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The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change

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At 4:00 am, Leonida Wanyama lit a lantern in her house made of sticks and mud. She was up long before the sun to begin her farm work, as usual. But this would be no ordinary day, this second Friday of the new year. This was the day Leonida and a group of smallholder farmers in western Kenya would begin their exodus, as she said, “from misery to Canaan,” the land of milk and honey.
Africa’s smallholder farmers, most of whom are women, know misery. They toil in a time warp, living and working essentially as their forebears did a century ago. With tired seeds, meager soil nutrition, primitive storage facilities, wretched roads, and no capital or credit, they harvest less than one-quarter the yields of Western farmers. The romantic ideal of African farmers––rural villagers in touch with nature, tending bucolic fields––is in reality a horror scene of malnourished children, backbreaking manual work, and profound hopelessness. Growing food is their driving preoccupation, and still they don’t have enough to feed their families throughout the year. The wanjala––the annual hunger season that can stretch from one month to as many as eight or nine––abides.
But in January 2011, Leonida and her neighbors came together and took the enormous risk of trying to change their lives. Award-winning author and world hunger activist Roger Thurow spent a year with four of them––Leonida Wanyama, Rasoa Wasike, Francis Mamati, and Zipporah Biketi––to intimately chronicle their efforts. In The Last Hunger Season, he illuminates the profound challenges these farmers and their families face, and follows them through the seasons to see whether, with a little bit of help from a new social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund, they might transcend lives of dire poverty and hunger.
The daily dramas of the farmers’ lives unfold against the backdrop of a looming global challenge: to feed a growing population, world food production must nearly double by 2050. If these farmers succeed, so might we all.

304 pages, Hardcover

First published May 29, 2012

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Roger Thurow

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 96 reviews
Profile Image for Suzanne.
178 reviews6 followers
October 27, 2013
Roger Thurow's "The Last Hunger Season" is a book that will change your world view, and challenge your thinking and perceptions in terms of the factors that contribute to global poverty and world hunger.

Following up on his book "Enough: Why the World's Poor Starve in the Age of Plenty," "The Last Hunger Season" chronicles the stories of four African small-holder farmers, Leonida, Rasoa, Zipporah and Francis. Living in the Western world, it is almost impossible to fully-comprehend the challenges that these farmers face, if not for Thurow's book, which artfully weaves the personal stories of the four farmers as they struggle through a year of change, with anecdotes on changes in the international political climate that have local ramifications for the farmers.

As I read Thurow's book, while the stories of Leonida, Rasoa, Zipporah and Francis were difficult and heart-breaking at times, I felt compelled to keep reading and developed a deep sense of admiration for their strength and commitment to doing whatever it takes to ensure a better life for themselves and their families in the future, even if it means starvation in the near-term.

One of the things that I have come to admire so much about African women, in particular, is their commitment to educating their children. Here in the U.S., and living an an area known for its affluence and excellent public schools, I feel that we often take education for granted, as most people don't have to make such extreme sacrifices to educate there children. If we did have to make such sacrifices, would we value education more?

One other aspect of Thurow's book that helped to enlighten me and broaden my perspective was the reality of how quickly fortunes can change on an African farm.

For many years, small-holder farms have struggled in soil preparation, finding strong and viable seeds that will withstand weather and other factors, harvesting and preparing crops for market, getting the right price for their crops, and having enough crops left over after sale to feed their families through the dry season. These farmers face so many challenges - weather, disease, bugs that eat their crops, and even theft. And that is all crop-related. Family health issues such as malaria, and the high cost of schooling can cause them to sell their crops at a lower price, just to get the capital needed to pay off their debts. Many farmers will resort to selling livestock too, just to raise much-needed capital.

A small NGO, One Acre Fund, is currently working to provide these small-holder farmers with the seeds, tools and knowledge they need to successfully move from subsistence farming to income-generating farming. In the "Last Hunger Season" Thurow highlights the impact that One Acre Fund has had on the farms of Leonida, Rasoa, Zipporah and Francis. I found the success, albeit limited in some cases, is a step in the right direction, and look forward to learning more about One Acre Funds efforts and future successes.

