This World Hunger Day, Focus on Smallholder Farmers

Raise Awareness on World Hunger Day this 28 May, 2015

by Hilda Poulsen, One Acre Fund

“I never imagined that my farm could yield so much sorghum, with big tassels like the ones I harvested this year. All through the harvest, I felt like I was in a dream. I could not stop myself from smiling at every tassel that I touched.”

Rosemary carries her big tassels of sorghum.

Rosemary carries her big tassels of sorghum. Photos: Kelvin Owino/One Acre Fund.

Rosemary Wanjala is a smallholder farmer living in the remote village of Khaoya, Kenya. While her harvest gives her a reason to smile now, this wasn’t always the case.

“The maize and the sorghum I used to plant would only grow until they were knee-high” Rosemary says. “Since at this height they could not grow the tassel, I usually cut them down and gave them to my livestock as fodder.”

With farming as her primary source of income, these poor harvests were disastrous for Rosemary. She wasn’t growing enough to feed her family year round, and she knew another “hunger season” was on its way. Without excess crops to sell at the market, she wasn’t able to pay school fees for her five grandchildren either.

“Life was unbearable. I used to take odd jobs on other people’s farms just to provide for my family, but even this wasn’t enough. It was hugely demoralizing.”

While the number of people who suffer from chronic undernourishment has decreased over the last decade, hunger remains a global problem. It is estimated that over 1 billion people survive on less than $2 per day. With so much of the world’s population still struggling to feed itself, it’s important to ask ourselves: who still suffers from chronic hunger, and what can be done about it?

The poorest people in the world are overwhelmingly farmers – roughly seventy percent depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. In regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, smallholder farmers who farm less than 2 acres of land produce seventy percent of all food consumed. In his 2013 TEDxChange talk, Roger Thurow, journalist and author of The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change, points out the shocking irony of the hungry farmer: it’s the people who grow the food who are the ones with the least of it.

While the statistics may seem dire, the relative uniformity of global hunger presents an incredible opportunity. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, economic growth in agriculture is up to 11 times more effective at reducing poverty than growth in other sectors. Because smallholder farmers just like Rosemary comprise the largest group at the bottom of the economic pyramid, ending hunger for a large percentage of smallholder farmers would make a huge dent in the global poverty problem.

So why are 50 million smallholder farmers like Rosemary still experiencing poor harvests and prolonged periods of hunger and meal skipping? The answer is that smallholder farmers still lack access to the things they need to grow their way out of hunger and poverty: quality seed and fertilizer, financing, and training in basic agriculture techniques.

Rosemary in her fields, harvesting her sorghum.

Rosemary in her fields, harvesting her sorghum.

The breakthrough moment for Rosemary came when she joined One Acre Fund, a NGO that works with 280,000 smallholder farmers in East Africa. She received a loan delivered in the form of seed and fertilizer, training on effective agricultural techniques, help with post-harvest storage and market support. On average, farmers who enroll with One Acre Fund realize at least a 50 percent increase in income on every planted acre – even after repaying the loan. With strong harvests, they can afford to invest in small businesses, productive assets such as livestock, or in their children’s educations.

For Rosemary, harvesting two 90kg bags of sorghum— enough to last her family for more than nine months— allowed her to move beyond subsistence and start planning her future. “I now look forward to the future with hope, knowing that my family will not go hungry again,” she says. “I no longer have to work on anyone’s farm just to provide for my family, and I’ll be able to send my grandchildren to school!”

One Acre Fund isn’t alone in recognizing the importance of focusing on farmers to end global hunger. Organizations such as Proximity Designs, BRAC, and Root Capital are at the forefront of delivering innovative solutions to farmers. Yet if we’re going to fulfill the goals of the Zero Hunger Challenge and eliminate hunger in our lifetimes, it will take more than a few successful models. It will require new innovations in cost-effective methods of delivering quality seed and soil nutrients, training and new agricultural technologies to large groups of rural smallholder farmers. It will also require out-of-the-box thinking about how to provide farmers with financial tools tailored to meet their unique needs.

Global poverty awareness days—like World Hunger Day, for instance—are helpful in calling attention to the continued need for high-impact, long-term solutions that will make hunger a thing of the past. Smallholder farmers stand at the nexus of many of our most urgent development goals. We may have reached our goal of halving the 1990 poverty rate by 2015 five years ahead of schedule, but for the 50 million farmers who are still hungry, the work is far from over.

One Acre Fund is nonprofit agriculture organization that offers 280,000 smallholder farmers in East Africa the seed and fertilizer, financing, training, and market facilitation that they need to significantly increase their agriculture productivity and incomes. Follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

See One Acre Fund’s Zero Hunger Challenge pledge.