The End of Food

Kenya 2005
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Sub-Sahran Africa: Ground Zero in the battle against hunger

African Gothic
Mango and Janet Mutisya wait for the autumn rains in their cornfield in Kiamani, Kenya

I visited Kenya in the fall of 2005 to see first hand the struggle against hunger, or “food insecurity,” to use the hygienic term. During the 1960s, Kenya was regarded as the perfect candidate for the Green Revolution technologies that were transforming Asia and South America. Though much of Kenya is suitable only for grazing, the nation boasted large arable regions with good soils and an army of some ten million “smallholders” working tiny one- and two-acre plots of maize or sorghum. True, most used obsolete tools and seeds, and produced just a few bushels an acre. But Kenya’s ambitious new president, Jomo Kenyatta, believed such backwardness could be reversed with Green Revolution technologies, especially chemical fertilizers and new, high crop varieties.

Mechanization is largely unavailable to African farmers, who use animals for both traction and food

Early on, Kenya’s Green Revolution was a booming success. Using imported varieties of high-yielding maize, or corn, Kenya farmers saw their per acre yields jump by more than 3 percent a year, better than in the United States. But by the 1980s, even as Asia and South America continued to boom, the Revolution in Kenya and other sub-Saharan African nations faltered. One reason: the new high-yield crops depended heavily on fertilizers, which African farmers could ill-afford without heavy government subsidies. For another, the imported crops, especially maize, weren’t well adapted for the nearly rainless arid and semi-arid regions, and crop failures were routine. By the mid-1990s, Kenya’s output was so low that the country was forced to import corn

Sacks of food aid grain from the United States are unloaded in Mombassa and will be trucked inland.

Why the Green Revolution in Africa is still being debated. Various experts blame government corruption, technological incompatibility, the shifting politics of donor nations, such as the United States, and deteriorating climate. Whatever the cause, the result is that today, Kenya, and much of sub-Saharan Africa, has been caught up in a deadly Malthusian reprise: even as grain output levels off, population growth, spurred by earlier gains in food output, is now surging ahead. In Kenya, where population has climbed from 8 million in 1960 to 40 million today, the country must import nearly half its grain, and even then, nearly half its people are food insecure—double that in 1980. Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole now boasts both the highest population growth rates and one of fastest declines in per capita grain supply, and will by 2025 need to triple the amount of grain it buys from foreign suppliers--hardly the future that pioneers like Jomo Kenyatta envisioned at the onset of the Green Revolution.

Although supermarkets are appearing in cities, most Africans still rely on tiny shops.

Today, anti-hunger advocates are taking new approaches. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, for example, advocates a micro-economic strategy known as the Millennium Project. In dozens of “Millennium” villages around Africa, poor farmers receive a farming package that includes not only new seeds and fertilizers, but also other resources, like mosquito netting and clean water, carefully chosen to give farmers the best chance of exploiting those new, high-yield farming inputs. The aim, says Sachs, is to allow poor farmers stop focusing on bare survival and begin moving away from subsistence. “When you have enough food to eat,” says Sachs explained in a 2006 speech, “you can put aside part of your land and part of your time not to growing maize on nitrogen-depleted soil but actually on growing tree crops. On growing cardamom, on growing spices, on growing fruit trees, on dairy products.” Or farmers can begin moving away from farming entirely—metalwork or woodworking or some other enterprise, the income from which can pay for education, or be invested in some new venture, or simply be re-invested in farming.

Many Africa farmers live on less than $1 a day and lack title to their land

Yet in order for such strategies to work, however, countries like Kenya must face down other challenges—including a rampant AIDS epidemic that is decimating its farm labor pool, border conflicts with neighboring countries, and a political instability that can erupt into violence, as during the post-election riots that shook Kenya in early 2008. And, ironically, that instability is often fueled by food insecurity, as consumers face struggle with the soaring food prices. In fact, the price surges that are angering many Americans are positively devastating in countries like Kenya, where food expenses account for most of the household budget.

Farmers in Kenya are encouraged to grow not just maize, but a variety of other crops, including peas

In developing countries, livestock are a farm family's biggest asset: the Mutisyas's savings account

A paddock behind the Mutisyas's house

Kenyan farmers still rely on camels, like these being sold at a local market.

Girls at an AIDS orphanage await their chance to sing during a ceremony.

Two boys at the AIDS orphanage in Mombassa

Which future?
Kenya and its neighbors have untapped agricultural potential: can they use it sustainably?