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Madonna and Africa’s Children

Madonna usually only makes headlines in the world’s tabloids. But her adoption of a boy from Malawi whose mother had died and whose farmer father could not feed him has filled opinion pages in serious papers everywhere. Her decision has raised the profile of Malawi, home to recurrent food shortages and seasonal famines.

A crucial experiment is now underway in Malawi and other places that may help to expand farm output so that other poor farmers need not surrender their children for adoption. In the past few years, there has been a sea change in attitudes among African governments towards the importance of farming. Once pushing industrialization at the expense of agriculture, African leaders routinely ignored ordinary farmers. Now they are showing a new respect for tillers of the land, realizing that the fastest way out of extreme poverty for ordinary people is to increase both farm output and crop prices.

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Yet getting farmers to grow the right crops, and more of them, is easier said than done. Farmers lack the money for crucial inputs such as fertilizer. They also lack critical skills. Sadly, African governments have failed miserably in teaching farmers improved methods.

In Malawi, for example, where nearly everyone farms for a living, a confidential study by the British government this year found that “the agricultural extension service has collapsed,” a victim of the same bureaucratic ineptitude and petty corruption that undermines public services throughout this poor country.

The costs of the government’s failure to support farmers can be seen in the stunted bodies of children and the poor diets of adults, even in a year when Malawi is witnessing bumper harvests of corn, the country’s staple. “Where are we going to get proteins?” Philere Nkhoma, an adviser to farmers in Malawi, asks. “Let’s have milk. Let’s have meat. Let’s have eggs.”

In pursuit of protein-rich meals, Nkhoma is pushing her cluster of villages, representing a thousand households in all, to begin raising chickens for eggs and meat, cows for milk, and “exotic” vegetables such as cabbage for vitamins. Her can-do attitude is matched by remarkable energy. In the space of just three weeks, she visited 96 villages to promote chicken-raising.

To be sure, Nkhoma’s ideas about how to transform the lives of peasant farmers in Africa are not new. Experts have been preaching crop diversity, irrigation, and improved soil nutrients for decades. What has been missing, however, are energetic extension workers, brimming with pride in their own people and passion for new approaches. Nkhoma is one of the best front-line farm advisers in Malawi, which is why she works on the country’s United Nations-sponsored Millennium Village, one of only 12 in Africa.

Nkhoma’s own story mirrors the shift in the status of farming in Africa. She is part of a new generation of urban Africans committed to integrating farmers and markets – and to getting their hands dirty. “The field is my office,” she says. After working for more than ten years as a government farm adviser and accomplishing little, she was chosen by a foreign donor to gain a bachelor’s degree in agriculture. After graduation, she joined the Millennium Village project, which gives her wide latitude to innovate, together with the resources to set in motion her inspired plans.

“If you have an energetic extension worker, you only need to change the mindset of the people,” she says. “When that happens, change can occur very quickly. But you must have the resources, the support. If you don’t have the resources, all your work is for nothing.”

That’s where the UN and the economist Jeffrey Sachs come in. Sachs has raised about $150 million for the villages, enough for five years of support. Each household in the project receives about $100 a year in seeds, fertilizers, and other supports. Sachs knows the freebies to farmers guarantee gains in the short run, but he’s convinced that African villagers, once freed from “the poverty trap,” can thrive on their own.

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Nkhoma wants this dream of global technocrats to become a reality for her fellow Malawians. She recognizes that any lasting transformation in African agriculture will take place, not only village by village, but also farmer by farmer. “Even if you teach people in groups, they experience their problems individually,” she says. “So I must help them one by one.” Personal assistance is “time consuming,” she admits, but it is individuals who “make the difference.”

The same is true of advisers like Nkhoma. African farmers need improved technologies and better access to agricultural markets in Europe and the United States. Instead of more Madonnas, who in the glare of global publicity saves a lone child’s life, Africa needs more Nkhomas: passionate cheerleaders with deep local knowledge and a willingness to stand alongside peasants in the fields in order to grow food for all the other children.