I recently finished reading The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change by Roger Thurow. The book chronicles the lives of four smallholder farming families in western Kenya over the course of a year, as they move from hunger to harvest and back again.
Thurow was introduced to the families by One Acre Fund, an agricultural development organization working in Kenya and several other countries. So even before starting, I knew that One Acre and its staff would feature prominently in the book. I hoped for an in-depth investigation of the organization and its model, but worried that it would be just an extended PR piece instead. The reality is something between the two.
“Thick description” of food security issues
Last Hunger Season dives deep into the lives of the farm families it profiles. It’s clear that Thurow visited them frequently over the course of the year. He chronicles their successes and challenges in all aspects of their lives. The seasons unfold in detailed narratives of the choices the families face, the relationships they maintain within their communities, and the influence that these factors have on their well-being.
The lesson that comes through clearly is the centrality of food security (though Thurow typically avoids that term and its wonkish connotations). The book thoroughly documents how managing the results of the harvest impacts all aspects of the families’ lives — from paying school fees (which are due immediately after the harvest, when food prices are the lowest) to coping with disease (which hits harder when a family is forced to cut back on meals) to investing in other activities that generate income.
In this regard, the book kept reminding me of a term I learned in an anthropology class years ago: thick description. (Is Clifford Geertz still cool? Someone wave me off if not.) If you want to better understand the lives of smallholder farmers in Africa, this book is a great resource.
One Acre Fund v. big international efforts
As expected, One Acre’s work is central to the story as well. The organization provides each of these families (and 130,000 others like them) with seeds, fertilizer and other farm inputs on credit, along with training on improved farm practices and other support. The result: smallholder farmers double their yields, and pay off the One Acre debt with money to spare.
Thurow frames One Acre’s work in the legacy of the Green Revolution, which transformed agriculture in India and elsewhere in the 1960s-70s, but never spread through Africa. As One Acre sees it, the better seeds and other technology already exist, but they don’t reach the smallholder farmers who need them. What’s missing is a reliable system for bridging the gap. The organization is working to develop a sustainable business model for doing that.
The book also contrasts One Acre’s work with the efforts of major international development donors and NGOs. Last Hunger Season comes back to this point repeatedly, making the case that Congressional funding and international famine relief is insufficient and often misdirected. The critiques are valid but the conclusions are never made explicit. Is the argument that the donors should finally get their act together and invest more money in effective interventions? Or just that more money should be spent on small-scale efforts like One Acre’s work? I’m not quite clear. An outsider to the industry will learn more about the global efforts to fight hunger from this book, but don’t expect easy answers.
Missing the opportunity for a case study?
I was hoping for some detailed analysis of One Acre’s business model. Regular readers may know that I have a bit of a management-geek-crush on One Acre’s public use of metrics to drive improvements. For example, one of the metrics is sustainability — i.e. whether program fees cover costs. Since its founding in 2006, One Acre has constantly grown with donor support, while fine-tuning its field operation to make such support less critical. That requires both creating more efficient operations and providing greater value to the farmers who join. I’m really interested in the details of how they pursue these goals.
Thurow’s coverage of this left me wanting. One Acre’s development is part of the narrative, but I wanted more hard-nosed analysis. Which changes to the inputs had the largest ROI in the fields, how many farm families can outreach staff reasonably work with, what are the best ways to recruit new members — and how do these factors vary between western Kenya, rural Rwanda, and the other countries where One Acre is piloting projects?
The book also missed a chance to describe the broader impacts of One Acre’s work. My brain kept spinning with questions like: What happens when every farm in a community greatly increases its production? More supply leads to a lower price, perhaps making it harder to farmers to pay back their One Acre credit even as they have larger harvests. Would that undermine the business model in the long run? Does the organization have data on local maize prices that could confirm or refute this worry? And does increasing productivity eventually lead to a situation where the major bottleneck is something else entirely, like adequate roads or the provision of other public goods? What then for One Acre’s work?
Of course, Roger Thurow doesn’t write for development policy or management geeks. He’s got a bigger audience in mind. Thus it’s a bit unfair to criticize this book for not being something else. That’s like saying, “I really dig Harry Potter but there just weren’t enough vampires in it.” So please, don’t think of this as a criticism. Think of it more like a wish. Because ultimately, to do our work better, we need to know more about what works.
Disclaimers: One Acre’s Stephanie Hanson arranged for the publisher to send me a free copy (on Kindle, no less!). It came with no obligation for a positive review, either of the book or of the organization. And as always, the link above is an Amazon Associates link, meaning I get a (very) small portion of the proceeds if you buy the book. To date, I have made a grand total of $7 from these links.