The Last Hunger Season

A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change


By Roger Thurow

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At 4:00 am, Leonida Wanyama lit a lantern in her house made of sticks and mud. She was up long before the sun to begin her farm work, as usual. But this would be no ordinary day, this second Friday of the new year. This was the day Leonida and a group of smallholder farmers in western Kenya would begin their exodus, as she said, “from misery to Canaan,” the land of milk and honey. Africa’s smallholder farmers, most of whom are women, know misery. They toil in a time warp, living and working essentially as their forebears did a century ago. With tired seeds, meager soil nutrition, primitive storage facilities, wretched roads, and no capital or credit, they harvest less than one-quarter the yields of Western farmers. The romantic ideal of African farmers — rural villagers in touch with nature, tending bucolic fields — is in reality a horror scene of malnourished children, backbreaking manual work, and profound hopelessness. Growing food is their driving preoccupation, and still they don’t have enough to feed their families throughout the year. The wanjala — the annual hunger season that can stretch from one month to as many as eight or nine — abides. But in January 2011, Leonida and her neighbors came together and took the enormous risk of trying to change their lives. Award-winning author and world hunger activist Roger Thurow spent a year with four of them — Leonida Wanyama, Rasoa Wasike, Francis Mamati, and Zipporah Biketi — to intimately chronicle their efforts. In The Last Hunger Season, he illuminates the profound challenges these farmers and their families face, and follows them through the seasons to see whether, with a little bit of help from a new social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund, they might transcend lives of dire poverty and hunger. The daily dramas of the farmers’ lives unfold against the backdrop of a looming global challenge: to feed a growing population, world food production must nearly double by 2050. If these farmers succeed, so might we all.




(The Dry Season)

A song began to form near the front of the Kenya Assemblies of God church, and the hundred or so farmers filling the simple, wooden benches rose to join in the praise. Leonida Wanyama, wiping her brow, straightened slowly. Even though the day was still young, she was exhausted. The forty-two-year-old mother of seven had been up long before the sun, toiling since 4 a.m.

By the light of a kerosene lantern, Leonida had milked her two cows and dispatched several liters to the morning market. Then she gathered charcoal and wood for the breakfast fire and prepared a meager serving of tea and maize porridge for her family. As dawn arrived, Leonida grabbed her jembe, a crude, short-handled hoe, and hacked at a patch of stubborn soil on her small farm plot, breaking ground for the coming planting season. She paused frequently, arching her back, catching her breath, summoning more energy. She knew this feeling—was another bout of bone-wearying malaria coming on?

It was the second Friday of the New Year. This was the hottest, driest season in the Lugulu Hills of western Kenya. The day had dawned cloudy, and during the early morning hours when Leonida began her work it had been relatively cool—but by the time the farmers of the Lutacho community began their journey to the church it was sunny and scorching. Even Mount Elgon, one of Africa’s loveliest peaks, seemed sweaty and weary as it shimmied in the distance, hulking over the Kenya-Uganda border.

Leonida left her field and washed the dust off her hands and feet with water from the nearby stream that she and her daughters had collected in plastic barrels the night before. Retreating to her small, two-room house, she changed out of her ragged skirt and blouse and slipped into her church clothes—a smart blue dress. She tied a white kerchief on her head and rummaged through a worn dresser for the broken remnants of a vehicle’s rearview mirror; through the cracks and chips, she checked her appearance. After working barefoot in the field, she now stepped into a pair of brown shoes, her toes threatening to poke through the worn leather. Then she set off down the dirt path beyond her shamba, walking five minutes to the church.

It was a rare house of worship as poor as its parishioners. The walls were made of sticks and mud, the floor a hard-packed mixture of dirt and cow dung. Silver sheets of corrugated metal formed the roof. Beams of sunlight and a little breeze squeezed through a couple of small windows carved imprecisely into the walls and through the two rough, wooden doors that hung slightly askew on wobbly hinges at the back and on the right side of the church. At the front, a framed homily hanging on the wall behind the simple altar proclaimed, “To this day, I have had help from God and so I stand here testifying to both great and small.”

The farmers, more than two-thirds of them women, with calloused hands and feet as tough as leather, were coming to testify to small harvests in the past that left their families hungry, and to express their expectations for great harvests this year. This was the first One Acre Fund training session of the new growing season, and it was designed to be a kind of pep rally, devoted to whipping up enthusiasm for the possibilities that lay ahead. The anticipation of salvation filling the church had shifted from the ecclesiastical to the agricultural. The wobbly, wooden pulpit, which normally stood front and center and anchored sermons of fire and brimstone, had been moved to a corner. In its place were the elements of manual farming—hoes, buckets, small bags of seed, and fertilizer.

