The Last Hunger SeasonHave you read “The Last Hunger Season” by Roger Thurow? You should, if you are interested in seeing how smallholder agricultural in Africa could progress and the consequences to the world global food supply if it does. The book focuses over one year on the lives of four Kenya farmers and their families and the difficulties that they face in trying to make a living, avert starvation, send their kids to a good school, deal with regular bouts of malaria, meet the challenge of climate change, and a host of other deprivations that we can hardly dream of. The book describes the impact of the “One Acre Fund” that was first established in western Kenya on these four families. The One Acre Fund now has 375,000 customers to whom it provides credit for fertilizer and high yielding seed (primarily maize). It is an interesting and compelling story. In Kenya, as in many other poor countries, the combination of population growth, reduced farms size, lowering soil fertility, totally inadequate farm support services (that are mostly corrupt and inefficient), awful farm to market infrastructure, and bad or inadequate crop pricing arrangements, has led to situations where even in many of the best agricultural areas it’s a battle for small farmers to make a decent living. The mission and objectives of the “One Acre Fund” is not new, but in an otherwise dreary economic and physical environment it’s a beacon of light and hope.
As a result of farmer participation and the credit and technical benefits that they receive, maize yields increase by as much as four fold and the chances of the annual hunger season has diminished and in some cases disappeared.
The One Acre Fund primarily focuses on credit and physical inputs for crop production, backed by farmer training and community participation. From what I read there is little or no mention of protecting farm land from erosion and flooding and the consequent loss of moisture and nutrients that are essential for long term high crop yields. This is understandable since small and poor farmers are not very interested in conservation measures when 100% of their attention is on growing enough food to keep them and their families alive. However as their confidence in obtaining high crop yields increases it is likely that they will show more interest in conservation. This is where the Vetiver System (VS) could come into play. VS will protect their lands from extreme weather conditions and will help conserve soil and moisture, it will provide additional fodder during the increasingly droughty dry season, it could provide supplementary fuel, and material for offseason handicraft making – the latter has potential in a country like Kenya where there is a very active tourist industry. Additionally if respective Public Works Departments would use VS for road stabilization, drain protection etc., an outlet would then be available for farmers to multiply Vetiver for sale.
Those of us who promote VS should get together with organizations like the “One Acre Fund” to see how VS might fit in with their objectives, and how that they might introduce the technology, initially to their “premium” and more receptive farmers. Back in the 1990’s the Austrian NGO, Munchen Fur Munchen (MFM) introduced VS to farmers in Western Ethiopia, and to day there are tens of thousands of farmers benefiting – most of whom became involved after seeing and listening to neighboring farmers who benefited from VS.