The Summer Institute’s second session focused on the issue of hunger in Africa, specifically, the troubles faced by small holder farmers. The students met with Roger Thurow of the Chicago Council of Foreign Affairs to discuss this very issue, which he writes about in his book “The Last Hunger Season.”
Through a sobering account of his book, The Last Hunger Season, Mr. Roger Thurow illustrated the daily trials of living as a farmer in Kenya during the hunger season, a time of year before harvest and after food rations from the prior harvest have been exhausted. Thurow explained the complexities of the issue: the deficit of modern farming technology, government corruption, and what Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, called “criminal negligence” of the international community.
Improving farming technologies in countries like Kenya can be the most basic issue to address. Mr. Thurow described how visiting some of the Kenyan farming villages was like going back in time; the farming techniques and technologies were so primitive. Simple changes like introducing irrigation technology instead of relying completely on rainfall can make the world of a difference. Not only does this lack of capital make it more difficult to plant crops, it also diminishes yield because of its inefficiency. This is where the international community can help through direct aid. However, proper communication is necessary. Thurow described an instance where he saw a brand new shiny wellhead in a village surrounded by tall grass and weeds. He asked why it was not in use and was told that the people that built it did not ask the village leaders where it would be best to put; two weeks after construction it began to pump salt water.
Corrupt governance is an issue that is a bit more challenging to address. The most direct case is the failure of the government (specifically in Kenya, but in other food insecure nations as well) to properly distribute food rations. Though there may be food surpluses in certain parts of the country, poor organization and mobilization prevents its transportation to where it is needed most. Infrastructure itself is another concern. The lack of paved roads exacerbates this failed transport of food even more. It also disenfranchises farmers from being able to sell their crops when they have enough to do so because they are not able to reach the market. Thurow gave the example of a cane sugar farmer who tried to drive his crop to market but lost a fair amount of it en route because of the poor roads.
“Criminal negligence” seems the most atrocious from a humanitarian perspective because there have been incredible advancements in horticultural. As discussed with the first issue of lacking proper farming tools and techniques, there has been an international initiative to instruct hungry farmers how to better cultivate. However where “criminal negligence” comes in is the failure of fertilizer companies, GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) scientists and patent agencies to provide for these farmers. Fertilizer companies do not sell in these regions because they do not think famers can afford it, which Thurow dismisses as a myth because many are able to pay for mobile phones, and would only need a bottle cap full of fertilizer per plant.
Thurow concluded that though farmers need new technologies, it must be up to them how they are introduced and implemented. There is certainly more the international community can do, however we must take a different approach. One cannot simply airlift new tractors and fertilizers into the region, nor can one go build an irrigation system overnight and leave the next day. Nations like Kenya must experience their own Green Revolution and be the masters of their own land. The greatest service the international community can provide for long term progress is education about better farming techniques, and access to purchase new mechanical and chemical tools.
By Michael Farzi, Education Program Intern, World Affairs Council