Author Roger Thurow discusses potential of smallholders at Cargill

How smallholders can grow 'from merely surviving to robustly thriving'

October 16, 2013

Although they have been largely neglected during the past several decades, Africa’s smallholder farmers hold the potential not only to transform their own lives, but also the world food supply. All they need is access to small amounts of the basic elements of farming: seeds, fertilizer, financing, storage and training.

That was the message from award-winning author and food security “factivist” Roger Thurow at the latest installment of a speaker series for Cargill employees. Roger’s newest book, “The Last Hunger Season,” examines the lives of Africa’s rural farmers as they struggle to not only provide for their families but also commercialize their endeavors in a way that will allow them to profit and grow. “Their goal is to go from merely surviving to robustly thriving,” Roger said. inpage-roger-thurow-bookThurow's book, "The Last Hunger Season," examines the lives of Africa's rural farmers

Subsistence farmers in Africa make up the majority of the continent’s population and produce the bulk of the continent’s food. Most of them are women. They farm areas of little more than an acre on average, and “it’s on that tiny land that they try to grow enough to feed their families, and then hopefully have a surplus.”

Unfortunately, the cycle of poverty has held their progress in check. Part of that cycle is the yearly “hunger season,” when stocks from the last harvest run low and families often cut back to one meal per day or less while they await their next crop. Perversely, this period of malnourishment often coincides with the planting and growing season, when farmers need the most energy to work their fields, Roger said. Children go hungry and lapse into developmental stunting. Parents must make difficult choices among food, medicine and education.

But that cycle can be broken, with just a little bit of help.

Becoming sustainable and commercial

To vividly paint a picture of how that’s possible, Roger told the story of Zipporah Biketi, a smallholder maize farmer in Kenya who, on her own, had only been able to plant one-fourth of her single acre farm. From this planting, she had harvested a meager two 90-kilogram bags of maize to last her family through the year. This meant their hunger season lasted nearly nine months, and the possibility of selling surplus crops to generate income remained a seemingly unachievable dream.

Then Zipporah heard about a local program being run by the One Acre Fund, a non-profit devoted to giving smallholder farmers the resources they need to sustain and grow their operations. Through One Acre, Zipporah was able to obtain better seeds, a small amount of fertilizer, some credit and training in basic farming techniques.

A year later, she and her husband had a fully productive acre, from which they harvested ten times more maize than the year before. Not only were they able to feed their family, they could buy medicine, educate their children and expand their operations. When Roger last visited with them, they were replacing their leaky two-room mud and straw hut with a brick house, complete with a metal roof and a storage room for their surplus grain.

“You can start to see them planning for the future,” he said about farmers like Zipporah. “You find them taking on more calculated risk and debt as they get adjusted to the family farm and the family business.”

The key to future food security

As Roger looked ahead to 2050, when the world’s population will reach 9 billion and, based on varying estimates, food production will need to increase by 60 to 100 percent above what it is today, he said farmers like Zipporah could well be the key to feeding the world. They control the portion of agriculture that can most easily make sizeable gains in productivity.

He called on the private sector not to overlook these farmers, to seek opportunities to work with them and help them transition “from farming to live, to farming to make a living.”

“If these farmers succeed, so might we all, with this great challenge in front of us,” he said.
Read more about Roger Thurow's prescriptions for smallholder success here.

Related:

Cargill undertakes many efforts around the world to help smallholder farmers improve their livelihoods and to strengthen local communities. Here are just a few:

Since 2008, Cargill has worked with CARE to reduce chronic hunger, improve nutrition and empower rural communities, donating $10 million. Last month, Cargill announced a three-year, $7.5 million extension of the partnership.

Cargill trains smallholders in a variety of geographies, equipping them with more sustainable agricultural practices, including palm oil producers in Indonesia and Malaysia, cocoa farmers in West Africa and coconut oil producers in the Philippines.

Cargill employees volunteer their time and expertise with Partners in Food Solutions, to help local food producers in Africa improve their capacity, efficiency and product quality.

Partnering with TechnoServe, Cargill empowers people in the developing world to build businesses that break local cycles of poverty.