder farmers began clearing the surrounding forest, creating more farmland to try and grow more crops.  “When I was in school there, the forest was very deep.  We were afraid to leave school because the forest was so thick,” Leina said.  “Then the poor people cleared the land.”

Now, he said, “when I visit, I am so sad.  The wind takes away the top soil.  The rains don’t come so frequently.  It’s not nearly as productive today.  If the rain isn’t there, what do you do?”

They are doing what they can to cope.  Concern assists with livestock management programs to help the residents continue with their livelihoods.

But in severe droughts, as this year, the livestock is hit particularly hard.  Grasses and bushes dry up.  The cows, sheep and goats lose weight.  Attempts to sell the animals before they die lead to market gluts and falling prices.  Poverty and desperation rise.

New coping strategies kick in.  One is to sell charcoal to make the money needed to buy the maize that now mainly comes from Tanzania and commands premium prices.  Charcoal is make from trees, which leads to more deforestation.

Agnes Lankisa began selling charcoal during the drought and hunger of the mid-1980s.  Now she is a regular in the Kajiado market, sitting beside big bags of charcoal.

“First, I use the money to pay school fees for my children,” she said.  “Second, to buy food, maize.  Right now, the price of maize is the highest ever, and I think it will go higher.”

Agnes said she had cut down all the charcoal-suitable trees on her family’s land and was now buying timber from her neighbors, who also joined in the charcoal business.

“They should stop to protect the environment,” Leina said, “but what alternative do they have?”

He explained that the ideal tree for charcoal is the acacia, the iconic flat topped tree of the African bush.  The acacia, he noted, is also known for producing pods that are eaten by livestock.

“If you cut down the trees, you also lose the pods,” he said.  “The sheep and goats depend on them.”

On the way to his home, Leina stopped and walked to an acacia tree beside the road.  He threw a stone at an upper branch and several brown pods fell.  “These make the goats fat,” he said, picking up the pods for illustration.  “They are very important to continue the pastoralist lifestyle.”

But that lifestyle is under threat as the drought thins the livestock.  So the people turn to charcoal making.  The vicious circle spins.

“The people are under pressure,” Leina said.  “The problem here is resilience.  How do you survive?”

He continued to drive and soon a verdant oasis appeared.  It was a micro-irrigation community development project.  Maize, green peppers, tomatoes, cale, onions, spinach and watermelon grew over several acres.  The garden has been a revelation to a people who have traditionally tended livestock and didn’t grow crops.

“This is proving that we can produce our own food,” Leina said.  “This project is helping us think differently.”

The drip-irrigation scheme, with bore holes and water tanks and pipes and hoses, is too expensive to be replicated on a wider scale.  “In the future, we need to harvest the rain water, we need to build water pans to collect the runoff,” he said.  “We have to improve the soil.  We have to change attitudes.  This is a stimulant for learning.  Here people see.”

What is visible is also what is possible.

Outrage and Inspire
Roger Thurow

Kipnai, Kenya  - August 13,2011

It is less than two hundred miles from the village of Kabuchai, where Sanet Biketi began his maize harvest last week, to the village of Kipnai, where hunger reigns.  Yet there was none of the surplus production of Kabuchai’s farmers on offer at an emergency food distribution in Kipnai this week.  Instead, the food came from farms far more distant.

There were yellow split peas and maize and fortified vegetable oil from the U.S., and maize from Uganda purchased by the World Food Program with donations from Japan.  The imported food was carried to Kipnai by trucks that had come from the Kenyan port of Mombasa, which is clear on the other side of the country.

The couple hundred people lined up in Kipnai were clearly in need of the food.  They were men and women, heads of households, struggling to feed their families amid a disastrous drought.  They were thin and lethargic, each a story of woe.

“This year, it didn’t rain on time, so I didn’t plant any maize.  No one planted maize,” said Salina Achau, a 43-year-old mother of six who would normally plant a half acre of maize.  She did plant some millet, a sturdier grain.  “But it withered and died,” she said.

She was sitting in the shade of a small bush, holding her youngest child in her arms.  A loose fitting yellow dress couldn’t hide prominent shoulder and collar bones.  Her limbs were like twigs, her face tired and meager.  She said her family hadn’t eaten maize, their staple food, for three weeks; that maize had been shared among her women’s group which was able to pool money to make a small purchase at the market a three-hour walk from Kipnai.  “We try and support each other,” Salina said.

Salina welcomed the relief food, delivered by the World Food Program and distributed by World Vision, no matter where it came from.  “We are grateful,” she said after receiving her ration of maize, peas and vegetable oil, which she estimated would last her family about two weeks.  “Imagine being fed by a foreign country.  It’s something great.”

Meanwhile, in Kabuchai, maize prices were tumbling as the bountiful harvest began.  The price for the standard two kilogram measure of maize had fallen from 150 shillings to between 60 and 80.  For the farmers of Kabuchai, it was something not so great.

“This maize should be going for over 200 shillings, given the demand in the country,” Sanet Biketi said while peeling the husks off his cobs.

A 15 minute walk from the Biketi shamba, Pamela Wangila was selling maize for 80 shillings at her shop in the Kabuchai market.  She is a farmer herself, confounded by the price movements.

“We wish the government could come and buy from us at higher prices rather than importing from other countries,” she said.  “Here we have a surplus and this maize is from Kenya.  The Kenyans who eat it will enjoy it better than maize from elsewhere.”

George Masinde, a county councilor, strolled past the shop and stopped for a chat on the veranda.  “The price, it’s a major concern,” he said.  “When you go to the government shops and buy fertilizer at the time of planting, the price is so high.  Now at the time of harvest, the government brings in maize and drives down prices.  They should give our farmers the first priority and if there isn’t enough maize here, then they can import.”

