03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Famine and Plenty, Both in Times of Drought

Rwanda: The first rains of the season are falling in this part of Africa. The rain is part of a weather cycle that can make or break life in this region of the world, depending on several factors. Prominent among these is health - not just people's health, but also the health of agricultural, governmental and economic systems.

Today is World Food Day. A couple of days ago, on October 14th, the UN released its annual report on global food security. Their figures confirm that more than one billion people - a sixth of the world - are undernourished, and that the number of hungry people had been growing even before the economic crisis hit, which has only made the situation worse. But the report also noted that while some poor nations are struggling to survive, other poor nations are helping to feed them. Despite their relative poverty, some countries, like Rwanda, are exporting food, while others are desperate consumers.

Rwanda's current growing season is shaping up to be better than the last. The past several years have seen drought and erratic rainfall, but tens of thousands of Rwandans have adapted with simple and effective techniques that deliver both nutritional, and economic, stability. Mayange, a community of 25,000 located one hour south of the Rwandan capital of Kigali, recently became a net exporter of food for the first time in decades. It may serve as a crucible for understanding the environmental and cultural challenges facing Sub-Saharan Africa, and provide insights into what can be done to combat the rising storm of food insecurity and economic instability in the region.

In contrast, right now an estimated 20 million Kenyans are at risk of severe malnutrition and starvation. Because their situation is so dire - and because droughts like the one Kenya is experiencing could happen to any nation in the region at any given time, it's critical to closely examine projects that are bearing fruit. These need scaling up to serve the hundreds of millions in Africa who desperately need them - and the food security they provide - right now, today.

Just four years ago, Mayange was synonymous with abject poverty. Located at the very epicenter of the 1994 genocide, its people were hardened, uncooperative, and when I began working there in October 2005, starving to death. Back in the 1960s, the government of Rwanda forcefully relocated mainly Tutsis to Mayange and its environs due to the unwelcoming rainforest conditions. The resourceful inhabitants chopped down nearly all the trees and provided Kigali with charcoal for decades. After the trees fell, they productively produced maize and beans until the soil fell down the hillsides into the valleys. The stage was set for the 1990s, which saw both murder and decreasing rainfall (a condition seen across East Africa). By 2005, Mayange was a backwater - a favorite for charity involvement given the food needs, but an apparently hopeless case.

The government of Rwanda recognized radical approaches were needed. They identified Mayange as the site of the Millennium Villages project for Rwanda and gave the team a tall order: prove your methods and we'll adopt them at national scale. Our initial work involved basics: distributing emergency food, improving health facilities, and working with local government on agriculture plans. We worked alongside the national government which was expanding its efforts to get basic services to people - roads, electricity, water, education and health.

During the first two years, the community banded together. They transformed the landscape with progressive terraces along the hillside, where tens of thousands of nitrogen-fixing trees and new, drought-resistant crops were planted. Field trials determined which crops would have the kind of staying power needed in dry, lean times. In the end, a diversified mix of beans, maize, cassava, home vegetables, and fast-growing fruit trees provided steady and dependable food sources, which led the way to real stability for the first time in decades.

The start of the rainy season is usually one of the hungriest times of the year. Yet in the formerly hopeless enclave of Mayange, there are 50-80 metric tons of maize and beans for every 5,000 people, stored by the local government. This surpasses the wildest estimates of local officials, who three years ago dreamt of splitting that same quantity among 25,000 people.

Across Africa, the Millennium Villages project has demonstrated that food scarcity can be all but vanquished if the required resource management, investment and political will are available. On this World Food Day, the lesson for Kenya and others is simple: get the basics right. Only in this way can agricultural communities attain the food stability and security that maintains people's health. Just as drought can destroy health, economic, and even political systems, an abundant amount of crops and accompanying wealth can take communities beyond mere subsistence, enabling them to build long-term prosperity.