It was an El Niño year and the rains had been sporadic at best. The corn, which should have been shoulder-high, only came to my knees.
We'd arrived at the smallholding following a strenuous hike, leaving our four-wheel-drive vehicle at the end of a jagged dirt road. The young farmer, whose husband was working in the city, was doing her best to tend crops and provide for her two young children. She told us she had eaten nothing for three days and had already used the seed for next season's planting as food. With no food bank, she could not store surplus crops from previous years and had no access to drought-resistant seed varieties, extension or agricultural education services, a co-op or markets. The woman's children survived on one meal a day provided at a government-run school via a partnership with Plan International. I was CEO of Plan's U.S. affiliate at the time.
What I saw several years ago in rural Tarija, in southern Bolivia, is a scene that plays out in many rural areas. The world's more than 500 million smallholder farmers help feed the poorest, and many of these farmers are women. How we help them become more self-sufficient and resilient, amid significant challenges posed by climate change, will determine whether we can feed the world's next two billion people and lift more communities out of extreme poverty. That's why issues such as these should be on the agenda when leaders of the Group of Eight (G8) meet in Northern Ireland on June 17-18. A high-level conference on nutrition being held in London on June 8 must also tackle this issue.
How we feed humanity depends in many ways on what we can do to reach smallholder farmers and incorporate their needs. Their potential for being engines of growth and reducing poverty must be central to any strategy to enhance food security and nutrition. Governments can play an important role in providing an enabling environment and in leveraging private sector development to make a real difference.
If women farmers like the one I met in Bolivia and elsewhere had the same access to resources and services as men, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates they could increase their yields by up to 30 percent. But women farmers are consistently deprived of resources and services. They are less likely to own land, machinery or livestock, and often lack access to financial and agricultural education services.
There are many reasons to justify a more intent focus on smallholder farmers, not least of which is their sheer scale. The FAO estimates that 85 percent or more of the 525 million or so farms worldwide are run by smallholders on plots of less than two hectares. Moreover, in a sample of six developing countries, the FAO said in its latest report that smallholder farms generated between 60 and 70 percent of total rural income.
So what are effective ways to reach and empower smallholder farmers? Many of InterAction's members, through innovative approaches, are already helping improve the livelihoods of farmers. For example, Heifer International is placing livestock -- poultry, sheep and goats -- among 5,500 households in eastern Senegal. Using the "Passing on the Gift" model, families who get one of the 12,000 sheep and goats then pass the animal's offspring to their neighbors. Through this process, the program will reach an estimated 19,500 households over five years. Heifer estimates that increased economic activity resulting from the project will double household incomes of farmer participants, which will in turn reduce the number of underweight children.
Another example of work to help smallholder farmers is in the village of Beldinadji in Mali, where the U.S. government's Millennium Challenge Corporation and InterAction member ACDI/VOCA have joined forces to help train 10,000 semi-nomadic herders how to farm rice. The project established a modern farm irrigation system in the drought- and famine-prone plains of northern Mali. The former herders then learned to grow irrigated rice and sold $7.7 million worth of the grain over the last two seasons. By the end of the project, the new rice producers were earning about $1,000 per hectare in a country where the average annual income is $700.
As world leaders tackle hunger, poor nutrition and extreme poverty, they need to ensure their solutions are not top down. Farmers, particularly women farmers, must be central to any strategy and not an afterthought. I remind world leaders of farmers like the young woman I met in Bolivia, seeking to make ends meet far off the end of a dusty road. Her concerns, and the concerns of millions like her, must drive the decisions made at today's "Nutrition for Growth" event and this month's G8 summit if we are sincere in our mission to end extreme poverty.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to coincide with the UK government's summit on addressing nutrition and hunger in developing countries, set to take place in London on June 8. To see all the posts in the series, click here. For more information on InterAction, click here. And follow the conversation on Twitter with hashtag #Nutrition4Growth.