The song that began with a lone tremor picked up momentum, and the Lutacho farmers formed a mighty a cappella chorus. Leonida, standing before the second pew, perked up as the voices soared. On Sundays, she led the church choir, belting out songs of worship: “Alleluia, all the praise and honor to Christ.” This morning, she fervently joined in a new hymn of hope.

We are strong farmers

We are One Acre Fund

One Acre Fund

One Acre Fund

A wave of rich African voices—sopranos, tenors, baritones—unaccustomed to singing together but now naturally harmonizing like a well-rehearsed choir rolled through the church.

We help our neighbors

We are One Acre Fund

We work to increase our harvests

We are One Acre Fund

One Acre Fund

One Acre Fund

We work to end poverty

We are One Acre Fund

Mapambano (struggling)

Mapambano (struggling)

Bado Mapambano (still struggling)

We are One Acre Fund

As the voices softened after a fourth chorus, a cell phone crackled with a ring tone from the holiday just past. “Jingle Bells.” Laughter filled the church. An embarrassed farmer rifled through her pockets, seized the phone, and silenced the ringing.

“Happy New Year,” said One Acre field officer Kennedy Wafula, joining in the laughter. He was a thin, cherubic man named for an American president and a long-ago rainy season. Kennedy was still smiling broadly, shaking his head at the comical interruption, as he taped a large, white paper to a tattered blackboard on the front wall of the church. The paper asked, “What Does the Song Talk About?”

“The song describes our core values,” Kennedy explained, referring to the One Acre jingle, and not “Jingle Bells.” “We are strong farmers; we are willing to work hard to see good results in our fields. We work together, we help our neighbors; we are stronger together than we are by ourselves. We work to increase our harvests. We work to end poverty by working together for many seasons to come.”

Kennedy was performing an age-old agriculture service, that of a rural advisor traveling the back roads to bring the latest technology and practical knowledge to the farmers. Such wandering wise men, known as “extension agents” in agriculture parlance, had been essential in spreading the agricultural revolutions in every part of the world: North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, Latin America. Everywhere except Africa. In most African countries during the past three decades, the sighting of an extension agent had been about as rare as spotting a black rhino. Government budgets didn’t have enough money to fund them; international development agencies, in their negligence of agriculture, believed that Africa, alone among the continents of the world, could do without them. As a result, Africa’s extension services deteriorated to a woeful state, and new knowledge seldom reached the smallholders’ fields.

And so it was that the Lutacho farmers who gathered in the Kenya Assemblies of God church adroitly wielded the latest in twenty-first-century cell phone technology—in fact, they had skipped technological generations, never having used landline telephones—but didn’t have access to farming technology, such as hybrid seeds, developed at the beginning of the twentieth century. The cell phone purveyors, among the most aggressive entrepreneurs on the continent, had pushed their products far into the African bush so that most every farm family had at least one tiny phone, which could do all sorts of magical things, such as transfer money and monitor commodity prices in addition to calling relatives in far off places. But agriculture companies, with only a few exceptions, had never viewed those very same farmers as worthwhile customers for their seeds or fertilizers or farming advice. Too poor, they reckoned. Too insignificant. So while the Lutacho farmers clutched their cell phones, changing ring tones with the seasons, they remained subsistence farmers unable to feed their families.

Kennedy and his fellow field officers at One Acre were out to rectify that incomprehensible imbalance. Though an American with a business school degree founded One Acre, more than three hundred Kenyans who intimately knew the rhythms of the local growing season and commanded the trust of the local farmers were doing the critical fieldwork. One Acre armed them with a lively script of extension advice and provided sturdy bicycles to travel over the rutted dirt roads.

