How can those who grow food for a living possibly remain hungry? This is the question Roger Thurow grapples with in his new book, The Last Hunger Season. Through personal narratives and powerful data Thurow conveys the plight of smallholder farmers throughout rural Africa. The story follows the lives of four farmers as they endure the every-day trials and tribulations that come with tilling the soil. Poor seeds, bad soil and unreliable metrics are just a few of the many barriers that prevent these individuals from securing adequate nutrition, housing and education. Through their daily toil, Thurow highlights the harsh and needless hurdles many must climb to achieve basic security and sustenance. Thurow makes clear that with just slightly improved distribution systems and markets for input, he would be telling a very different story.
The book begins with the farmers embarking on a year-long commitment to the One Acre Fund, a social enterprise dedicated to providing basic farm inputs, training and market access to smallholder farmers, and an organization that we at Acumen Fund greatly admire. Each individual story is imbued with different incentives and characteristics, but the underlying motive for all is to produce a high enough yield to feed and educate their families properly. Up to now the presence of the “wanjala” or the “hunger season” has pervaded every aspect of their lives, and the common goal is to keep “the wanjala on the run.”
Today agriculture is the source of livelihood for an estimated 86 percent of rural inhabitants around the world. The region Thurow writes about has one of the highest agriculture outputs per acre, but individually millions of farmers are still struggling to get by. Here, yields of maize, wheat, rice and other crops can often lag as much as 90 percent behind yields of farmers in other parts of the world. The clear culprit is a lack of resources – both financial and educational.
This is a concern we have been addressing for the last four years at Acumen Fund. Acumen’s Agriculture Portfolio was launched in 2008 and since then we have been targeting solutions for the very issues Thurow highlights. The focus of our Agriculture investments include improving distribution, substituting better seed variations, and creating more accessible financial systems for farmers. One of our recent investments, Virtual City, is a mobile technology service provider that allows smallholder farmers to connect more directly to markets, resulting in significant earning increases. The innovations behind Virtual City address the inefficiencies and corruption that have traditionally denied hundreds of thousands of farmers their full due from the crops they produce.
Throughout The Last Hunger Season, Thurow emphasizes the importance of individual empowerment – something that is crucial to Acumen’s mission. We believe that giving people the tools with which to change their own lives leads to sustained progress and innovation. As outlined in our “Ten Things We’ve Learned About Fighting Global Poverty”, we believe dignity is more important to the human spirit than wealth, and what keeps people from achieving their full potential is lack of choice and opportunity.
Towards the end of Thurow’s book, the reader is taken to a tense hospital scene where one of the farmer’s children is in critical care. After numerous drug purchases and much medical attention the child eventually comes to. The farmer then gathers her family and thanks “God for their One Acre Harvest,” which had given them the means to tackle and afford all the health necessities. The book ends with an exuberant Christmas of food and hope. One is left believing that these four farmers have permanently “buried the wanjala.” And that with access to the right resources, smallholder farmers across the globe can do the same.
The book made the issues and challenges faced by small-holder farmers vivid and conveyed a sense of both urgency and possibility. I recommend the book to those who want to gain a better understanding of the realities faced by many of the world’s rural poor, as well as to those interested in seeing what is possible as solutions emerge to give farmers the tools, resources and linkages they need to get out of poverty.
Emma Vaughn is a Communications Summer Associate at Acumen Fund. She is pursuing an MBA at Columbia University.