I highly recommend "The Last Hunger Season" and I am confident that anyone who reads this book will come away enlightened and with a different world view of why hunger and poverty still remain so prevalent in some parts of the world.
Profile Image for Philip.
382 reviews19 followers
September 9, 2016
A very frustrating read. Thurow does an excellent job of mapping out the problems and challenges (exhausted seed, poor cropping techniques, disastrous storage practices and supply and demand crisis linked to African government's inaction, perverse "anti-poor" policies and the criminal failure of agriculture departments to deliver extensions support despite growing budgets). The book maps out the complex and daunting challenges facing African families operating within the "subsistence" paradigm but fails miserably when it comes to the solutions. The book is an unashamed shop window for the US led international aid industry and its reliance on technology (in particular fertilizer) to solve these challenges. It relentlessly roots for the Gates/Clinton aid aristocracy and is extremely partisan. On a technical level it is limited, it identifies weed competition and soil degradation problems but regards legumes as important for diversification and food security while almost completely ignoring their crucial role in weed suppression, soil and moisture preservation and nitrogen fixing. The book is also marred with some breathtaking ignorance (planting eucalyptus for water conservation) and fails to explore why the various government departments who are the recipients of most development aid are so ineffective in supporting farmers. Clearly the work that CBO's like the One Acre movement that mobilise and educate farmers around collective action, savings and loans clubs and joined up buying of seed and inputs is crucial and merits greater support and encouragement. Overall a very mixed bag.....
410 reviews8 followers
February 19, 2023
mountains beyond mountains, one acre fund edition.

three takeaways:

1 - pretty much no agriculture sector anywhere, but especially africa, can survive without sustained external support (technological innovation, agricultural extension training, fertilizer inputs, subsidized insurance)

2 - the real price of food insecurity is in the way it deforms long-term planning (agricultural investments, education, health), recreating itself in the long term.

3 - one acre fund does good work.
326 reviews41 followers
October 5, 2012
Being from the farm, I found Roger Thurow’s book, The Last Hunger Season, to be a challenge for every human being to help out their ‘neighbor’ to eliminate hunger. In our world of plenty, no one should be going hungry or be starving to death. Yet as our world grows in population, there is a need to increase productivity worldwide.

Through the brain-child operation, One Acre Fund, administered by Andrew Youn, a social entrepreneur who was earning his MBA at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Kenya’s smallholder farmers were taught how to manage and grow bigger and better crops to sustain them through the hunger season. Though Andrew wasn’t a farmer, he did know how to manage. In his mind, “The existence of hungry farmers is completely crazy. It’s mind-boggling. A hunger season shouldn’t exist.” I totally agree. It’s unbelievable, yet it was happening.

This book is the story of four smallholder farmers that Roger Thurow followed for a year, throughout all the different seasons of farming. It started out as a picture of malnourished children, backbreaking manual labor (mostly done by the women), meager provisions from the crops, the stress of financial concerns for schooling their children, and the mountainous hopelessness of going through the wanjala–a hunger season that could stretch from one month to nine, depending on the year.

With the help of One Acre Fund, they were hoping to overcome the oppressive poverty and hunger. As a former farm girl, it was a thrilling and educational read to see how all the monumental red tape and access to good seed was a constant concern and how One Acre Fund was willing to stay the course, working out problems and issues that arose. Others had tried, failed and left.

Thurow’s book is a heart-wrenching book of failed procedures, disease ravaged areas, and starvation while surplus food was only miles away. But as the subtitle suggests, these smallholder farmers were on the brink of change. Hope abounded, but the setbacks cut deep at times. They learned by trial and error.

The challenges of the seed providers were astronomical. What would work in one area of Kenya didn’t in another because of the weather patterns. I found this so intriguing and frustrating all at the same time. It takes many varieties of seeds to work in the multiple areas.

I truly enjoyed Thurow’s organized reporting for the book. He lays out the different seasons as described by the Kenyans, helping you to comprehend the enormity of the situation. But you don’t have to come from a farm to be concerned with the issues of hunger and poor farm management. Just imagine your own family going through starvation months, and you can empathize with these farmers and be willing to be involved in your own way.

