Written by: Abu Yarma, Claude Nankam, and Eryn Austin-Bergen
When Food for the Hungry (FH) started work in Amhara, Ethiopia, they saw that many of the children were going hungry. Unable to get the nutrients they needed to grow up strong and healthy, their bodies and minds struggled. In technical terms, the children were suffering from chronic malnutrition and severe stunting. In heart terms, the kids were half starved and their parents couldn’t stand it.
This is the ugly reality of food insecurity, and in Amhara, it was extreme and widespread.
Most families tried to make a living through subsistence farming. Fifty-year-old Asfaw was one of them. Along with his neighbours, he grew cereals, pulses, potatoes, and vegetables as well as raised livestock like sheep and goats to put food on the table and money in his pockets. Yet no matter how hard he tried, Asfaw simply could not get his fields to produce sufficient food to support his wife and children. And neither could his neighbours. Why? Not for lack of effort!
Natural challenges like erratic rainfall, poor soil, and poor quality seeds plagued the farmers in Amhara. Economic constraints prevented them from purchasing desperately needed farming tools, quality seeds, and fertilizer. As a result, families often went without meals. To survive, they relied on food handouts from the government. Their lives were precarious and unsustainable. Something needed to change.
Asfaw’s story is all too common today. It’s shocking that in a world where we produce enough food globally to feed all of us, millions still go hungry. Families on every continent—yes, even North America!—suffer from food insecurity. But what does that mean, exactly?
According to the United Nations Committee on World Food Security, “Food security means that all people at all times have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.”
Another way of saying that is to break it down into four categories. For a family to be food secure, food has to be (1) available to them. In Asfaw’s case, this was a major sticking point. Because of the environmental and economic constraints faced by his farming community, he could only grow enough to make food available to his family for about four months out of every year. The remaining eight months, his family was hungry.
Food also has to be (2) accessible. If food is being grown but families can’t access it because they can’t afford bus fare to a market to buy groceries, they are food insecure. Or if they simply don’t have enough cash to purchase sufficient food for their households, they are food insecure. Asfaw’s income wasn’t high enough to regularly purchase food. Nor did he have the money to buy supplies that would enable him to grow enough food to support his family.
Families also need the knowledge to (3) utilize food properly, that is to say, to combine and prepare food in such a way as to maximize nutrition. If families only eat Teff and tomatoes every day, they won’t get the vitamins and minerals they need for keen eyesight, strong bones, sustained energy, and a quick mind. They’ll continue to be malnourished and their children will suffer life-long health complications.
Food security also requires that shocks like COVID-19 don’t derail families and send them spinning into hunger. There must be (4) stability of availability and access to food. In other words, there must be resilience to natural disasters. When a storm floods the community or a pandemic disrupts supply chains or a pest ravages a harvest, precautions must be in place to ensure that families in crisis can still get food.
So how does Food for the Hungry help communities overcome hunger and achieve food security?
True to our name, FH does indeed seek to feed the hungry! We walk alongside families like Asfaw’s to help them reach a point where they can sustainably meet all the requirements of food security on their own—without government (or FH!) handouts.
Each FH country has Food Security & Livelihoods programming and staff. Its sole mission is to “Build partnerships that stimulate sustainable food production through the application of low cost, innovative, and environmentally safe production techniques, increase income, and improve availability, access, and utilization of diverse nutritious food for children and their families.”
That’s a mouthful! Here’s how it looked when practically lived out in Asfaw’s family.
To equip the families in Amhara to feed themselves, FH launched a potato value chain project.
|With the right technology, good seeds, and a little hard work lush potato fields flourished in Amhara.|
At the time, potatoes were a major income generating crop in the area and many farmers like Asfaw were already growing them. Potatoes offered a lot of benefits to the low-income farmers. They are easy to cultivate and can adapt to erratic rainfall. The yield they produce is relatively higher than cereals and pulses. And there was high market demand for them.
FH’s first action was to provide access to small loans to Asfaw and other farmers so they could buy items needed to make farming successful an lucrative. One mechanism FH applies to sustainably achieve this in rural areas is by establishing self-governing Savings and Loans groups. These groups encourage communal cooperation to leverage combined savings into low-interest loans. Through these loans, members can pursue businesses that will raise their family incomes.
FH also connected the Amhara Regional Agricultural Research Institute with Asfaw and his fellow farmers to provide them with quality seeds. Thirdly, FH helped organize the potato farmers into production groups. This provided them easier access to markets and to bag their potatoes for better prices. It also meant they learned together as a group at FH agricultural training sessions, strengthening their corporate knowledge and collective skill set. Lastly, FH introduced low-cost, climate-smart technology to reduce post-harvest losses and produce multiple and stronger tubers for quicker planting in the field.
|Low-cost, climate-smart technology reduces post-harvest losses and produces |
multiple and stronger tubers for quicker planting in the field.
At the end of the first year, Asfaw increased his harvest 15-fold!
He was able to sell his potatoes and receive income for his family. As a member of the production group, market access was arranged for him, and because of his group’s collective bargaining power, he obtained the premium price. What he didn’t sell he kept as seed to plant for the next year and to feed his family.
From the proceeds of his potato sales, Asfaw repaid his loan, rented more farmland, bought an extra ox and two hybrid cows, and paid school fees for his children!
Asfaw and his family were able to break free from the government food program.
|The collective bargaining power of belonging to a production group means everyone gets a better price.|
In the second year, Asfaw used the same technology and production practices with incredible results. On average, he obtained about $500 from his potato sales. He used this income to buy essential farm tools as well as two beehive units to produce honey. In the third year, he saved enough money from his potato and honey business to build a proper house for himself and his family.
Prior to FH’s intervention, Asfaw had planned to migrate to Saudi Arabia to look for work to support his family. Why would he take such an extreme step and put himself at such high risk? Because there was simply no work in Amhara and he could no longer watch his children go hungry day in and day out. Thankfully, this desperate plan was abandoned when he participated in FH’s potato value chain program and became a self-sustaining farmer.
Asfaw and his wife are working hard to change their lives and their future. They no longer feel marginalized by poverty and hunger. Their family is food secure.
FH’s potato project was so successful that many more farmers joined. Demand for seed potato outpaced supply. The farmers told FH the only way they could meet the demand for potato seed was for FH to train more farmers and provide them with initial seed so they, like Asfaw and his neighbours, could also start to cultivate a sustainable future on their own.
In these and many other ways, Food for the Hungry seeks to improve the food security and lives of many thousands of men, women, and children in places like Ethiopia around Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
We invite you to join us in the pursuit to overcome global hunger and build a future in which every family, every community, every country is food secure.
About the authors:
Claude Nankam is the current Director of Food Security & Livelihoods for FH USA. Abu Yarmah serves as the current Senior Technical Advisor for Food Security & Livelihoods for FH USA. They recently participated in a food security webinar hosted by FH Canada on which this article is based.