by Roger Thurow (The Chicago Council on Global Affairs /Public Affairs 2012)
Former Wall Street Journal reporter and senior fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy at the CCGA Roger Thurow spent much of a year with four “smallholders” in western Kenya. (Smallholders are subsistence farmers who grow mostly maize, in this case, on an acre of land or less.) Thurow follows the four families, all of whom belong to One Acre Fund, an NGO founded by Korean American business school graduate Andrew Youn. (Youn talks about One Acre Fund in this short video.) The organization provides hybrid seed and fertilizer to its members along with instruction in how to plant, fertilize, and store their crop. (This reminded me of the TED Talk by Italian aid worker Ernesto Sirolli in which he mocks the idea that Americans or Europeans can teach African farmers how to farm in Africa, but according to Thurow, the traditional way of planting, at least in this Kenyan community, was to throw the seeds at the ground and hope for the best.) The goal is to move these farm families away from pure subsistence farming and into growing enough so that they can actually make a living by selling their surplus (the change of the subtitle).
Achieving the goal isn’t easy, however, because the vagaries of the rainy and dry seasons and the frequent sudden need for cash to cover medical care or school fees constantly undermines the best intentions. For all of the families (but especially for Leonida Wanyama and her husband Peter), educating their children is a top priority, but the schools continually threaten to expel their children for lack of payment. The fact that the school fees are due at the time of year when maize prices are at their lowest does not help. Malaria is a common affliction (in fact, the place where they live is called Malaria) which weakens the farmers, who need strength and stamina for long days in the fields, digging, plowing, weeding, or harvesting, and their children. The “hunger season” of the title is the wanjala, the time between when last year’s maize runs out and next year’s is harvested, dried, and pounded into flour for the staple meal, ugali. It can last several months, and during this time, days can go by when the families have literally nothing to eat. As an American with a fully-stocked kitchen and money in the bank, I had a hard time imagining what it is like to have no food and no money–to send a children off to school in the morning on an empty stomach (just some tea), to be able to offer that child nothing to eat after s/he has walked several kilometers home for lunch, and perhaps not to have any dinner either. Somehow, they manage to scrounge enough to eat to survive through the wanjala, but in their weakened state the children cannot learn effectively, and the parents struggle to maintain the physical labor necessary to raise the crops and care for the scrawny chickens and cows they may have if they are lucky. One of the families lives under a leaky mud roof; but when they manage to save enough money for corrugated tin, they use it to protect their maize crop; the humans must wait for another day to sleep dry during the “long rains”.
Thurow describes the lives of these families with sympathy and without judgment. He clearly admires their courage, ambition, and intelligence; they keep their eyes on the prize even as they are slapped down again and again by circumstance. This book should be required reading for those Republican Congressmen and others who begrudge the tiny amount of the federal budget slated to help these people to help themselves, as well as for anyone who does not thoroughly appreciate the many advantages that we city dwellers in the developed world are blessed with.
[In this 2-minute video, one of the farmers profiled in the book, Rasoa Wasike, speaks about what One Acre Fund has meant to her family.]