I applaud the Obama administration in their efforts to help these Kenyan smallholder farmers, where Obama’s father grew up. But President Obama’s desire to go down in history for these achievements should not take precedence over the people of the United States, as this is the country he is President of. The same goes to China’s willingness to provide great financial assistance to Kenya’s farmers, but they ignore the Dalits in their own backyard. I also believe Kenya’s government should be held more accountable to providing assistance to their people instead of holding on to their wealth and ignoring their own fellow countrymen, leaving them for other countries to help. They are issues that were overlooked in the book that I felt should have been addressed. I also felt the book was politically polarizing instead or working with both sides to come to an agreement. I find that the opposition for an agenda has many sides, which didn’t seem to be addressed or considered.

Barring my concerns, this is an insightful, excellent read to understand the plight of starving farmers–to spur others to get involved and help their ‘neighbors.’

This book was provided by Diane Morrow of the B & B Media Group in exchange for my honest review. No monetary compensation was exchanged.
Profile Image for Amanda.
Author 3 books42 followers
May 31, 2012
Smallholder farmers make up the majority of Kenya’s food production and yet they face multiple challenges from inefficient planting techniques to bad seed markets that lead to an annual wanjala–hunger season. One Acre Fund, an ngo, saw the gap and came in with a vision. Sell farmers high quality seeds and fertilizers on credit, delivered to their villages, on the condition they attend local farming classes. Roger Thurow follows four families as they try out becoming One Acre farmers.

Every once in a while there’s a book that you know will impact your entire life. I know this is one of those books.

Thurow strikes the perfect balance between narrating the farmers’ lives and knowledgeably discussing the global politics and environmental problems that also impact the hunger. The information he hands out would be riveting in any case, but how he narrates it kicks it up to another level. I know we all know there is hunger in the world, but it can be easy to ignore when it doesn’t have a face like David or Dorcas, two of the children featured whose mothers flat out do not have food to give them. Don’t get me wrong. The families profiled in this book aren’t put on a pedestal or romanticized or distanced. They are very real. But their strength and wisdom in the face of so many challenges has no other option but to be inspirational. Because it is so real.

Beyond talking about the disgusting fact that there is still hunger in a world with so much plenty and demonstrating the resilience of the families, the book also discusses One Acre Fund’s poverty fighting ideas.

Overall, if you want a book that will challenge your perceptions, humble you, broaden your horizons, and help you see how to truly fight global poverty, this is the book for you. In other words, this is recommended for everyone.

Check out my full review.

Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
Profile Image for Sharman Russell.
Author 25 books245 followers
January 8, 2017
I read this book while I was in Malawi this October as part of my research into childhood malnutrition. I recommend this to readers who are not studying childhood malnutrition—most people, I assume—but who just want to know what life is like for subsistence farmers in Africa. And maybe you don’t know yet that you want to learn what that life is like…but now that you think about it…isn’t that why we read? To live different lives? This author goes through a year with four or five families, using third person voice, not intruding as a character himself, giving us a rich and believable context. Almost everything he writes about extreme poverty and subsistence in Kenya seemed to be true in Malawi as well. I was seeing those same villages, those houses, those yards, those chickens. The smoke in the air. The dancing and singing and clapping. The hope and the resilience. In addition, this is the story of the nonprofit group One Acre Fund, which in 2006 began to support Kenyan farmers with low-interest loans, marketing help, distribution of seeds, and training; today, One Acre working with over 800,000 farm families or five million people who produce food for another five million neighbors. Like Mary’s Meals, One Acre is the real thing—started by a young American idealist, working hard in the trenches, innovative, smart, just what we need in the world.

Profile Image for Melanie.
430 reviews25 followers
July 21, 2012
On occasion there comes a book that you read and want to clap for the author and those involved in the book. This is one of those books that needs applause. I don't often become enthralled with a non fiction work, but this one captured my interest from the cover.

Why aren't farmers in Africa being given the basic tools and education on how to work their land? That has always been a question of mine. Why are we giving them food rather than teaching them better ways of growing their own food? One Acre fun addresses that very issue and helps make a difference!

The hearts of those in the book are so pure and focused on God. I love the faith they have in knowing God will provide the rain. Even during their hungry season they are focused on God's goodness. What a testimony to true faith!

