A striking and hope-filled look at how farmers can change the future of famine-plagued West Africa.
First published in Relevant
Across the Sahel, the strip of arid land south of the Sahara, starvation threatens as many as 15 million people in West Africa. Famine lurks again in the Horn of Africa on the eastern side of the continent where last summer tens of thousands of people died after two years of drought left families with nothing. Reports of women abandoning their children along the side of the road to refugee camps illustrate just how terrible famine is.
Experts can list a number of reasons why Africa is plagued by chronic food shortages. Changing weather patterns have made drought a more common occurrence. Political turmoil exacerbates efforts to feed the hungry, as when the militant group al Shabaab prevented aid from reaching the worst of last year’s famine zone in Somalia. Population growth and soil depletion have reduced food production while increasing the number of hungry people. Lack of functioning markets for food commodities and inadequate transportation infrastructure often mean that famine exists in one part of a country while a food surplus in another region causes prices to fall so low farmers can’t recoup their costs.
But the most basic reason why famine haunts Africa is that the continent’s farmers can’t grow enough food using their common, but vastly outdated methods of farming. Roger Thurow, a former Wall Street Journal reporter based in Africa, has reported on famine in Ethiopia and chronicled the causes of hunger across the continent. His second book, The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an Arican Farm Community on the Brink of Change, illustrates how farmers in Kenya are leading the way out of Africa’s food shortages.
The title of the book refers to the annual wanjala or hunger season, when last year’s crop is eaten but the coming harvest is not yet reaped. Thurow follows a group of farmers as they enter the wanjala, which in the year he visits is the most severe in living memory. In January and February of 2011, while Somalia heads toward famine, families in western Kenya are running out of their food stocks with the harvest still months away.
The price of food, particularly the staple crop of maize, or corn, is shockingly high following its post harvest low. One of the forces working against the farmers is that the price of food is high when they need to buy it in the market yet low when the markets are flooded by post harvest plenty.
Yet farmers have plenty of other expenses. School fees are costly, even in public schools where the education is terrible. Malaria rages during the wanjala when the rains are welcome to water the crops but also provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Treatment is pricey and will often force farmers to skips meals—against the advice of doctors—to afford it. Children suffer the most. “When you, as a parent,” one farmer tells Thurow about her obviously malnourished boy, “see your child not eating enough to be satisfied, you are hurt, but you are not in a position to control the situation.
Farmers don’t have savings accounts; instead they store wealth in the form of animals, like cows and chickens. But animals get sick, eaten by predators, or stolen.
What is abundantly clear in The Last Hunger Season, is that Africa’s small farmers are incredibly industrious, savvy, and future oriented. They must be if they are to avoid starvation. But they also realize that their biggest hope for ending their poverty is their children’s education. Families whose children graduate from high school enjoy steady incomes because a diploma is the ticket for a job. Public schools are awful, so parents are willing to spend huge portions of their income on private school fees. Even during the wanjala, one mother Leonida sold her food in order to keep her son Gideon in school. It’s a common sacrifice.
Hardship and sacrifice is a way of life, but so is a rich and beautiful dependence on God. Thurow doesn’t spend time on the farmers’ faith, but he does show them in church and at prayer as a constant way of life. God is faithful despite the wanjala, and God is bounteous in His blessings at harvest.
Perhaps due to their faith, Thurow’s farmers are incredibly hopeful. They have been introduced to more advanced methods of farming—one that has been standard in the U.S. for a century. They have joined the One Acre Fund, an agricultural development non-profit focused on providing the tools and the training to make Africa’s smallholder farmers productive and able to feed not only themselves, but their country, ending the wanjala for good.
One Acre provides seed, which is bred for their climate, soil and altitude. One Acre representatives also train farmers in more advanced agricultural methods. It’s almost shocking for the reader to learn these farmers typically scatter their seed as Jesus described in His parables. Instead they’re taught to plant in straight rows, to weed and to correctly use fertilizer so each maize plant can use all the nutrition in the soil around it without competition.
The impact is dramatic. One Acre grows quickly in part because farmers so easily see the benefit. Where one farmer harvests two bags of maize, another harvests 20. By the time the maize is in storage, it is clear their first season with One Acre farming will no longer be a subsistence activity but a profitable business. Able to feed a family for a year on an acre of land, the farmers quickly see more potential. “One Acre has given me the spirit to find money in the soil,” one farmer says. They all have big plans for the rest of the growing season as well as next year’s crop. Hardship remains, but death and hunger need no longer stalk these farmers.
The Last Hunger Season is a beautiful story, and readers will find themselves pulling for these farmers to make it. It’s troubling that these basic farming techniques, available to farm families a century ago in the U.S., are still inaccessible to most of Africa’s farmers. Thurow only hints that this story of Africa’s untapped farmers as the key to the continent’s development is beginning to be recognized by governments, non-profits and corporations.
Thurow makes it clear this is the solution for Africa’s repeated food crises. There are challenges—training a whole continent of farmers, adequate storage for grains, better seeds, and transportation to bigger markets—but they are all surmountable with the will and resources. These farmers have experienced their last hunger season. There is no reason why the rest of the world’s one billion hungry people can’t do the same.
Rob Moll is an editor at large for Christianity Today magazine and author of the forthcoming book, What Your Body Knows About God (IVP). Follow Rob @MollRob