Here we go again: A drought in the Dakotas is sending world maize prices through the roof. Someone somewhere will go hungry; that someone will be a child, and that somewhere will be a coastal city in an impoverished African country, whose people are fed by imported food. Why is Africa so dependent on imported food, despite being the least urbanized and most land-abundant continent?

It is because African agriculture is so unproductive. Indeed, farm productivity is so low that not only are African farmers unable to feed Africa’s cities, they are unable to feed themselves. Day by day, year by year, hunger is even more common on Africa’s farms than on the streets of its cities.

“The Last Hunger Season” is the story of this catastrophe viewed from the perspective of a typical African smallholder farmer in western Kenya. By taking us through the agricultural cycle, decision by decision, it aptly conveys a sense of the risky choices that farmers are required to make in highly constrained situations. Gambles in the context of poverty are dangerous, and the results are agonizing. Leonida Wanyama, the heroine of Roger Thurow’s story, has to choose between three fundamentals: food, seeds and school fees. If she skimps on food, her children will go hungry and may sicken. If she skimps on seeds, then next season the trap will tighten and her choices will pose yet more cruel dilemmas. If she skimps on education, her children will have no alternative but to become smallholders. Whereas many Western nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) tend to romanticize smallholders, they struggle so their children can escape such a fate. That is why they make extraordinary sacrifices to pay for school fees. Wanyama takes a gamble, sells her harvest and pays the fees — she hopes to be able to buy food on the local market as she needs it. The gamble goes wrong: When she goes to buy maize back, the price has nearly tripled.

This being an American morality story, there is, of course, a young American hero and an old American villain. The young hero is Andrew Youn, a kid from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, working for a small social enterprise, the One Acre Fund. He brings a package of new seed technology, farming advice and credit to small farmers such as Wanyama. For her it may indeed be the last hunger season because the package raises the productivity of her land sufficiently for there to be credible hope that she will have a better future. The old villain is Congress, savaging the budget of the U.S. Agency for International Development to resolve the fiscal deficit, just as the agency is belatedly making smallholder agriculture its top priority. Yet I find both Thurow’s solution — a green revolution for Africa — and his critique — more aid for smallholders — a little too easy to pass without qualification.

As to the solution, innovations in seed technology suitable for Africa are being impeded by widespread African bans on genetically modified organisms, a kneejerk repetition of the ban imposed in Europe. More profoundly, over the halfcentury during which the productivity of African smallholder agriculture has stagnated, we have learned that the smallholder mode of organization is ill-suited to risky innovation. While helping smallholders is assuredly worth doing and can somewhat alleviate their poverty, the Brazilian model of commercialized agriculture may prove to be a better way of overcoming the larger challenge of African hunger. The Brazilian model is not pretty — its highly mechanized production implies that for jobs, people need to go to towns — but it does produce staggering amounts of food. African governments, NGOs and development agencies fear the Brazilian model. Beyond being ideologically distasteful to some of them, it raises the specter of displaced small farmers pouring into cities with no jobs.

‘The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change’ by Roger Thurow (PublicAffairs)

This, to my mind, is the more fundamental long-term failing of African development: The children of smallholders should, and will, pour into cities. So it is vital that cities become engines of opportunity: That is what cities are for — high density is the handmaiden of economic activity. Millions of young people could be productively employed in Africa’s cities, so the key policy issue that governments and development agencies need to address is what has been impeding urban success — and it isn’t the low productivity of smallholders. Africa’s future is not as a continent of happy peasants; it will adopt the American model of successful development based on an abundance of land. Happy American peasants have become the preserve of Hollywood nostalgia.

As I read Thurow’s critique of congressional cutting of the USAID budget, I was cheering him on. But his concern needs to be set in a larger context. Viewed from afar, America’s prolonged fiscal suicide mission is a spectacle of wonderment. Aid will not be decisive for African development, but fiscal choices made in times of austerity do reveal a nation’s character. In Britain, faced with a fiscal situation far more difficult than America’s, a government of the right has chosen to protect the aid budget from cuts. Britons are not prepared to inflict on poor people elsewhere the consequences of our past policy mistakes. Conversely, the congressional response of slashing the American aid budget, while risibly inadequate as a response to fiscal crisis, may say something about America. If so, we need more books such as this warmly human account from Thurow.

Paul Collier is a professor of public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University and director of the Center for the Study of African Economies.


A Year in an African Farm
Community on the Brink of Change

By Roger Thurow

PublicAffairs. 273 pp. $26.99