This book was great not only in the wonderful project that is taking place in Kenya win these farmers, but also for the strong character of the people we meet and follow throughout the book. Farmers who struggle to put food on the table and pay the school fees to help their children break this cycle of poverty. I told my teen boys that this is going to be required reading for them, it was that inspirational!!
Profile Image for Kylee Pedersen.
18 reviews1 follower
March 6, 2019
Bought this book because I am writing my thesis on a similar topic - was pretty unimpressed. Paints the US and business-as-usual development as the hero, the Kenyan government and “Africa” (as it is often referred to in the book) as backwards and the Kenyan farmers as passive victims. Does not account for the impact of climate change in the region. Reads more like some good content for the NGO that gave the author access - note that no failed cases are considered.
Profile Image for Johnna Sturgeon.
56 reviews
September 22, 2015
This book highlights a fantastic example of economic development that works by coming alongside those struggling for a better life instead of deciding for them what they should do. According to Thurow, the received "wisdom" of African development has long been that the small farmers (who naturally make up the great majority of the African population) should have no place in the developing economy. Rather, small farmers should be converted into factory laborers and large-scale farming operations should replace them. As a result, the innovations that fueled the Green Revolution in much of Asia were never adopted in Africa. This development plan of course ignores many factors, such as the fact that many regions of Africa simply don't have the transportation and distribution infrastructure to support such large-scale agriculture. Not to mention the fact that most of Africa's small farmers have no desire to abandon their land, and would probably be happier and healthier as successful small farmers than as factory laborers.

So the challenge addressed in this book is finding ways to help struggling small farmers become successful small farmers, here defined as producing enough surplus beyond their immediate subsistence needs to afford them some choices about how to reinvest that small surplus. Rent a little extra land and increase their production just a bit more? Start a small chicken operation in addition to their crops? Pay for school fees to educate their children? Invest in a modest and sustainable time- or resource-saving piece of technology? The reality is that most small farmers in Africa don't have the ability to make those kinds of choices because their harvests often aren't even big enough to sustain them from one season to the next, hence the title. Foreign aid typically doesn't address this underlying problem and, while no responsible person would advocate eliminating famine relief, other solutions are needed.

The solution profiled in this book is the One Acre Fund, brainchild of Andrew Youn, MBA from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. His basic philosophy is that African small farmers are essentially a largely untapped market waiting to be served. So, that's what he does, with year-long microloans, superior strains of seed, and fertilizer, coupled with outreach and farming education programs. African farmers themselves are the main drivers of the techniques and services Youn helps them obtain. For instance, in one part of the book Youn's efforts to secure approval and distribution of a drought-resistant bean seed are detailed. Youn, however, is not the hero of this book. He does the few things the African farmers would find it extremely difficult to do themselves, like coordinate the bulk purchase and distribution of seed and fertilizer, but it is the farmers who decide how much investment they will make in the programs he offers, and it is they who pass on their experience and newly-acquired techniques to other farmers. And finally, it is the farmers who decide, once they have managed to get ahead of the bare subsistence level of production, how they are going to invest their surplus, sometimes by putting more acres into the One Acre Fund programs, but often by instead paying for education or branching out into other money-making endeavors.

The proposal that improvements in African subsistence farming could facilitate overall development is clearly not without its opponents. I'm sure development experts are right that changes like this will not result in the rapid transformation of African nations into Western-style industrialized capitalist economies. I'm inclined to think, however, that development plans should respect the wishes and preferences of the people who will be affected by them, rather than viewing them as passive instruments of impersonal goals developed by (and ultimately for the benefit of) people who know little to nothing about their everyday lives and aspirations. If one thing is clear, it's that those large-scale development plans have either not had the intended outcomes, or have not actually been implemented, given the situation we see in large swathes of the continent. Given that reality, how could alternatives be unwelcome?
July 1, 2012
One does not have to be a wonk to understand the intricacies of global hunger as many might suspect. Roger Thurow, a senior fellow for global agriculture and food policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former Wall Street Journal correspondent, proved in The Last Hunger Season that chronic, perpetual, and essentially senseless hunger in Kenya can easily be understood by anyone who reads this book. This less academic approach to analysing hunger helps put this worldwide problem on the agenda not only for those who work in the field of hunger relief, but also for those who care about people who do not have enough food to eat.