A smallholder farmer himself, Kennedy had pedaled his bike nearly two kilometers from his house to the Lutacho church that morning and left it leaning against the wall near the front door. Churches were a favorite One Acre gathering place, for they offered seats and refuge from the sun. Inside the Assemblies of God church, Kennedy captured the farmers’ attention by preaching what he called the “Obama method.” It was a simple sequence of planting techniques known to most every farmer and backyard gardener in the United States and other rich areas of the world. But the methods were still alien concepts to the smallholder farmers of western Kenya and most of Africa, farmers who sought—and almost always failed—to feed their families and eke out a living from a couple of acres of land. Kennedy hoped to capitalize on the American president’s popularity in Kenya by hitching the set of farming instructions to the Obama aura. Barack Obama’s father had grown up tending goats on a small farm just a few hours’ drive south of the Lugulu Hills, and his relatives still worked the land there. President Obama’s election was greatly celebrated in Kenya, where he was highly revered; and three years later, many people still wore his image and name on shirts and dresses and caps. His smiling face beamed from the mud-brick walls of many rural houses where One Acre members also proudly displayed the organization’s calendar.

That One Acre calendar even had pride of place on the front wall of the Assemblies of God church. It hung beside a poster depicting Jesus on ascending stairs. “CHRIST, OUR ONLY WAY TO HEAVEN,” the poster proclaimed in large letters, and then added, “Jesus said . . . I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me.”

The One Acre planting method, Kennedy told the farmers, is the way to better harvests and the alleviation of hunger. He taped another poster to the altar wall. It asked,

Why do we space our seeds when planting?

           To avoid competition on fertilizer and sunlight.

           To know the number of plants in your farm.

           To get high yields.

           To give easy time for weeding.

As he paced the front of the church, punctuating his advice with the Swahili words sawa, sawa—“OK, OK”—Kennedy plunged into the heart of his sermon on the basics of planting maize, which has long been the staple crop for the smallholder farmers of Kenya but rarely a cash crop. Wiping beads of sweat from his forehead, he told his congregation that each group of farmers would need to fashion a planting string. He unraveled a length of twine, seventy-five centimeters long. “Seventy-five,” he said. “That is the distance between rows. Sawa sawa?

“Seventy-five,” the farmers repeated.

Kennedy then held aloft a thicker spool of twine, wound around a tree stick. He slowly unrolled it, and every twenty-five centimeters he tied a strip of plastic torn from a bag. “Twenty-five. This is the distance between plants. How far?”

“Twenty-five,” came the reply.

“You dig a hole every twenty-five centimeters and put in one seed. Sawa sawa. Only one seed, so there is no competition between many seeds for the fertilizer and water and sun.”

Kennedy led the farmers outside, through the side door, to practice the measuring and the preparation of their land. It demanded discipline and patience—a great departure from the traditional planting method of grabbing a fistful of seed and scattering it willy-nilly over the soil, as if throwing dice or tossing feed to chickens. That carefree method often left multiple seeds in a hole. The farmers thought that increased their odds of at least one seed germinating and one plant surviving. In reality, it crowded the sprouts as they pushed through the soil and stretched toward the sun. The frequent result: stunted maize stalks with under-formed cobs and harvests far below potential.

The farmers gathered around a sample plot in the churchyard. The sun was bearing down from a clear, blue sky. Kennedy tied the planting string to two sticks anchored at opposite ends of the plot. Leonida grabbed a jembe and led the demonstration as Kennedy narrated. “Turn the soil, remove the weeds,” he instructed. “Break up the big chunks of soil, make it as fine as possible. Bend over, dig hard.”

Leonida, bending deeply at the waist in her blue dress, hacked robustly at the soil for a minute or so, moving along the planting string, digging a hole at every plastic marker. Other farmers followed her, completing the planting process: one put a tiny scoop of fertilizer in the hole, the next covered it with a layer of dirt, then one dropped a single seed, and finally one filled in the hole. More farmers stepped forward to take their turns. Leonida handed off the jembe.

ONE ACRE FARMERS worked together in groups of eight to twelve, friends and neighbors coming together to form their own little farming cooperatives. They gave their groups inspirational names like Hope or Faith or Mercy or Grace or Happiness or Success. Leonida’s group of eight women and one man was called Amua. The name conveyed hope and faith but also determination and ambition. Amua, in Swahili, meant “decide.”

“What have you decided?” Leonida was often asked by fellow farmers.

“We have decided,” she would proudly reply, “to move from misery to Canaan.”

Canaan was the Old Testament land of milk and honey, a place of abundance, the land of deliverance. Before they’d banded together, the members of Amua had each watched other farmers in their region double or triple the size of their maize harvests. Those farmers, with maize that grew tall and robust, were advancing to Canaan, progressing beyond being merely subsistence farmers. What were they doing, Leonida had wondered, that I’m not?

