Agriculture development – dull? Not in Kenya

Roger Thurow recently traveled to Kenya to check in on the farmers he wrote about in his book, “The Last Hunger Season.”

There’s a building boom going on in this western Kenya village.

The blueprint for Zipporah and Sanet Biketi’s new house is coming to life. The walls, made of some 4,000 bricks formed by Sanet’s hands, are standing tall just as they planned: two bedrooms, a sitting room, a storage room and a narrow bathroom which will feature a water basin for washing-up.

View the slideshow of Roger Thurow’s recent trip to Kenya

When I visited them last month, Zipporah and Sanet proudly led me on a tour of their house. It was still open to the sky, the floor was dirt and weeds were sprouting in the rooms. They hoped to have the roof completed before the rainy season begins in a month or two, though they still lacked a few iron sheets and the wooden poles for the ceiling frame.

The house was a work in progress, but it was still a glorious site to behold. I had first caught a glimpse of their dream at the end of 2011, as I was reporting “The Last Hunger Season” book. The Biketis had reaped the best maize harvest of their lives: 20 90-kilogram bags, a mighty increase from just two bags the year before. As new members of One Acre Fund, for the first time in their lives they had access to better quality certified seeds, micro-doses of fertilizer, farming advice and credit to pay for it all. With their bumper harvest secured, the Biketis had enough food to feed their four children throughout the year and to act on other goals.

In the days before Christmas that year, we discussed their dreams in the dark sitting room of their house, a tiny bungalow made of mud and sticks. We sat under a thatched roof that leaked in a couple of places. Zipporah left the room and quickly came back with a sketch of the new house they hoped to build. They would use some of their harvest to get started. And now, a bit more than a year later, here it was, a new home rising beside their old one.

Zipporah’s friend, Rasoa Wasike, was also building a new house, thanks to improved prosperity on her small farm. In fact, the entire village of Kabuchai, populated with smallholder farmers, was expanding. The technical training school had a new wing of classrooms. A housing block with rooms for rent neared completion. Several new shops had been built in the market in the past year: a men’s barber, Mercy’s Hair Salon for women, B. Cycle for bicycle sales and repairs and a second M-Pesa agency for money transfers had opened.

“Competition,” Rasoa said, smiling brightly. She was spending more time running Kabuchai’s first M-Pesa now that her husband, Cyrus, had become a One Acre Fund field officer. “The market is growing.”

As I returned to western Kenya, I found that the dreams of the smallholder farmers I had come to know were being realized as the nightmares of the hunger season receded. Francis Mamati, confident of better harvests, was taking driving lessons, a long-deferred goal: he hoped to get a job driving a small truck or a school bus to supplement his work on his farm. Leonida Wanyama was tending all manner of crops on her shamba as she gathered money to keep her children in school and improve their educations: Gideon had completed high school – the first in the family to do so! – and Jackline was about to begin. Gideon, as I mentioned in my last column, was taking a short course on climate change and conservation agriculture while awaiting word on college possibilities.

There are many people in the rich world who consider agricultural development to be tedious and uninteresting. “Obama’s Fantastic Boring Idea,” trumpeted a New York Times headline on a Nicholas Kristof column about the president’s Feed the Future Initiative, which seeks to end hunger and secure the global food supply through the development of smallholder farmers. “At a time when there’s a vigorous political debate in America about foreign aid,” Kristof wrote last July, “outreach to African farmers doesn’t wow Congress or the American people.”

Well, let’s shout from the ramparts:

WOW, smallholder farmers with harvest surpluses are building new houses, opening new businesses, creating new jobs!

WOW, the children of thriving smallholder farmers are graduating from high school and dreaming of college!

WOW, smallholder farmers are diversifying their crops, increasing household income and eliminating the malnourishment of their children!

WOW, the goal you thought was impossible to achieve – the last hunger season – is within reach for millions of smallholder farmers!  “I am going to win!,” Leonida says.

WOW, agricultural development works!

Boring?  Anything but. The progress of smallholder farmers in Africa and elsewhere is the most exciting news in international development. Now, the challenge is to keep it going. As the threat to international development programs still looms in Congress and the European Union, this exciting news needs to spread: investments in rural areas that benefit smallholder farmers is money well-spent.  Progress is being made, and it needs to be secured and furthered with new investments in storage technology and roads and markets, and new research to combat pests and droughts.

Listen to the words of new high school graduate Gideon Wanyama: “Forward ever, backward never.”

And consider the joy of a mother once burdened with worry over a malnourished child: One morning last month, Zipporah prepared lunch in the cooking room of the old house. Sweet potatoes and porridge were on the boil. Just after noon, the children came home from school. Little David, who was sick with a cough and a distended belly throughout 2011 when I was reporting “The Last Hunger Season,” was now in kindergarten. He was looking smart in a blue sweater and short pants and green plastic sandals, clutching a fistful of purple flowers he had picked on the walk home. The signs of malnourishment had vanished, his cough was gone. He giggled often and even showed off his English.

“How are you doing?,” I asked.“I am fine,” he said, proudly repeating the first line of conversation that every Kenyan schoolchild learns. Zipporah laughed. “David, you are fine,” Zipporah said.

Wow.

BUY ROGER’S BOOK, “THE LAST HUNGER SEASON,” ON AMAZON.