‘The Last Hunger Season’ – Book Review (Part One)

> Posted by Bobbi Gray, Research and Evaluation Specialist, Freedom from Hunger 

In 2009, Portfolios of the Poor illustrated a rich array of formal and informal financial services and money management practices used by the poor. For this reason, it has become a foundational text for development professionals seeking to address poverty through financial inclusion.

The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change, by journalist and author Roger Thurow, chronicles the lives of four smallholder farmers in Kenya over a year’s time. His conclusions further enrich our understanding of household financial decision-making processes and tradeoffs made by the poor on a daily basis.

Along the way Thurow describes the critical role that the Kenya-based One Acre Fund plays in improving agricultural knowledge and practices by providing training and credit for agricultural inputs such as seed and fertilizer to families that have one acre of land or less. All four families followed in the book are One Acre Fund program participants.

The Last Hunger Season provides some important lessons for us as financial service practitioners. It helps us re-frame how we view client impact and design impact assessments. Let’s look at a few themes.

Think of “impact” or “change” in poverty in a more comprehensive way. Thurow shares the story of Leonida, a 42-year-old Kenyan mother of seven children. Several times each year, she must choose between feeding her children and paying school fees to keep her oldest son in a boarding school. Hunger is the tradeoff that Leonida accepts because she sees education as the ticket to a better future for her children and her family.

When we only look at reported hunger as a metric for smallholder farmers, for example, given this information we might conclude that the program is failing Leonida. However, when we expand our assessment, we might see that the increase in income is directed toward education—to the detriment of family nutrition and health in the short term. However, this attention to education is deliberate and reflects the values and priorities of this family.

By only monitoring and measuring the “direct” benefits of a program, we risk getting an inaccurate picture of change or impacts at the household level. It’s important to note that to date, with participation in the One Acre Fund program, Leonida’s production has increased from three 90-kilogram bags of maize to 10.

Qualitative observations can provide rich insights into what “impact” is. Perhaps the most striking takeaway from The Last Hunger Season is that when we use only quantitative measures, we are hard pressed to fully understand the impacts of a program.

As Thurow follows the families and illustrates the difficult decisions they make (and the underlying reasons behind those decisions), we are forced to wonder whether the research methods that we, as practitioners and researchers, rely on to assess the outcomes of a project can effectively capture this type of decision-making in action.

For example, one day, two of Leonida’s daughters return home from their local school, in the middle of the day, to collect school fees for their tuition. They have been asked not to return to school until they can pay their fees. They have missed lunch at school, and Leonida also has nothing to offer them to eat.

She knows that if she doesn’t pay the full amount of the school fees for her oldest son, he will surely be sent home and all of her past efforts to keep him in school will be for naught. So, she makes a difficult decision. By allowing her youngest (female) children to go hungry, she keeps the majority of the money for her oldest (male). She sends the two youngest back to school with partial payment, hoping this will buy her time to make a full payment later when she can find other ways to gather the funds.

If we evaluate this in terms of where did you spend your money?, we would see that she spent money on school fees. However, it is equally important to understand what she did NOT spend her money on as well as her reason to prioritize school fees over food. Leonida explains, “A person with one child who is a doctor or lawyer is above a person with seven children who haven’t been educated.”

Seasonality matters. Though this is not a new concept, as we follow the four families through a year, we come to fully appreciate another challenge we have in understanding client impact: the time of year that we conduct a client assessment can make a big difference in what we find.

When clients are interviewed at the height of the “hungry season,” we are not going to detect very positive outcomes. Conversely, if we conduct our assessments immediately after the harvest, we risk overestimating client well-being, as it can be short-lived. As Andrew Youn, President of Once Acre Fund notes, “Harvest time is a time to dream. To dream of improving lives, feeding families, sending children to school, investing in livestock.”

Some research methods and assessments take seasonality into account. Thurow reminds us of the importance of factoring in seasonality when designing assessments and interpreting the results.

Measuring hope and “softer” impacts. At the end of the year, along with increases in harvest results, hope appears to be one of the tangible impacts of One Acre’s credit and agricultural support program.

One could easily argue that Thurow wrote the book to elicit this emotion in the reader. But it’s possible that there is more here than just a writing style; it suggests an important consideration for us when we design evaluations of both short- and long-term program impact.

We typically evaluate the benefits of access to and use of microfinance products using quantifiable measures – for example, agricultural output, household income, business revenues, amount of savings, increase in assets, and others. Yet, we could learn a lot more about some of the “softer” impacts such as client attitudes and perceptions about their lives, including hope.

Instead of approaching household outcomes only by whether there was more income in one year’s time, what if we instead accepted that a client’s perception of her well-being is an adequate composite for assessing her comprehensive, complicated financial and non-financial life? Or, in the least, what if we incorporated these “soft” aspects as integral components for gauging program impact?

We know that we can’t prove impact by relying only on hope and a positive perception of a client’s current life or future—or can we? Thurow paints a compelling picture that illustrates why and how the process of moving out of poverty is slow and painstaking. He makes the point that hope seems to be the vital fuel that helps propel this engine forward. Attitudes and perceptions may turn out to be a more accurate indicator of wellbeing than a long list of quantifiable indicators. It is something we should test. If smallholder farmers are hanging onto hope for a better future, perhaps we as evaluators should as well.

In part two of this post I’ll discuss some of the client-centered program design insights shared in The Last Hunger Season.

*This post was modified from its original version on June 25, 2014.

Image credit: The Last Hunger Season

Have you read?

Climate Change Adaptation for Smallholder Farmers

Agriculture Microinsurance in Africa: To Subsidize or Not to Subsidize?

Asset-Based Financing and Flexible Repayment Schedules to Better Serve Africa’s Smallholder Farmers