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

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

In part one of this review, we considered several themes that Roger Thurow raised in the book The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change that might influence how we conduct research and design evaluations to measure changes in poverty. The book follows four Kenyan smallholder families for a year, chronicling how their lives were changing as a result of participating in One Acre Fund’s agriculture training and loan program.

Understanding the decisions these families made about how and where to allocate their very limited resources helps us as financial service practitioners and researchers to understand and appreciate certain realities.

Financial service providers can feel both disappointed and encouraged by this book. We find ourselves uncomfortable reading about Leonida, the Kenyan mother and smallholder farmer who makes a credit payment instead of feeding her family. But we also see opportunity. It’s a difficult trade-off for Leonida, but she sees her credit payment as her ticket to new investment in crops, which have already shown promise after a year of participating in One Acre Fund’s program.

In our earlier discussion, we looked at how we might think differently about evaluating programs. Let’s switch gears to what Thurow encourages us to think about in terms of program design. He highlights two key opportunities that stem from a more client-centered approach to program design.

Being client-centered requires a deep understanding of not just client needs, but their financial priorities.

One Acre Fund learned that, in order to pay school fees, farmers in its program were often selling their grain at times when they would receive the lowest price for their harvest.

In response, One Acre Fund developed a school fee loan, using their grain as collateral. Repayment of the loan is deferred until the market price of grain is at a peak, months later.

One Acre wanted to ensure that the farmers could time their sales to generate the greatest profit and avoid having to sell at suppressed prices to pay school fees when those expenditures could be anticipated. They also developed small loan products that would allow farmers to buy small amounts of seed and fertilizer consistent with their small plots of land. This allows farmers to plant supplementary crops to help sustain their family through the hungry season.

As we come to a deeper understanding of the financial circumstances and constraints faced by smallholder farmers, we gain a clear picture of how One Acre Fund has innovated around these constraints to develop products that meet the specific financial needs and priorities of their clients.

Financial services alone are not enough to move people out of poverty—an integrated approach is necessary.

As we follow the stories of these four families, we become keenly aware of why microcredit alone will not be enough for them.

One Acre Fund uses microcredit as one tool but pairs it with agricultural education to help address inadequate agricultural practices. These integrated services are one part of the equation. However, health is also a roadblock for poor households as they try to pull meager funds together to seek treatment and save family member lives.

After one year in the program, Rasoa, a 30-year-old mother of three boys, was feeling comfortable about the future. She said, “For now, I won’t cry again that my children are lacking food.” However, misfortune struck and her brother was admitted to the hospital. She knew the hospital wouldn’t treat him without advance payment, so she sold two bags of her grain to pay for it. This grain was originally set aside to feed her family through the hunger season.

Being client-centered could also mean ensuring that different sectors such as health, agricultural, and financial sectors work more collaboratively to meet the multifaceted needs of the poor. Opportunities to create more and better linkages between the financial, health, and agricultural sectors exist, but they require a new way of thinking and a commitment to listening and working collaboratively to meet client needs.

We have seen such linkages work. One Acre Fund provides one example of client-centered programming. Freedom from Hunger has also helped its partners establish linkages to health providers to offer reduced-cost medical care, organize health fairs, and organize their own cadres of community health workers. Some of our partners are even addressing the first 1,000-day period from pregnancy to a child’s second birthday by providing pre-natal care education and linkages to health services, breastfeeding and diarrhea education, and access to related health products.

Thurow’s description of the lives of the smallholder farmers in The Last Hunger Season helps us fully realize that the movement out of poverty is often not linear. Sometimes there are periods of progress and other times, there are setbacks.

One Acre Fund encourages simple, yet effective changes to agricultural practices, including increased investment in inputs and instruction on how and when to most effectively plant new seeds and nurture them, the use of fertilizers, crop diversification, and crop rotation. If followed, this advice helps smallholder farmers by ensuring there is always a crop in the ground to produce food for the household while the cash crops are waiting to be harvested. Program participants in the story reaped harvests that were double, triple, and even quadruple the size of previous gains, providing opportunities for better nutrition, additional agricultural investments, and improvements to other life areas. Readers are left with a feeling of hope… a hope that greater returns will continue in the years to come, because a new foundation has been set for the future.

Image credit: The Last Hunger Season

Have you read?

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

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

New Council to Expand Responsible Financing for Agriculture