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Rachel Zedeck

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Agri-preneurship, A Solution to Africa's Food Crisis

Posted: 04/12/10 11:11 PM ET

In 2007, I arrived in Southern Sudan to research new agriculture development models designed to stabilize South Sudan's development. Despite having previously worked in other post-conflict regions, such as Kosovo and Iraq, my experiences in East and the Horn of Africa have both inspired me and brought me to the verge of emotional bankruptcy. Africa's stability and independent success lie not with solutions imposed upon her by well-meaning internationals; rather by providing modern technologies and techniques to rural farmers.

Over the past three years, I have worked in East Africa incubating new Base of the Pyramid (BOP) programs, encompassing income generation, food security and sustainable value chains. My goal has been to tap the latent potential of East and the Horn of Africa's rural farmers.

I represent a new breed of "agri-preneur" in Africa. By clarifying the links between drought, food security, malnutrition and food aid, we can incubate practical solutions to a preventable genocide.

At the moment, droughts have severely impacted the region's grain belts; fields lie barren. According to UN data, 24 million people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia (Horn of Africa) and Kenya, Tanzania, and parts of Uganda (East Africa) now need food aid, up from 20 million in early 2009. Coupled with wildly fluctuating grain prices, drought adversely affects regional trade patterns. If one country is affected by diminished rainfall and a weak harvest, then the region as a whole suffers, with the most vulnerable--children and nursing mothers - suffering most.

Since May 2009, the number of children in need of emergency assistance in the Horn of Africa has grown by nearly one million - an increase of nearly 25%. According to Save the Children, the average child needs 40 vital nutrients to grow. Absent that, their brains and bodies suffer permanent damage.

Admittedly, living in Kenya, I am perhaps numb to the reality of children starving in plain view. For the average American, though, the reality has been further masked by a deluge of fundraising campaigns and images of starving children in refugee camps. Unfortunately these campaigns fail to adequately explain the causal realities of malnutrition or the inadequate programs supported by both international NGOs and UN agencies, such as World Food Program (WFP).

Last week, Friends of the WFP published a blog post, Nutrition: 10 Reasons to Face the Challenge. It uses language like "poor nutrition," as if children in Darfur's refugee camps are sneaking a Twinkie instead of a well balanced meal. According to the World Bank, $3.6 billion would feed all the undernourished children (under the age of 5). Such campaigns concern me for three reasons:

  1. Not enough food is being produced to supply these programs. Currently, not enough grain exists in East Africa for WFP to meet the needs of refugee camps in Darfur. How ethical is it to commit to this goal?
  2. Food aid does not address nutrition. According to UNICEF, from 2004-2007 only 1.7% of interventions reported as 'development food aid/food security' and 'emergency food aid' actually addressed nutrition needs." Our taxes are wasted on programs that that fill stomachs with empty calories.
  3. What about the malnourished children over 5 years suffering from severe malnutrition? Instead of addressing a global picture, it seems WFP has spent millions of dollars to design "Sprinkles," a micronutrient power with no mention of more sustainable food production models.

With an estimated 80-100 million small-landholder farmers in East Africa and 25 million in South Africa, farming is a tangible and practical solution to the food insecurity catastrophe in both East and the Horn of Africa. Additionally, it will impact rural incomes and national GDPs, independent of new trade agreements with countries exporting eco-friendly agro-technologies, such as India, Israel, Holland, and the United States.

75 years ago the British Empire envisioned Sudan as a global breadbasket. It still could be. The solution: empowering rural farmers. This can be accomplished, where the UN and so many NGOs have failed by financing commercially viable value chains in cooperation with available agro technologies.

In April 2009, I and my team of wonder team of agriculture experts launched the Backpack Farm Agriculture Program (www.Backpackfarm.org). The program supports rural farmers in East and the Horn of Africa with cutting-edge agricultural programs, training, and monitoring to support regional food security and income generation through sustainable value chains.

Programs such as mine are imperative because small-landholder farmers still lack the technical capacity and financial equity to enter wholesale markets. Their yields are typically poor, estimated at one-quarter of the global average. To counter this, we designed a "fusion farming" model, eliminating the need for traditional DAP/CAN fertilizers. My team has married it with cost- effective drip irrigation and a training program on eco-friendly farming, including modules on rain water harvesting, perma-culture, non-tillage, and composting.

We are actively working with rural farmers in Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan and Rwanda. One of our recent successes is a joint venture agreement with Mt. Kenya Gardens to help expand their out-grower network with 5,000 new farmers in the next 18 months. There is too much work to be done; however every milestone has been accomplished without a single dollar of international donor finance. I truly believe that agro-based, social enterprises like the Backpack Farm can and will play an essential role in solving East and the Horn of Africa's food crisis.

The international community appears to be taking note. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO_ and World Bank have recently rediscovered rural 'family' farming as the most important source of development, and target for investments to fight hunger. The [published by whom?] 2008 "International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD)," produced a single, relevant message: small-scale family farming is the best available option to change the perverted global system of commodity trade and production and to limit the use of fossil fuels and chemical inputs. It is now the 'the best hope we have for not exceeding the limits of this planet, while still feeding the population.'

The Backpack Farm has just been named by Sotokoto Magazine in Japan as one of their "100 Green Fighters," as successful social enterprise due to our commitment to eco-farming and community development..

I deeply respect the professionals who are committed to emergency relief and humanitarian development programs. These men and women are some of the bravest souls living in unbelievable conditions exposed to disease, kidnapping, rape and attack from rebel groups, local security forces. I don't question their commitment to such noble work The problem is that the system they work within is deeply flawed and is incapable of providing sustainable food security for the worlds most vulnerable; women and children.

Come learn more about the Backpack farm and its farmers at Facebook or Twitter @Backpackfarm or email me at grow@backpackfarm.org.