July 22, 2012 8:45 pm

‘The Last Hunger Season’

Africa is at last holding out the promise that it can remedy its food problems, writes Alec Russell

The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change, by Roger Thurow, Public Affairs, RRP$26.99

 

In recent years western news organisations, including the Financial Times, have lovingly tended the practice of crowning a “person of the year”. Sometimes the laureate is chosen in the Carlylite tradition of “the great man of history” – Barack Obama in the year of his election as America’s first black president and so on. Sometimes, more creatively, we opt for an archetype. Last year the FT and many others crowned the Arab youth.

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Well, very much in the second tradition, I have an early candidate for this year and I am confident this would win the backing of Kofi Annan, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates, not to mention Roger Thurow, the author of this inspiring book. My candidate is the African smallholder, or if we want to be more specific, Leonida Wanyama, a Kenyan subsistence farmer whose surname, ironically given her family’s basic diet, means meat.

In the past two years, investors have become accustomed to an optimistic new narrative about the prospects for sub-Saharan Africa: bullish notes about Africa’s “lion economies” (as minted by the Economist) are now commonplace, as are business breakfasts billing Africa as the new frontier. Predictions that the continent’s middle class are the “new India” are a little frothy: for all the spread of mobile phones, the market remains fractured and piecemeal. But the vanquishing of knee-jerk pessimism is surely right.

Rather less fanfare, however, has accompanied another incipient revolution in Africa, in agriculture. In light of the alarming rise of corn and soyabean prices in recent days it is one that is arguably yet more important, not just for Africa but for the world. This is the subject minutely, at times wrenchingly and yet ultimately hearteningly chronicled in this account of a year with four families on the frontline of this revolution.

The backdrop is simple and familiar. For decades the outside world has become accustomed to cyclical images of starving Africans. Simultaneously, many governments have become accustomed either through desperation or cynicism to turning to the west and the UN for food aid. For a tangle of motives these have happily obliged, sending surplus stocks to Africa and ignoring the plight and needs of smallholders, the traditional economic backbone of the continent.

As Thurow angrily declaims, the recent neglect of and implicit disdain for the millions of smallholders both by African governments and the outside world, including the World Bank, has led to that terrible paradox of Africa: that it has cohorts of hungry, if not starving farmers. Now, however, that is changing as Annan, Clinton, Gates and others promote the precepts of Norman Borlaug, the prophet of Asia’s Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, and update it with a gentle flavour of the free market. This is not just welcome news for African smallholders. It also holds out the promise of Africa at last fulfilling its agricultural potential and exporting rather than importing food.

The new approach as evangelised by Annan’s “Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa” and the One Acre Fund, whose disciples Thurow chronicles, is clear-cut: with high-yielding hybrid seeds and fertiliser – the keys to Asia’s Green Revolution – better storage and access to capital and the market, smallholders can break the cycle of hunger – and even prosper.

Part of the beauty of this book is that it is not the story of foreign aid workers. Nor indeed does the author, a former Wall Street Journal reporter with decades’ experience of writing about Africa and agriculture, intrude. Rather it is the tale of villagers such as Wanyama who is grappling with dilemmas familiar to millions of rural and indeed urban Africans: whether to devote scant money to health, education for the children, or food.

Time and again she has to accept that she must give up basic market principles – she has to buy high and sell low, because poor distribution and lack of access to a wider market have traditionally left her at the mercy of a sole regional buyer. In one difficult period she has to sell off her precious chickens to buy maize at two and a half times the rate she had sold it at a month earlier.

Too often over the years I have witnessed the frustration of smallholders having to watch their excess crop rot through lack of a market, while a few hundred miles away people go hungry and pray for food aid. The trajectory is faltering. Issues such as lack of insurance and land rights impede progress. Yet, for the hundreds of thousands of smallholders engaged in these new projects, that cycle is changing. The last peak of soya prices in 2007-2008 sparked riots in 30 countries. It also drove Annan and others to pursue their mission all the harder. This book shows us why history does not have to repeat itself.

The writer is the FT’s Comment and Analysis Editor

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