Thurow follows the lives of four smallholder women farmers in Kenya and writes in clear detail about the struggles these women and their families endure during the annual “wanjala” or hunger season. Each year these farmers must grow enough food to sell and consume and also navigate the volatile food markets during the recent economic crises where food prices have been high, but selling prices have been lower than usual. What you will find in The Last Hunger Season is despite these women’s hard work and dedication to their small farm plots economic, food and health struggles perpetually stand at their doorstep, and yet their hope, while wavering at times, is never broken.

One of the underlying themes in The Last Hunger Season is the dedication these women have for the future; that despite their current circumstances they forge every way possible for a better future not only for themselves, but for their children. These women understand that the only way out of the subsistence, smallholder farmer cycle of poverty is through education. By making sacrifices (even going without food and relying on black tea for meals) it ensures that at least one child in the family can work a job in an urban setting and lift the entire family out of poverty. It is, at times, difficult to read that some of the women would pay school fees instead of feeding their families even when their younger children are failing to thrive from malnutrition. However, the future to these women is brighter than filling their bellies and the bellies of their children.

It is important to note that the One Acre Fund, an NGO that helps small subsistence farmers yield larger crops through better seeds, fertilizers, education and working in cooperatives, is featured throughout the book. It is through the One Acre Fund that these women farmers are able to provide a better living for their families by producing more maize largely, but also growing other crops like beans. Larger crops means more food to sale at market prices and it also means more food to eat.

The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Changeis a optimal starting point for students and hunger advocates – both professional and lay – to better understand the hunger season in Africa and throughout the world and the importance of better agricultural techniques to a brighter and more productive future for these subsistence farmers.
Author 6 books22 followers
August 11, 2013
This book provides a compelling account of life as a smallholder farmer in Kenya and the work of One Acre Fund and other organizations to improve the lot of these farmers. How do you feed a family of seven on one acre? These vivid stories of several families describe how they are squeezed on all sides--vulnerable to weather, desperate to pay school fees to lift their children out of poverty, forced to sell their harvest when prices are low and to buy food when prices are high.

These are people living in mud and straw huts with no electricity, sewers, or running water, on terrible roads. They often have cell phones, however, which, as in other third-world countries, are essential to banking, communication, and outside news. That is, when they can find a way to charge them up. For months before the maize (corn) harvest comes in, they can't keep their kids fed. Weakened by malnutrition, the families are unable to fight off disease. People die due to lack of food. Unsurprisingly, the kids do not do as well in school as they otherwise could.

The solutions Thurow describes consist of bringing "the Green Revolution" to these remote areas. One Acre Fund sells the farmer a bundle of hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilizer on credit, provides training on better farming methods, helps out with crop storage methods, and takes repayment at harvest. And, per Roger Thurow, it works great--crops increase dramatically, income goes up, and the kids don't go hungry.

The book also covers the inadequacy and callousness of US agricultural aid (despite Obama's efforts), the conundrum of famine and crop surpluses in the same country at the same time, and how food aid can lead to long term food insecurity as free food destroys markets for crops.

Surely these people are suffering and surely these poor and poorly governed countries can use some help improving their agriculture. I've been to Kenya and seen oxen plowing little fields and women planting corn with pointed sticks. Two miles away we saw greenhouses the size of football fields growing flowers for the markets in Amsterdam.

I fear it's going to take more than seed and fertilizer. (And, no, organic farming is not a viable option. Anything organic is eaten by people or livestock, not returned to the soil.) The root cause of hunger is only partly food production and I cannot picture the One Acre solution as working for very long. Perhaps the boost in productivity will allow these families to find other economic activity via education so they are not dependent on these scraps of land. Perhaps the One Acre policy of encouraging groups to pull together for planting and harvesting will lead to political empowerment to address the striking inequalities. I surely do hope so.

You might consider reading The Hungry World by Nick Cullather as well, for a skeptics look at the Green Revolution.
1,146 reviews16 followers
October 12, 2014
I may be a little biased in loving this book because it holds some nostalgia for me. I finished my master's degree, which included working with some women's groups and teaching at schools where subsistence farming and learning how to provide for a family through farming was what the people did, in the area where this story takes place. So, it holds a special place for me.