Leonida, one of Lutacho’s village elders, sought more information. Agnes Wekhwela, a nearly toothless farmer thirty years her senior, told Leonida about a new organization that she had joined the previous year: how it delivered seeds and fertilizer on time and in abundance, how it followed up with planting and tending and harvest advice, how that was all provided on a credit of about forty-five hundred shillings (about US $50) per half acre of maize, how it all led to harvests more bountiful than she had ever seen. It was called One Acre Fund.

Joining such a group, taking on debt for the first time in their lives, putting their trust in seeds and methods and technologies foreign to their long-practiced agricultural traditions, would be a leap of blind faith. Leonida and her neighbors sought assurance and inspiration in the Scriptures. They found it in Exodus 3:17: “And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites . . . a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Misery? Leonida and her neighbors certainly knew misery. The very area where they lived was called Malaria. There was a stream nearby, a great blessing in that it provided water for drinking and cooking and washing only a few minutes’ walk away. But it was also a dreaded curse, for with the slow-moving water came a thicket of mosquitoes. And with the mosquitoes came malaria, an energy-sapping affliction of fever, chills, and headaches that could be deadly for children and debilitating for adults.

The malaria, though, wasn’t the greatest misery in Leonida’s neighborhood. The big one was hunger. Struggling with depleted soils, tired seeds, and fickle rains, the farmers of Lutacho and their families lived with a chronic, gnawing emptiness in their bellies. It was at its worst during the annual hunger season. As the wanjala dragged on, the littlest children were the earliest casualties. In this area of rural western Kenya, one of seven children died before reaching their fifth birthdays, most of them from hunger and malnutrition or related diseases. Of those who survived, half were stunted physically and mentally. Leonida worried that her youngest child, four-year-old Dorcas, was tinier and quieter and sicker more often than she should be. For the women farmers of western Kenya and all of Africa, that was the deepest misery of all: being a mother unable to stop a hungry child from crying, and then watching that child retreat into the shrinking shell of malnutrition.

Misery, yes, Leonida and the farmers of Lutacho knew it all too well. This new organization, this One Acre Fund, offered promise. But also peril. Should the farmers trust the new seeds, the new practices? How would they handle the new credit? The farmers fought the same qualms that rattle any farmer in the world who is trying something new: What if it doesn’t work?

It was yet another risk for farmers who already bore 100 percent of the risk of their operations; not only were they solely dependent on rains, but they also had no crop insurance or price surety or government support like farmers in the United States and many other rich parts of the world enjoyed if their crops or the market failed. But if little Dorcas and their other children were to ever have a chance to grow up healthy and smart, did they really have another choice? If they were ever to break the cycle of the annual hunger season, they had to try something different.

Amua. They decided. Leonida joined One Acre in 2010, and through the year she watched in astonishment as her maize grew tall and strong. At harvest time, her maize was more bountiful than ever before. It was a first step in her exodus from misery. She knew it would be a journey requiring repeated years of plentiful harvests, but this was a start. She recruited other neighbors to join. As a village elder, she wanted everyone to see such improvement, to join in the exodus.

Now, as 2011 began, she eagerly helped Kennedy spread the word about the One Acre way.

BACK INSIDE THE CHURCH, Kennedy taped a third paper to the wall:

Importance of Land Preparation:

           To kill and remove the weeds from the field.

           To allow the plants to penetrate the soil easily.

What Kind of Land Should You Use for Planting?

           Flat, free of rocks and trees, and not swampy.

Kennedy asked for volunteers, and eleven farmers eagerly joined Leonida at the front of the church. Six of the farmers, including Leonida, squatted in a row. They represented new maize sprouts. The other six farmers stood behind them. They were weeds. Kennedy instructed the standing farmers to press down on the shoulders of the squatters. He then ordered the squatters to stand. They tried and tried, but they couldn’t straighten up. It was a hilarious scene, earnestness turning to slapstick, and the church again shook with laughter. Kennedy, stifling a laugh himself, explained the serious message: This is what weeds will do; they will hold down the maize plants. Be diligent about killing the weeds, he implored. Give the maize a chance to grow.

The farmers returned to their benches, sprouts and weeds still giggling together. Kennedy requested two more volunteers, “strong, fit farmers, a man and a woman.” Two of the younger farmers jumped forward. Kennedy gave the woman a single stick and told her to try and break it. With a quick flex of her arms, she snapped it easily. The man was given a thick bundle of sticks bound together. Kennedy told him to try and break it. He flexed his muscles and heaved his chest and failed. He tried to break the bundle over his knees and failed. He huffed and puffed, growing angrier at every attempt as laughter increased, but the sticks didn’t break.

