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How to Help the African Dust Bowl

As agricultural science in Africa moves forward, governments must ensure that farmers can make the best use of new innovations. Government investment paves the way for private-sector investment, which could be a game-changer for farmers who have operated at subsistence levels for far too long.

SEATTLE – Picture a small farm under a blazing hot sky. An intense drought is afflicting the surrounding region, prospects for the next harvest are bleak, and the financial system lacks the capacity to provide the loans farmers need to get by. This scenario describes today’s southern Africa, which is in the grips of an epic drought. As it happens, it also describes eastern Nebraska in the “Dust Bowl” years of the early 1930s – a period through which my own family lived.

My father, Ralph Raikes, was the first in his family to graduate from college. After working for Standard Oil in California, he stopped by his parents’ farm on his way to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he planned to pursue graduate studies at MIT. He never made it. He had to stay in Nebraska and help my grandfather save the family farm from the banks, which had already repossessed one-third of the land.

The most important change my father made was in his mindset: he came to think of the farm not as a subsistence operation, but as a family business. He turned to the University of Nebraska, where he had received his undergraduate degree, and acquired hybrid corn and other improved seeds that the university was developing. Then he tracked inputs and weather conditions, which was rarely done at that time.

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