But beyond that, this is a fantastic look into what life is like for subsistence farmers. The absolute cycle of poverty where it seems almost impossible to get ahead - there is no cushion, there are no choices, and no matter what you do there is always something that makes building those choices or that cushion almost impossible. It's a very personal look at farming and agricultural development, with also a lot of contextual discussion of the politics of agricultural development on national (Kenyan) and international stages.

Not only is the story good, but the writing is engaging and moves along. It's written by a journalist, which tends to help with reading books that could be obscure or difficult to get through - and this book is neither of those things. If you want to read a layman's book that will help you understand, just a little, the cycle of grinding poverty that subsistence farmers in Africa deal with every day then this is the book for you.
Profile Image for Binit Agrawal.
30 reviews1 follower
September 15, 2020
It is a must-read for anyone wanting to get an insight into the struggles of an average farming family in a third world country. The author very craftily breaks down the year in the life of an African farming family into 7 different phases. He then goes on to tell us about the struggles and choices the family has to make in each of these seasons. While doing this, the author also introduces us to the activities of a social enterprise, One Acre, which has been praised for its work across developing countries. If I am to summarize the book's message in one line: Aid works. However, it needs to focus on empowering, skilling and facilitating the work of the people in receiving countries and not on funding the coffers of inefficient governments.
Profile Image for Sally.
1,083 reviews
August 15, 2013
This is the true story of four smallholder farmers in Kenya who participate in an agricultural training program that helps increase their crop yields and promises to help them fight the hunger season in future years. Reading this made me long to go help in this work. Andrew Youn, founder of One Acre Fund, developed this program that lends seed and fertilizer to the farmers and teaches them how to maximize yield. Having enough food to feed their own families plus surplus to help with financial emergencies will make an incredible difference in these people's lives. Great opportunity to give me perspective on all that I have and take for
Profile Image for Melissa.
80 reviews
October 6, 2013
This is a really good introduction to the work that One Acre Fund does and I'm happy to have learned about the organization. It ends up feeling a bit one-sided because you don't hear too much about all the things that could potentially go wrong, but you hear some pretty amazing stories about these small Kenyan farmers trying to make a better life for themselves and their children. The book was written very recently, but already One Acre has expanded in size and it would be great to continue hearing about the future efforts and successes of the farmers profiled in the book. I'd love to be able to chart their progress over a longer term.
Profile Image for Hannah.
39 reviews1 follower
August 7, 2020
I almost didn’t finish the book because it’s practically a 300-page pyramid-scheme brochure for One Acre Fund. One Acre is a well-meaning nonprofit that has good, sustainable efforts, but it felt like I was being advertised to the entire time, which was completely off-putting. But by chapter 3, it lays off a little and really gets into the challenges for the farmers, which is enlightening.

I paired this book with Women Who Dig by Trina Moyles, a book that chronicles the lives of struggling women farmers in various countries around the world. One of the chapters is dedicated to Uganda (bordering the part of Kenya where The Last Hunger Season is set), which is a country that does not allow women to have their names on land titles yet they are the ones doing all of the work—the same is true in Kenya. Not allowing women this autonomy brings a myriad of issues, which are not discussed at all in The Last Hunger Season, even though 3 of the 4 farmers chronicled are women. Chapter 5 (pg. 181) finally, but briefly mentions the gender disparity of land owners in one paragraph, and does not discuss how this impacts many women farmers who are divorced, widowed, or have controlling or abusive husbands who irresponsibly spend harvest money. While the 4 farming families seemed to be in harmony with their marriages and money-spending decisions, those examples are the exception and I believe did not give a true illustration of the realities for the majority of farmers (women are always the ones who are doing the physical labor—these 3 women had husbands who helped). I suppose this demonstrates the difference between men and women authors, and reinforces the need for women perspectives in male-dominated sectors. Along with the constant One Acre advertising, this was a big issue I had with the book.

After reading Women Who Dig, which is a broad overview of the struggles of small farmers around the world and how systems, policies, and global food networks work together, The Last Hunger Season was a good next step, as it’s more specific and really hones in on issues and possible solutions. While there was much talk of foreign aid, the author also illustrates the discussions among the Kenyan smallholder farmers about sustainable solutions. In chapter 5 (pg. 187) the farmers discuss how if the government would support small farmers and pay them fair wages for their corn, rather than bringing in corn from foreign countries, that the whole country would be better off, which is a snippet of a larger theme of lack of government support for smallholder farmers in favor of foreign aid. The perspectives of the farmers and their desires for solutions was something I liked about the book.

