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Understanding the "Hunger Season" for Farmers Around the World

September 24, 2012

At our foundation, the team that works in agriculture thinks a lot about the following contradiction: We are aiming to improve the lives of farmers in very poor countries, but we live and work far away in a very rich country. How can we—from an office building in Seattle—actually understand the aspirations of farmers in, say, Kenya?

I just read a book called The Last Hunger Season that I believe gets me a little bit closer to understanding. The author, Roger Thurow,  spent a year in Bungoma District of Western Kenya, and he chronicles  the lives of four farmers struggling to support their families by cultivating a couple of acres. When the rains don’t come on time, families often face the wanjala, Swahili for the “hunger season.”

I loved the book, but it also came highly recommended by an expert. A member of our agriculture team named Tony Machacha grew up on his family’s farm in the very same region in Kenya. He wrote me in an email that the book “transported me back to the land where I grew up and brought old memories flooding back.”

Two things about the stories in the book stuck with me.

First, the terrible trade-offs farmers have to make. During a wanjala, everyday decisions take on life-and-death significance. The price of maize—the staple crop in much of Africa—skyrockets as supplies dwindle at the market and at home. Will they feed their family, or sell some to buy drugs for their child who has malaria? Will they repair the hole in the roof of their home or pay school fees? I cannot imagine having to make these decisions even once. In Western Kenya, it’s routine.

The second thing that stuck with me is the fact that small investments can change the lives of these families, whether it is fertilizer or better seeds for poor farmers. These tools, along with extra training, can sometimes be all it takes to help farmers grow the surplus they need to make this the last hunger season.

This week, I’ll be in Tanzania looking at some of the work we’re funding and meeting farmers. I’ll also be giving a speech to the leaders of the African agriculture community describing why and how our foundation invests in in these farmers. I’ll be sharing the stories of what I see and learn on the ground and look forward to hearing your reactions and questions.

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