'President Obama promised to end hunger, right?'

Ms. Wabwire, grandma Rose and other community members in Marigat. Photo: Bread for the World Institute

By Faustine Wabwire, Bread for the World Institute

I just concluded a visit to Kenya, where I visited smallholder farmers, businesses, and agro-pastoralists. One of the places I visited, Marigat, is a settlement in the lowlands of Baringo County. It was in Marigat that I met Rose, a 97-year-old great-grandma. During our visit, she wanted to know if it was indeed true that President Obama had promised that there would be an end to hunger soon. She had heard that he had made this commitment during his visit to Nairobi a few days earlier.

It was a refreshing experience — partly because I got to listen and learn from the real-life experiences of people whose lives are impacted by the policies I work on — agriculture, food security and nutrition, trade, and climate change, among others.

Marigat is generally very dry. Residents depend on subsistence farming — they cultivate tomatoes, watermelon, onions. Because the dry conditions limits their crop options, they also rear small livestock — chicken, sheep, and goats. Bee keeping is a crucial livelihood strategy as well. In fact, Marigat residents were quick to tell me that they produce the best honey in the country, but they struggle to market it.

Rose is part of a 10-member women’s group that works together to earn a living. Each morning, they walk for approximately 10 miles to an area where they pick up stones and break them down — by hand — to marram. Later, they sell the marram.

But why does this group of elderly women work at something so strenuous? Aren’t there other, more manageable ways to generate some income?  

Rose explained to me that previously, she would join other members of her community to cultivate crops. She also raised livestock. She flourished. But with time, those efforts have been consistently frustrated by insufficient rainfall and increasingly prolonged drought cycles. Rose says that over the years, hunger and malnutrition have increased in her village, and she believes that the harsh, unpredictable weather patterns that have caused crop and livestock failure have a lot to do with it. Excessively high temperatures have reduced plant cover and left the soil bare, meaning that it erodes easily and ends up deposited in neighboring Lake Baringo.

The lake, which in past years provided fish as well as water for cultivating crops, is also under threat. Its water levels have dramatically declined — in fact, it is becoming a seasonal lake — and it is more saline, so fish stocks are declining. Efforts by the Kenyan government to save the lake and mitigate the impact of climate change on this community need additional support.

Great-grandma Rose is among millions of poor people around the world whose efforts to feed themselves are frustrated by the threat of a changing climate. Prolonged droughts not only reduce the ability of households to feed themselves — they also erode assets, such as cattle, making it difficult to recover and even more difficult to be prepared for future droughts.

Reduced crop production also causes food prices to rise, increasing the risk of hunger and malnutrition. 

As President Obama and the global community prepare to launch the world’s new Sustainable Development Goals at the United Nations General Assembly next week (September 25-27), Rose hopes that commitments to end hunger and extreme poverty truly “leave no-one behind.” Leaders should prioritize strengthening community resilience through “multiple-benefit” approaches that can both improve agricultural production and reduce climate risks:

  • Strengthen the capacities of local institutions to adopt agro-ecological farming models in a changing environment.
  • Identify and promote crop varieties that are heat, drought, and salt-tolerant, including wild varieties with high nutritional value.
  • Fund national agricultural systems to strengthen and increase expertise in agricultural research as well as advisory and extension services on climate risk management and adaptation.
  • Support rural agricultural infrastructure, including roads and storage to prevent post-harvest losses. 

“Don’t get tired of pushing our own government and President Obama to help us fight climate change… We can grow our own food and nourish our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren if climate change stops. Enda na Mungu — Swahili for ‘Go with God.'” — Great-grandma Rose

Faustine Wabwire is the senior foreign assistance policy analyst at Bread for the World Institute

Photo: Ms. Wabwire, Grandma Rose, and other community members in Marigat. Bread for the World Institute.


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