Fun side note: In chapter 4, the author visits the Obama family who still lives in Kenya. I haven’t read any of Barak’s books yet, in which I’m sure he talks about his Kenyan family, but in Michelle’s Becoming, she briefly discusses her memory of visiting his family there, so it was cool to have that connection between these two books. The thought that a smallholder farmer struggled to pay school fees so a boy could go to school, and because of his education, was able to make his way to the U.S. and ultimately had a son who became the President of the United States was a mesmerizing thought. Throughout the book, the author chronicles the struggles and successes of the families meeting tuition expenses depending on the harvest, and it was intriguing to think about where those students’ lives might lead if they are able to complete their education and how intimately food plays a role in their destiny.
Profile Image for Ben.
968 reviews85 followers
March 31, 2018
This is a great story following four Kenyan farmers who participated in the One Acre Fund's education and loan program to dramatically increase their maize yields. Over the course of year, you get a good sense of their lives—of course, it is mostly mundane details, but so different from my own life that they are fascinating. In particular, Thurow describes the challenges the farmers face, including weather, fluctuating maize prices, high school fees, malaria and other medical problems. That they push through them all is inspirational—and the book ends with a followup from two years later, showing that their progress was sustained.

Thurow gives the details, being careful to point out the prices of everything. This emphasizes the farmers' poverty; relatively small amounts of money are life-changing. One Acre comes across as an amazing program. It has any number of initiatives, but the main one is organizing groups of farmers, loaning them maize seeds and fertilizer, and teaching them how to plant them most efficiently (when to plant, how to use the fertilizer and place the seeds, etc.).

Thurow himself is invisible. Mostly this works to make the narrative seem more immediate and less intermediated. But sometimes you can't help but feel that the conversations he is reporting are for his benefit, and that the farmers might be a little less perfect idealists in reality. It is disappointing that he never gives any pushback. He discusses the funding of international aid programs in Washington, DC, as if their importance is self-evident—but in fact the programs are largely disconnected from the farmers he is following. (After this, One Acre did get a government grant.) He accepts without question the farmers' critique of the Kenyan government for not propping up maize prices during their harvest—even though there was an ongoing hunger crisis in Kenya, and just a few weeks earlier the same farmers were struggling to feed themselves because prices were too high!

Thurow also seems to believe that agricultural development is the way out of the poverty trap for these communities, instead of, e.g., moving to cities where they can be more productive. While the progress made is inspirational, one can't help but wonder how far it can go; doubling the yield on a family's half-acre plot of land is huge, but it isn't even close to enough for a family with seventeen children. Obviously, development is a hard problem, but these farmers show how it can be done, with their resilience, determination, hard work, initiative, and strong investments in education. At least implicitly, Thurow clearly understands that these qualities are more important than government or NGO programs. But it all works together, and the One Acre Fund makes a huge difference.
Profile Image for Morgan Gilley.
3 reviews1 follower
January 17, 2023
I'm not sure where to start. This book is both easy to read and a dive into the issues and complexities surrounding food security issues and agricultural development in Sub-Saharan Africa. Roger Thurow has a way of writing that lets you feel connected to the topics and the people he writes about. By diving into the stories of individual communities and families, he provides his readers with a deeper connection and understanding to the issues at hand.

