G8 Stakes High for African Farmers

The stakes of this weekend's G8 meeting in Camp David are huge for Leonida Wanyama and her neighbors in western Kenya.  Three years ago they formed a little farming cooperative which they named Amua, a Swahili word meaning "decide."

"We have decided," Leonida told me, "to move from misery to Canaan," the Old Testament land of milk and honey, the land of deliverance. It wasn't an exodus from one physical place to another, Leonida explained, but a move from subsistence farming to sustainable farming, from farming to live to farming to make a living. It would be a journey not of great distance but of great ambition and necessity.

The members of Amua are smallholder farmers who have been mired in the misery of grinding hunger.  Even though they rise every morning to tend to their fields, they would rarely grow enough to feed their families through the year.  With tired seeds, meager soil nutrition, primitive infrastructure and no capital or credit, they and their fellow smallholder farmers of Africa harvest less than one-quarter the yields of farmers elsewhere in the world.  The wanjala, the annual hunger season that can stretch from one month to as many as eight or nine, abides.  It is the time from the moment their food from the previous harvest runs out to the time the next harvest comes in.  It is a period when daily meals shrink from three to two to one and then, on far too many days, none.  As I found while reporting my forthcoming book, The Last Hunger Season, it is their children who suffer the most; malnourishment cheats their development and sentences them to lives of diminished physical and mental potential. 

At about the same time Leonida and her neighbors set off on their exodus, President Barack Obama's Feed the Future initiative, designed to boost the yields and incomes of smallholder farmers in the world's poorest countries, was taking shape. Internationally, the president, referring to his father's smallholder farming heritage in Kenya, urged his fellow G8 leaders meeting at their 2009 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, to commit to $20 billion in agricultural development investments over three years.

Now, it's time for these efforts to be revitalized. The L'Aquila food security agreement has been squeezed by the global financial crisis and needs to be renewed and expanded at Camp David.  And Feed the Future is under attack by the budget cutters in Congress targeting foreign aid programs. The agricultural transformation that Leonida and the Amua members seek is at the heart of these programs.

This agricultural transformation isn't development business as usual. First, Feed the Future and the G8 initiatives intend to reverse the neglect of agricultural development that has left Africa's smallholder farmers -- who make up some two-thirds of the population of many African countries and who produce the majority of the continent's food -- far behind farmers elsewhere in the world. Three decades ago, 25 percent of American foreign aid went to agricultural development; in recent years, it was just 1 percent.  

Second, this is foreign aid that will eventually reduce costs. Feed the Future is a leading effort to reform the U.S. food aid programs. Instead of dispatching American grown food on American flagged ships -- as has long been mandated by U.S. policy, despite the considerable greater costs and time of the shipments -- Feed the Future seeks to improve the production of the smallholder farmers so they aren't in need of food aid in the first place.  This long-term agricultural development aid has double benefits: increase yields, decrease the hunger that cries out for expensive food aid.

Third, this is aid that works. Leonida and her neighbors are all members of One Acre Fund, a social enterprise organization that provides smallholder farmers with better quality seeds, micro-doses of fertilizer, extension training, and the financing to pay for it all. 

The Amua members have seen their yields double and triple from one season to the next; Leonida's production has jumped from three 90-kilogram bags of maize to 10.  One Acre's total membership has similarly multiplied, soaring from about 40 Kenyan farmers in 2006 to more than 130,000 in Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi. This year, One Acre is slated to receive funding under Feed to Future to continue its expansion.  

Fourth, this is aid which can benefit everyone. Increasing the yields of Africa's smallholder farmers is vital if we are to meet a common challenge: doubling the world's food production by 2050 to meet the demands of a global population that is growing in both size and prosperity.  Because they are so far behind, Africa's farmers have the greatest potential to make the largest leaps in production. Instead of being a drain on the global food supply, they can add to it. 

Once objects of our neglect, they now become indispensable to our future. The U.S. and the G8 would do well to join Leonida and her neighbors on their exodus from the misery of the hunger season to abundant food production. For if they succeed, so might we all.