Monday, July 16, 2012

The Last Hunger Season

The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change
By Roger Thurow
304 pages

In western Kenya, the Luhya people often name their children for the time of year in which they were born: Boys, for instance, may have as one of their names Wafula (rain), Wanyonyi (weeding), Wekesa (harvest), or the most common, Wanjala (hunger). The hunger season lasts from the time the food from the previous harvest runs out to the time when the new harvest begins. As the harvest in this part of Kenya is in August and September, May and June are the high point of the Wanjala, the hunger season.

Here in our part of rural eastern Canada, this summer's dry conditions are putting our corn and soybean crops in jeopardy, but while farm families will suffer financially they are unlikely to starve. However, a crop failure in Kenya, and in many other places, will cause widespread starvation, and in fact that was occurring elsewhere in Kenya during the time frame covered by this book.

I was fortunate to receive a review copy of The Last Hunger Season by Roger Thurow, senior fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He tells the story of four smallholder farmers in western Kenya - Leonida, Francis, Zipporah and Rosoa - and their experiences with the One Acre Fund, founded by American social entrepreneur Andrew Youn after he saw the effects of the hunger season in Kenya.

In Africa the yields of corn, wheat, rice and beans lag as much as 90 percent behind those of farmers elsewhere. The smallholder farmers of western Kenya work in what is essentially a time warp, farming without machinery in the same way as 50 years ago, prior to Kenyan independence, or 80 years ago - just with cell phones as one of their tools. One Acre is one attempt to increase yields for Africa's smallholder farmers by providing groups of such farmers with hybrid seeds and fertilizer on time for planting, and following up with advice on planting, tending, and harvesting, on a credit of about 4,500 Kenyan shillings (US $50) per half-acre of corn. I know that the Canadian Foodgrains Bank - in which our United Church of Canada, and local congregations and farmers here in eastern Ontario, are participants - has been involved with a partner organization in Zimbabwe in a program that sounds similar.

Thurow's book reads like a thriller as he follows these four farmers through the year, receiving their seeds and fertilizer from One Acre, struggling to keep families fed and pay school and medical bills and the One Acre debt, and dealing with weevils and mould ruining the stored corn and catastrophes like drought and then heavy rain washing away a food storage hut. Will the rains come in time to save the corn crop? Can the money be found to keep a child in school so that he can take the all-important exams for further study? How to juggle sales of stored corn, cattle, and milk to pay the bills? Will One Acre manage to get a hybrid bean seed approved by the layers of bureaucracy so the farmers can plant it this year? Will families survive the hunger season, getting by on just a cup of tea a day while tending their crops and keeping hungry children in school? Will enough corn be grown on the One Acre plots to keep families fed throughout the year and make this the last hunger season? Meanwhile, decisions are being made far away that will affect the livelihoods of these farmers, as the US Congress debates cutting the Obama Administration's Feed the Future initiative that funds global programs focused on smallholder farmers and in turn assists One Acre and other organizations.

The reader gets a feel for life on these small farms and the impact initiatives like One Acre can have on global food security and the lives of farm families. It is also apparent how important a role faith plays for these farmers: the One Acre groups meet in the churches that are found throughout rural Kenya (Baptist and Assemblies of God congregations are mentioned), farm houses are decorated with Biblical sayings, and as they work the farmers and their children quote the Bible. For example, Leonida's son Gideon repeats Philippians 4:4 as he works on the house: "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice."

The world needs to double food production by 2050 to keep up with a growing and more prosperous global population. Improved food storage, higher crop yields, and more efficient markets for smallholder farmers in Africa are crucial if this goal is to be met. The Last Hunger Season provides a great insight into the farmers and organizations that are vital to the future of agriculture in Africa and the world.

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