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The Olympic Hunger Summit Puts Focus on Food Security

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This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction around the London 2012 Olympics.

Each year, the average Kenyan consumes 216 pounds of maize (four times the American average). Although it is a staple, prices for maize in Kenya are among the highest in Africa. The poorest quarter of the population spends 28 percent of their income on the crop--roughly what the average American spends on housing.

As U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron uses this last day of the Olympics to shift our collective attention and rare international unity toward combatting hunger with the Hunger Summit, we should look at food security initiatives that both make sense and work.
We might start with the 500 million smallholder farmers feeding two billion of the world's poorest. And then focus on Africa, which perennially manifests dire food needs but paradoxically offers about 60 percent of the world's available cropland. Since the continent's agricultural productivity is the lowest in the world, the potential for growth is enormous.

Food Production Must Double in 20 Years

Worldwide food production needs to double in the next twenty years to meet demand and stave off food crises. Helping smallholders--like those growing maize in Kenya--increase production is localized, smart development. Developing key sectors, such as maize in Kenya, can create food security and reduce poverty.

ACDI/VOCA, a nonprofit development organization, ran a project in Kenya that offers lessons in making food security programs work. The Kenya Maize Development Program (KMDP), implemented with USAID funding, nearly tripled smallholder yields during the six years of its implementation. This resulted in increased net earnings of $206 million for 370,000, mostly smallholder, farmers. But in order to accomplish these gains, the program needed time and flexibility.

Program flexibility helped the staff respond to the unexpected post-election violence in 2008 that disrupted markets and destroyed stocks of maize. The program adjusted to the needs of displaced people and integrated peace-building training into ACDI/VOCA's Farming as a Family Business curriculum. Farming as a Family Business, the conceptual core of the project, provided practical information, such as how to use improved seed and fertilizer, and trained farmers to get better prices through organized market systems.

Farming as a Family Business

The training taught smallholders families about post-harvest handling to yield a higher quality product, disseminated price and market information and helped farmers access storage, so they didn't have to sell the crop all at once. But these changes didn't come easily.

"[Farmers] are not risk takers," said Julius Thuku, a participant, who like others was wary of new agricultural practices. "But I try hard at what I'm doing, and the results will prove I am doing it from my own strength."

The Farming as a Family Business curriculum was also modified to integrate young people, who make up a growing percentage of farm labor, and mitigate further post-election violence.

Social Integration on the Playing Field

To target youth, project leaders assembled teenagers involved with KMDP from all over Kenya's Rift Valley to form a soccer league. The young men were from diverse ethnic communities, including groups pitted against each other during the conflict. Forming the eight teams was a first step toward reconciliation.

To coach the teams, ACDI/VOCA called on Francis Kimanzi, a coach of Kenya's Mathare United team. He taught the players how to express themselves peacefully and with dignity, voice their interests and find mutually acceptable solutions to disagreements. He emphasized personal responsibility and self-discipline, cultivating the role of young people as effective citizens. The players learned teamwork, sacrifice for the common good and discipline.

Soccer helped the players look beyond ethnic identity and understand that all actors need each other, on and off the field. The Olympics are the ultimate sports commingling; local youth coming together as teams on the rough fields of rural Kenya promoted and strengthened community too.

At the end of the season, when all games were done, each Kenyan team leased an acre of land and began to plant. It was easy for them to agree to grow maize.