Famine and Plenty, Both in Times of Drought

Josh Ruxin

Josh Ruxin

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.

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Sent from Kigali, Rwanda

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