Hunger in East Africa – and a Hunger for Change

I weaved in and out of the tall maize stalks as James and I hurried to keep up with Emmanuel, a Nuru Field Officer overseeing 56 new Nuru farmers in a small collection of villages known as Ihore in the Kuria West District of southwest Kenya.  We were moving quickly through the “shamba” (farm) of Mwita Marwa, one of Emmanuel’s farmers, on our way to visit Mwita at his home. As I moved through the maize, I gazed in awe at the height of Mwita’s maize – some stalks reached ten feet.  On our way to Mwita’s hut, we emerged from the forest of maize into the stark contrast of Mwita’s neighbor’s shamba.  The neighbor’s field was dry and sparsely populated with sad-looking 2-3 foot stalks of maize bearing no actual cobs.  We paused.  “There will be hunger here,” James said with sad eyes. “Again,” I said. “Yes,” James said. “There will be so many this season.”  Previously, I had been used to seeing the sharp difference in the maize yields of Nuru farmers and those who had not enrolled yet…but this was different.  Since I returned from the States a couple weeks ago, we have encountered shamba after shamba of desolate maize fields which will yield less than two bags of maize per acre. (Most families require six to feed themselves between harvests.) James lingered in the shamba. “The drought has come again to Kenya.”

Just as you’ve read and seen in the news over the past three months, prolonged drought conditions have gripped East Africa and are dragging the region into the desperate depths of cruel famine. Entire populations that were already suffering from chronic hunger have now fled into neighboring countries as refugees, in search of relief from the famine.  These migrations are bringing even further instability to an already chaotic region – destabilizing nearby countries and producing conditions that strengthen extremist groups operating in the Horn of Africa.

The World Food Programme (WFP) stated that these prolonged drought conditions combined with the never-ending conflict in Somalia are now affecting over 13 million people. The United Nations declared two entire regions in southern Somalia to be in a state of famine – effectively declaring nearly half the population of Somalia (3.7 million people) now in imminent danger of starvation. Over 3,000 refugees are flooding across the Somali border into neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya every single day. Al Shabaab (the Al Qaeda-linked extremist group) continues to be an obstacle to aid groups attempting to provide relief in the region (WFP alone has lost 14 relief workers recently).

The famine is absolutely overwhelming. As I read those facts, I couldn’t help but feel a growing sense of despair in the pit of my stomach – quickly followed by a protective, defensive, tough layer of apathy because this global humanitarian crisis won’t impact me personally. This tough layer of apathy has been a protective cushion for me for most of my life – until I joined the fight against extreme poverty.

How do we even begin to think about this global crisis and our role (or lack thereof) in addressing it? We must begin by taking small, actionable steps. Lasting gains in a fight are made through small victories along the way – not all in one leap.  Let me share about ways that Nuru is addressing the injustice of this crisis – and about the small steps that you are helping us take to gain ground in the fight against extreme poverty.

Hunger has indeed come to Kenya again.  Kenya is no stranger to drought.  The 1980s brought several severe periods of drought that brought hunger and devastation to all of east Africa. However, this time is different for a remote pocket of southwest Kenya.  In January, before drought conditions were fully realized in Kenya, 2,000 smallholder farmers took out Nuru agriculture loans for high quality fertilizer and seed and were trained in best practices in growing maize. As the maize grew, the drought became more severe and signs of suffering began to appear in the villages here in Kuria.  While Nuru farmers have been affected by the drought (most will realize a 20-30% decrease in yield this season), the incredible news is that they still have more than enough to feed their families for the whole season and pay off their agriculture loan.

Programs like Nuru’s are tapping into the potential of the poor to create their own solutions to extreme poverty by introducing a framework of simple, scalable, and sustainable ideas (like Nuru’s agriculture program) to trained local leaders and then equipping these leaders to scale these ideas. Both Nuru leaders and farmers are hungry, but it is a different kind of hunger than those suffering in the famine. They are hungry for choice. They are hungry for the opportunity to create and own their future and have hope for lasting solutions to the seemingly impossible challenges they faced before. They are hungry for change, and they are pursuing that change using all that is within them.

As we approached Mwita’s hut, we immediately noticed he was beaming. He began talking excitedly to James as they shook hands vigorously. “Karibu marafiki yangu! Mimi ni farahi sana kwa sababu hakuna nja. Uliona mahindi yangu? Sasa hakuna nja!” (“Welcome my friends! I am so so happy because there is no hunger! Did you see my maize? Now there is no hunger!”)

I watched as James, with beaming satisfaction, listened to Mwita share his family’s story of triumph this season. “Small steps,” I thought. “Small steps.”

About Jake Harriman

Founder — Jake Harriman is a United States Naval Academy graduate and former Force Recon Marine combat veteran who became convinced that the “War on Terror” can’t be won on the battlefield alone; the contributing causes of violent extremism–specifically extreme poverty–must also be eradicated. After transitioning out of the Marine Corps, Jake enrolled in the Stanford Graduate School of Business to found Nuru International in 2007 with a mission to eradicate extreme poverty in some of the most fragile regions of the world in order to help stop the spread of groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. Over the next twelve years, Jake and his team grew Nuru to become one of the premier organizations at the nexus of security and development - empowering over 130,000 people with lasting meaningful choices to permanently climb out of extreme poverty in some of the toughest places in the world.

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