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

At our foundation, the team that works in agriculture thinks a lot about the following contradiction: We are aiming to improve the lives of farmers in very poor countries, but we live and work far away in a very rich country. How can we—from an office building in Seattle—actually understand the aspirations of farmers in, say, Kenya?

I just read a book called The Last Hunger Season that I believe gets me a little bit closer to understanding. The author, Roger Thurow,  spent a year in Bungoma District of Western Kenya, and he chronicles  the lives of four farmers struggling to support their families by cultivating a couple of acres. When the rains don’t come on time, families often face the wanjala, Swahili for the “hunger season.”

I loved the book, but it also came highly recommended by an expert. A member of our agriculture team named Tony Machacha grew up on his family’s farm in the very same region in Kenya. He wrote me in an email that the book “transported me back to the land where I grew up and brought old memories flooding back.”

Two things about the stories in the book stuck with me.

First, the terrible trade-offs farmers have to make. During a wanjala, everyday decisions take on life-and-death significance. The price of maize—the staple crop in much of Africa—skyrockets as supplies dwindle at the market and at home. Will they feed their family, or sell some to buy drugs for their child who has malaria? Will they repair the hole in the roof of their home or pay school fees? I cannot imagine having to make these decisions even once. In Western Kenya, it’s routine.

The second thing that stuck with me is the fact that small investments can change the lives of these families, whether it is fertilizer or better seeds for poor farmers. These tools, along with extra training, can sometimes be all it takes to help farmers grow the surplus they need to make this the last hunger season.

This week, I’ll be in Tanzania looking at some of the work we’re funding and meeting farmers. I’ll also be giving a speech to the leaders of the African agriculture community describing why and how our foundation invests in in these farmers. I’ll be sharing the stories of what I see and learn on the ground and look forward to hearing your reactions and questions.

Friday, September 21, 2012  By Roger Thurow
This commentary originally appeared on Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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.

Francis Mamati was gobsmacked by what he heard.

Why would they say that?, he wondered.

Sitting under a shade tree in front of his little house in western Kenya, Francis had just been told that there are people who think African smallholder farmers are better off planting seeds saved from previous harvests than planting newer, fresher seeds purchased every year.  The rationale behind this thinking is that these saved seeds are cheaper; annual purchases would trap these very poor farmers in a cycle of higher expenses, leaving them beholden to seed companies.

“You mean they would rather we be trapped in a cycle of hunger?,” Francis asked incredulously.

For years, he and neighboring farmers had routinely used saved seeds or purchased cheap, tired varieties that have been in use for decades.  And for years they have struggled through a hunger season, unable to grow enough food to feed their families throughout the year.  Francis knew the misery of the hunger season all too well.  In fact, his middle name, bestowed by his mother, is Wanjala, the local word for hunger.  He was born during the hunger season of 1957.

Thus, Francis and tens of thousands of other farmers in his area jumped at the chance to purchase better-quality hybrid corn seed when a social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund presented the opportunity.  Crucially, One Acre also provided the financing in the form of micro-credit to enable the farmers to afford the seed, as well as tiny amounts of fertilizer.  We’re not talking about the new generation of seeds called gmo’s, or genetically modified organisms – they aren’t even available in Kenya or in most of Africa -- but about seeds produced through conventional hybrid breeding techniques that adapt for disease or climate or soil conditions.  The result can be harvests with double or triple yields.

“We will all pay more for seeds if they give us much better harvests,” Francis explained.  “Who wouldn’t?  It doesn’t cost anything to be hungry.  Starvation is cheap!  You mean these people would rather we not spend money and be content with low yields?”

He continued: “We’ve come to discover that the seed you save in your house and use year after year doesn’t perform as well as the hybrid seed.  One, it is too easily attacked by disease; no changes have been made to resist new disease.  Two, the cobs are smaller than with hybrid seed.”

“Look,” he said, “life is going on.  There is new technology in the world.  So you should follow the technology rather than hold on to old customs that are leaving you hungry.  We look forward to our better harvests.”

I write about this conversation in my book The Last Hunger Season.  And I repeat it here because as I speak about the horrible oxymoron of “hungry farmers”, of the need to end hunger through agricultural development, a frequently asked question is the very one that was put to Francis: are we somehow trapping farmers in the expense of buying seed every year?

My reply: Listen to the famers.

Listening should be the most cherished skill of anyone doing international development work.  Ask and listen.  Don’t assume.  Don’t dictate.  Don’t impose your notions of what is best.

I thought of Francis while watching former President Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democrats’ convention this week.  “Arithmetic!,” Clinton shouted when revealing the secret of balancing the national budget.

Arithmetic was also key to Francis’ farming rationale.  He acknowledged that hybrid seeds cost more than the traditional varieties, a couple of hundred shillings per half acre more.  But he said it was well worth the cost if he could harvest an additional five or six bags of corn, each worth more than 1,000 shillings (and perhaps as much as 4,000 shillings, depending on the time of year and the market price).  Who, he asked, wouldn’t make that transaction, particularly if their children were hungry?

Listen.  There is wisdom in these voices.