As an aside, I studied international agricultural development and this particular book is a great example and case study for a number of relevant topics including: food security, agricultural extension in SSA (and the reasons why privatized extension dominates it), the differences between aid and development, and change theory or Diffusion of Innovations. If I were teaching a course on Change Theory or International Extension Education, I would absolutely use this book as a teaching tool. He presents an effortless read about these mechanisms without over-burdening readers with terms. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Ellen.
513 reviews13 followers
May 6, 2018
A shill for the development agency One Acre focusing on the everyday decision making that smallholder farmers do to balance food needs, education and healthcare, and investing for the future. As someone who worked in food aid for the briefest of times I bristled at the author's statement that no other aid agencies were focused on the distribution of seeds and fertilizers (rather than simply handing out bags of USA-grown food.) Sure, some agencies do food relief but to say that One Acre is the only group out there doing what they're doing is disingenuous -- as is not discussing the larger power dynamics that cause poverty, lack of land title, and famine. One Acre does great things but needs to be set in a larger context of policy change. (Also the author was pro green revolution and eucalyptus trees, two things that destroyed Peru)
Profile Image for Kelsey Figone.
79 reviews
March 29, 2019
I saw Roger Thurow speak at the Chicago Council's annual global food symposium in 2018 and I was really looking forward to his account of One Acre Fund's start in Kenya. It was an organization and a mission that I admired. The book was a quick and easy read and I enjoyed learning about the lives of the specific farmers he profiled. However, his writing style makes it clear that he was a journalist. There isn't a lot of analysis or complexity to what he presents because of his effort to tell the story from the farmers' perspectives. Ultimately, I don't think he has enough familiarity with the setting and the protagonists to fully do that justice and I wish he had felt comfortable inserting more of his voice. He is an outsider and I wish he had embraced that perspective.
Profile Image for Alice.
41 reviews2 followers
July 26, 2018
Although there wasn’t a strong story arc, The Last Hunger Season gives an incredible glimpse into the daily struggles of a group of Kenyan farmers as they fight through the “wanjala,” the hunger season. It’s incredible to see the level on which NGOs like One Acre Fund work in providing access to hybrid seeds/fertilizer etc & agricultural training to give farmers (often women) the ability to rise out of hunger and also educate their kids to stop the cycle of poverty. Really eye-opening book for those interested in international development / a real look into food insecurity issues in Africa, told through narrative.
Profile Image for Stephanie McMillan.
481 reviews10 followers
August 18, 2019
This book reminded me of my experience in Uganda and conversations with small-holder farmers there. The women in the book were strong, capable and focused on bettering their families livelihoods. Each woman was focused on the importance of obtaining education for their children and believed education to be the path out of poverty. This book served as a reminder of the importance of investing in small-holder farmers with technology and credit rather than food aid.
June 30, 2020
An excellent look into the lives of smallholder farmers in Kenya. Thurow gives a platform for their voices to be heard, for them to tell the rest of the world about their dreams, challenges, and successes. He deftly weaves these narratives with a higher level exploration of governments’ agricultural and foreign aid policies and notes the impact of climate change on the stability of the farmers livelihood. Highly recommend.
76 reviews
October 2, 2017
Having just returned from Zambia and Zimbabwe this book hit home. Kenya is not the only country with small hold farmers struggling to survive. It was encouraging that help was offered. They have a very difficult life and I'm amazed at their tenacity and the goals of education and caring for family.
Profile Image for Lia Hulit.
142 reviews2 followers
May 22, 2017
Read this before my OAF interview. First, the org does really admirable work.. I appreciate how Thurow's interviews and human stories compliment the larger picture and what One Acre Fund is doing with farming in Africa.
Profile Image for Alex Telfar.
106 reviews87 followers
March 14, 2018
I really enjoyed this! This is a book about 'wanjala', the hunger season in Kenya. How can farmers of maize, be net buyers of maize? How can farmers be starving? These are the questions that the One Acre Fund are solving. They provide micro credit, insurance, education, fertilizer and technology (seeds).

Some thoughts here; https://act65com.wordpress.com/2018/0....
Profile Image for Justine.
168 reviews1 follower
April 11, 2019
Loved learning about agricultural development to end poverty for small farmers - loved that it’s told through the perspective of the four families. I’m excited to read more about One Acre and other NGOs working to empower small farmers.
696 reviews10 followers
May 10, 2019
Seems more important than just a 4 rating. This is a "poverty cure" type of book. The real work that changes lives. What researchers refer to as getting poor people on the first rung of the ladder - not starving part time and therefore at a deficit for life.
Profile Image for Kaylee.
29 reviews4 followers
July 9, 2019
This book was so fascinating. I read it for a class but gained a deep passion for the issue of hunger among subsistence farmers. I strongly recommend for anyone who is interested in sustainability in agriculture or eliminating hunger and poverty.
Profile Image for Judy.
18 reviews
Want to read
August 11, 2019
rec. by Julie Borlaugh
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
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