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Wasted Food in a Famine: the Real Tragedy

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East Africa is facing a massive tragedy. And here's the thing; severe drought is only the half of it.

While severely malnourished Somalis are fleeing across the Kenyan boarder to escape famine (and persecution), an estimated 3.7 million Kenyans in the northern regions of the country are starving and in need of immediate assistance.

What's worse? Small landholder farmers, several hundred kilometers away in Kenya's southern Rift Valley, are being forced to ditch their crops. It's a complete lose-lose situation. Farmers aren't getting any returns on the crops they've invested their backbreaking labor, sweat, and cash into; people across the country are dying of starvation.

An incredible opportunity is being missed across the region, pointed out in both a recent article from IRIN (the humanitarian news and analysis service from the United Nations) titled "Kenya- Hunger amid plenty" and a new book called The New Harvest by Calestous Juma, a renowned Harvard Professor and Principle Investigator of the Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Contrary to what the media may have made you believe, there is food in Africa. And there is enormous potential for even more food in Africa. The problem is, the food isn't reaching those who need it. And that potential is hardly being realized.

Despite 12% of the world's arable land residing in Africa, close to 80% of it is not being used. Of the 20% in use, mostly by smallholder farmers who support their families with a hectare or less of land, only 4% is actually irrigated. The remaining 96% relies on the rains, which, as we see in this current crisis, are becoming more erratic, unpredictable, and unreliable.

Yet the failure here is not just one of the rains, of unmitigated global climate change, or of farming in dry semi-arid lands, although these are all important factors. It is a failure of infrastructure, investment, communication, organization, and access. And it's not confined to Kenya.

The UN Environment Programme released a study in 2009 that stated over half of the food produced globally is "lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain." While much if this can be attributed to the enormous waste of food in developed countries, (anyone who takes a peek in the dumpsters behind large U.S. grocery chains will know this -- and find a free meal), one can rest assured the problems are closer to the source in Africa.

The trouble, it seems, is three fold.

First, there's a lack of market access for small farmers. Supply chains don't reach many farmers, and farmers can't reach the markets. The roads where the majority of poor farmers live are treacherous. Men and women hike miles to perch on the side of major highways, struggling to sell whatever the can, for whatever price a passing truck -- maybe two a day -- is willing to offer.

The lucky ones live close to a market, and are able to find a constant place to offload their produce, or have several buyers they've been fortunate enough to stay connected with. For many others, it's simply a seasonal struggle; a mother may have to stuff herself into a rickety old bus with a bag of maize, traveling 4 hours to the nearest trading center, to sell the family's produce.

Second, there's a lack of information. In rural areas of East Africa, small farmers don't have up to date knowledge of market prices. They don't know if they should irrigate their crops or wait for the rain, perhaps just three days away. They don't know the latest agricultural techniques, shifting weather patterns, or that there's a little bug on it's way down that may destroy all of their crops. They simply don't have the information.

Lastly, there's a lack of technology. This casts a wide net; technology for improved drought-tolerant seeds. Technology for improved and more efficient irrigation. Technology for harvesting, processing, preserving, and transporting. There isn't nearly enough research going into the sector, and any products or services developed are struggling to reach the farmers who need them.

As the UN and other international agencies air-lift in food for the needy, one can only wonder what those farmers just a few hundred kilometers away, unable to sell their crops, are thinking.

Africa can indeed feed itself, drought or no drought. It can even feed the rest of the world. But not until its leaders start taking action by investing in agricultural research and innovation, investing in the roads, markets, and networks to connect buyers and suppliers.

There is some hope for the region. It's coming from innovative social enterprises, engineers, technologists, and even nonprofits. KickStart, a social enterprise based in Nairobi, Kenya, is selling affordable, foot-pedal irrigation pumps that can help small farmers irrigate up to an acre of land easily, with water from as far as 7 meters below the surface.

M-Farm, and new social venture also out of Kenya, is beginning to connect farmers with buyers through a mobile phone based platform. A group of university students at the Institute of Finance Management in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania are working on a similar, albeit more basic, platform.

African Farm Radio Research Initiative has been radio broadcasting useful agricultural information to rural farmers in Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, and several other countries. Backpack Farm, another social enterprise in Kenya, is literally providing all the tools needed for an acre of farming -- in a backpack -- with professional training supplementing.

There's hope. There's opportunity. There's potential. But only if people start paying attention. And start innovating.