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African Farmers: Surviving or Thriving?

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It is one of Africa's cruelest ironies that as the planting season begins, as it is now across much of the continent, so does the hunger season. The food stocks from the previous harvest are running low and it will be several months before the next harvest comes in. Whatever food remains in the household is rationed: portions shrink, meals are skipped, malnutrition rises.

We have all seen the pictures of children and adults starving during famine. They are horrific and heartbreaking. While these epic hunger emergencies are becoming less frequent and less severe, thanks to initiatives like safety net programmes and more responsive food aid systems, the global hunger crisis still rages. It is a chronic crisis, a hunger that grinds on day after day, largely hidden, rarely making an appearance on our television screens. It is the hunger season that has no end.

In this crisis, nearly one billion people go to bed hungry every night, lacking the nutrition to lead full, active lives. That's about 15% of the world's population. And tens of millions of them are children who have such poor nutrition that they can't grow properly - physically or mentally - and enter their teenage years severely stunted and unable to achieve their potential.

"When you, as a parent, see your child not eating enough to be satisfied, you are hurt, but you are not in a position to control the situation," Zipporah Biketi, a 29-year-old mother of four, told me in the middle of last year's hunger season. Zipporah tends one acre of land in western Kenya near the Uganda border and knows well the struggles to feed her family throughout the year. "The younger ones, they just want to eat."

Zipporah embodies a second tragic irony: Many of the world's chronically hungry are smallholder farmers and their children. Although tending the soil is their main preoccupation, they don't grow enough to feed their families throughout the year. A majority of these farmers are women who feel a double burden of failure; they are also mothers who can't silence the crying of their hungry children.

It is this crisis of chronic hunger - the crisis of a perpetual hunger season - that the anti-poverty group ONE is targeting through its new campaign, Thrive, which launches today. Thrive attacks this deep poverty by tackling its root causes; it focuses on ending hunger through agricultural development that will enable smallholder farmers to increase their harvests and their incomes. ONE is asking African leaders, donor governments and the private sector to focus on 30 of the poorest countries that have smart agriculture and nutrition plans. Those plans are tested, cost-analysed and affordable. They just need to be put into practice.

I have seen what a profound impact smart investments in agriculture can have in Africa. For the past year, I have been following the efforts of Zipporah and three other smallholder farmers in western Kenya to escape the annual hunger season. They are members of a social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund, which provides a "market bundle" of services - including farming inputs, financing, training and market facilitation - to more than 100,000 farmers in Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi. When farmers have access to these essential elements of farming - elements that rich world farmers take for granted but which have so long been unavailable to Africa's smallholder farmers - they double or triple their harvests in one season.

Zipporah and her family live in a house made of sticks and mud with a thatched roof that leaks. Their 2010 harvest was just two 90-kilogram bags of maize, a meager amount that ran out three months after the harvest. That meant the hunger season stretched on for nine months. Children were sent off to school, and adults trudged to their fields, with only a weak cup of tea for breakfast. At times, that would be their only meal, if you can call it that, of the day. Zipporah's youngest child, two-year-old David, exhibited the common signs of malnourishment. The older children were plagued by malaria, stomach ailments, coughs.

After gaining timely access to seeds, soil nutrients, training and the little bit of credit to pay for it through One Acre Fund, Zipporah's 2011 maize harvest multiplied beyond her imagination. She rejoiced, calculating she would finally have enough to eliminate the hunger season, restore the health of her children and begin construction of a new house with solid brick walls that wouldn't wash away in the rain and a metal roof that wouldn't leak. In her eyes, the bountiful harvest was a miracle. In fact, it was evidence of a simple reality: investments in agricultural development work.

The goal of Zipporah and her neighbors is to move from subsistence farming to sustainable farming, from farming to live to farming to make a living. From surviving to thriving.

Thrive is a campaign that goes far beyond a humanitarian concern for the farmers of Africa. It takes direct aim at a great global challenge that should be of paramount concern for all of us. If we are to meet the demands of a world population that is growing in both size and in prosperity, we need to nearly double food production by 2050. To accomplish this, it is imperative that smallholder farmers like Zipporah become as productive as possible. If they succeed, so might we all.

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