He shook his head in wonder, and said, “We’ve now got a surplus here and people in our country are hungry.”

The contrasting scenes in Kabuchai and Kipnai provide a classic illustration of the bizarre economics of feast and famine in Africa.  It is the continent’s great paradox, where shortage and surplus can exist side by side.

The only silver lining of the hunger spreading through the Horn of Africa would be if the poor smallholder farmers of Kenya, who battle hunger themselves before their harvests come in, could reap higher prices for their surplus maize spurred by the tremendous demand for food.  It is what the normal economics of supply and demand would dictate.  But the market, which should direct the food from the surplus areas to the shortage areas, doesn’t function normally here.  Horrible infrastructure – namely wretched farm to market roads – disturbs the distribution, and the influx of free food aid and government imports distorts the supply side of the equation.

It all presents more evidence of the need to invest in long-term agriculture development in Africa, so more and better food can be produced, while also spending on emergency feeding.  And it offers another example of how food aid can be reformed to do as the residents of Kabuchai suggest: first buy local food that is available, which will provide incentive for farmers to keep growing more, and then bring in food aid if the local supply isn’t enough.

A glimpse of how this would work was on display at the Kipnai food distribution.  Among the hundreds of bags of maize and peas from foreign lands were several bags emblazoned with the words “Purchase for Progress.”  This program, known as P4P, is operated by the World Food Program and uses donations from other countries to buy food grown by smallholder farmers near the hunger zones.  The P4P maize distributed at Kipnai was grown by farmers in the southern part of Kenya.  The program is just beginning to organize in the western area where the Kabuchai farmers live.

Salina Achau didn’t know which bags her food aid came from.  But, she said, “it would be good if Kenyans could feed Kenyans.”  Looking at the hardscrabble landscape around her, she doubted that could happen.  “I don’t think Kenya can feed itself,” she ventured.

In the more fertile area of Kabuchai, Sanet Biketi said he and his neighbors would give it a shot.  “If we have enough of a working market,” he said during his harvest, “we can be successful farmers and we can produce even more.”

Outrage & Inspire
Roger Thurow

Kabuchai, Kenya – August 5, 2011
At 6:30 this morning, as the sun was coming up, Sanet Biketi walked out of his small house made of mud and sticks.  Carrying a machete at his side, he headed straight to the edge of his maize field and said a prayer of thanksgiving for the arrival of harvest day.

Then, just as he said “Amen,” he wielded the machete.  Whack, whack, thump.  He cut down two stalks of maize and threw them to the ground.  Whack, whack, thump.  Two more stalks added to the pile.

Within five hours, Sanet and a team of relatives and neighbors had cleared his one acre of maize.  Then, the rest of the day, led by Sanet’s wife Zibborah, they yanked the maize ears off the stalks and removed the husks.  The cobs, heavy with white kernels (preferred by most Africans over the yellow), were then carried from the field to dry in a new storage bin, made of maize stalks, sticks and logs.

The harvest totals weren’t immediately known; after drying, the cobs must be shelled and then the kernels packaged in 90 kilogram bags before the final yield can be calculated.  But of this Sanet is sure: he will be at least 15 to 20 bags ahead of last year’s harvest, which yielded barely more than one bag of maize from the one-quarter acre he tilled.  That paltry harvest left his family skipping meals and battling hunger in the months leading up to this harvest.  This year, for the first time, he will have a maize surplus.

As Sanet stood in his field, amid piles of cobs, I asked, “No more hunger?”

“We are safe now,” he said.

He also stood amid the wreckage of spreading drought and hunger throughout the Horn of Africa, including parts of Kenya.  What happened today on the Biketi shamba illustrates the impact of promoting agriculture development along with emergency food relief.  While the food aid rushes to feed the hungry, this area of western Kenya, where agriculture development efforts are more intense, is awash in big harvests.

The Biketis are members of the One Acre Fund and one of the families I have been following this year.  Through the One Acre Fund, they received seeds and fertilizer on credit and farming advice about planting, weeding, harvesting and storage.  The timely delivery of seeds, the little bit of fertilizer, the financing and the knowledge are all things that have been largely unavailable to Africa’s smallholder farmers.  This has resulted in woeful underproduction on Africa’s farms and the horrible, oxymoronic phrase “hungry farmers.”

“The harvest is one of the most rewarding times of the year,” says Andrew Youn, One Acre’s co-founder.  “It is a time to dream, to chart your path out of poverty.”

While the leaders of other non-governmental organizations and humanitarian agencies are rushing to Somalia and Ethiopia and the drought-stricken sections of Kenya to see their emergency feeding operations, Youn was observing the harvest of One Acre farmers.  And participating himself, clearing the cobs from the stalks alongside the farmers.

“We need the relief aid, but the only permanent solution to famine is permanent and sustained increases in food production,” he said.  Increasing the quantity and quality of their harvests is the goal for the 50,000-plus farmers in Kenya and Rwanda who are One Acre members.  The organization began five years ago with 40 farmers; by 2020 it aims to be working with one million.

“Famine is a horrible tragedy, but it should send the signal that more food needs to be produced,” Youn said.  “Famine is a wake-up call to the world.  As human beings, we respond to emergency needs.  But we can’t band-aid this problem forever.  We have to invest in long-term agriculture development.”

“Long-term” is the key.  A short burst of investment in agriculture development won’t change much.  Nor will the mere promises of rich-world leaders to increase agriculture development investment.  That path out of poverty that Youn talks about isn’t a short one-season journey.  It is a path that stretches, slowly and steadily, from one harvest to another to another.  It is something that politicians and governments and some donors with short attention spans and desires for quick results need to understand and embrace.

It is far better to hear the whack, whack, thump of the maize harvest than the cries of the hungry.