“If you work in your fields alone, like one stick, the work will break you easily,” Kennedy explained, throwing an arm over the shoulder of the frustrated man. “But if you come together and work in a group, like the bundle of sticks, you will be strong and you will be hard to break from the labor. Sawa, sawa.”

Next, Leonida appeared again, carrying a bucket of water to the altar. As the farmers moved to the edge of their benches, curious about what was to come, Kennedy told them it was important to understand the principle of receiving the seeds and fertilizer on credit—forty-five-hundred shillings for those planting a half acre of maize, eighty-eight-hundred shillings for one acre—and the importance of paying it back. It was a practice at the core of One Acre’s method: Nothing comes free.

Another woman farmer emptied the bucket of water into a second bucket and handed the full bucket to Leonida. “This is a gift,” Kennedy said. “With a gift, you can do with it what you want. But once you use it, it is over.” To symbolize using the gift, Leonida walked to the door and tossed the water into the churchyard. She returned with an empty bucket.

“The gift won’t make you work hard,” Kennedy said. “But if you get a loan, you must take care. Sawa, sawa. You will work hard to repay it.”

Leonida’s demonstration partner produced another bucket of water. Leonida grabbed a green plastic cup and began pouring the water from that bucket into the empty one, cup by cup. That was the repayment system. When the water had moved from one bucket to the other, the second farmer moved the water back, cup by cup. Leonida and her partner did this several times, moving the water from bucket to bucket.

“It is a continuous process,” Kennedy explained. “Just like this water circulates from bucket to bucket, so will our money. Sawa, sawa. One Acre will supply the seeds and fertilizer and advice; you pay us back bit by bit. Then we have money to supply the inputs next year, and you pay us back. This means that One Acre will continue to provide inputs and services. We will stay here with you; we will stay in business. If it is a gift, we give it to you one time, and we are gone. A gift ends, but a loan continues, it circulates year after year. Sawa, sawa.”

The demonstrations complete, Kennedy handed slips of paper to the farmers and asked them to write down their farming goals and then share them with others. Leonida retrieved a pen from a black bag boldly emblazoned with the slogan, “Your vote, your future”; it was from a community voter registration drive she had organized the previous year when Kenya’s new constitution was up for popular ratification. She quickly and decisively wrote her goals, which remained the same from her first One Acre meeting: “Educate my children. Have enough food for my family. Have enough food to help others in need, be a person who helps others. Buy a dairy cow to earn more money.”

She swapped goals with another farmer, who had written, “To have a good house, enough food, more income, send children to school.” From the conversations in the church, it seemed that two goals appeared on every piece of paper: Feed my family, educate my children.

Kennedy asked the gathering, “How can you reach these goals?”

“Work hard,” the farmers answered in unison.

“Say it again,” Kennedy implored.

“Work hard!”

THE WORDS—“feed my family, educate my children”—resonating around the mud-and-sticks church, one of the humblest settings on earth, echoed words uttered almost exactly two years earlier, on January 20, 2009, at perhaps the most powerful location on earth, the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. In his Inauguration Day address, President Obama said, “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow, to nourish starved bodies, and feed hungry minds.”

Food and education. These were the same priorities, the same dreams the Lutacho farmers scribbled on their scraps of paper. From its first minutes in office, the Obama administration had made ending hunger through agricultural development a top foreign policy priority and an essential element of America’s deployment of “soft power.” Before 2009 ended, those thirty words on Inauguration Day had become the presidential initiative called Feed the Future, an effort to create the conditions for the world’s poor smallholder farmers—farmers precisely like those gathered in the Assemblies of God church as well as other One Acre members—to be as productive as possible, to feed themselves and their communities, and to hopefully have surpluses to boost their incomes, which could mean better education for their children.


On Sale
May 14, 2013
Page Count
328 pages

Roger Thurow

About the Author

Roger Thurow is a senior fellow for global agriculture and food policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal for thirty years. He is, with Scott Kilman, the author of Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, which won the Harry Chapin WhyHunger award and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and for the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Book Award; and the author of The Last Hunger Season. He is a 2009 recipient of the Action Against Hunger Humanitarian Award. A long time Chicagoan, he now lives near Washington, DC.

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