There are 2 main general approaches towards solving the problem of starvation in Africa. One consists of an immediate response to crises which have reached such a peak as to attract the attention of the rest of the world, while the other involves endeavouring to find an entry point to the vicious circle of poverty in order to break it.
The first suggestion is an unashamedly frontline relief for the effects of starvation. It is the provision to starving children of a stand-alone, ready-to-eat food which combines all the basic essentials for nourishment without the necessity of cooking, refrigeration, or mixing with water which, in many locations, would be polluted. The archetypal product of this type is Plumpynut, a concoction of peanut butter, powdered milk and powdered sugar, enriched with vitamins and minerals, which has the consistency of a paste and is supplied vacuum-packed in foil. It tastes like peanut butter but at the same time is sweet so readily appeals to children even when they have lost their appetites through deficiency-originated anorexia. Peanut allergy is almost unheard-of in Africa so is not a drawback for the product.
Plumpynut, sometimes written with an apostrophe – Plumpy’nut – was invented by a French company called Nutriset who have patented it, but argue that this is to protect the product’s quality and prevent imitations which would not have the same precise mix of ingredients which their nutritionists carefully formulated to be a miracle-cure for malnutrition. In any case, the patent is not global and the company has, significantly, helped several African countries to set up their own factories to produce it. Doctors without Borders (Médecins sans frontières) wax lyrical about the product, which can bring a child back virtually from the brink of death in a matter of 3 weeks. A day’s supply for one child costs about 1 US dollar.
The second suggestion attacks starvation closer to its roots. It involves applying ingenuity in the use of existing resources to boost agricultural productivity. One of the problems of providing education for young Africans from rural areas is that they use their new-found knowledge and abilities to escape from their old environment, either migrating to the West or becoming white-collar workers in big African cities – the Bright Lights Syndrome. If, instead, they returned to apply their expertise to the systems they grew up with, they could make all the difference in the world to their countries’ economies.
A pioneer whose own achievements support this argument is Dr Glyvyns Chinkhuntha, an accountant with no formal agricultural training, who created a model farm called Freedom Gardens in his native Malawi using organic fertilizer and a home-made, gravity-driven irrigation system. In a country which boasts the third largest lake in Africa and yet where less than 2% of farming land is irrigated, his irrigation system is a marvel of easy construction (he used just hoes and shovels) and simple maintenance and so could be readily imitated. Water is drawn from the nearby river but not much is needed because each plot is sunk two feet below ground level so that the roots of the plants are closer to the water table, and also rain soaks in rather than draining away. The organic fertilizer, made of half-decayed plant matter, enables the soil to hold onto its moisture.
Dr Chinkhuntha, whose son Daniel is continuing his iconic work, believed that Africa should have greater independence from Western donors and be allowed to foster the persevering, innovative spirit which, he claimed, developed America. He was also opposed to any kind of loan. According to him, loans distract people from thinking how to develop resources, making them worry instead about how they will meet repayments.
Freedom Gardens is a practical, home-grown and relatively small enterprise that has had an enormous ripple effect. Other enterprises, conceived with more ambitious aims in mind, have also had as their mainspring the belief that education can defeat the vicious circle of poverty and starvation in Africa. One such is the African Development Network (ADN) which likewise began its operations in Malawi. It is the example chosen to illustrate the third suggested solution.
The African Development Network, which assists development in the 3 key areas of Water, Appropriate Technology, and Enterprise Development, acts according to the belief that knowledge is power, and has the declared philosophy that ‘If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish you feed him for a lifetime.’
ADN is non-profit-making and non-aligned. It supports local and national poverty reduction programmes, and advises educational establishments within Africa on how to establish relevant courses in economic development and train practitioners in the field. It is particularly involved, in Malawi, with gravity-fed piped water systems, similar in concept to the irrigation system of Dr Chinkhuntha, and is exploring the possibilities of solar and wind energy. It has ambitions to initiate programmes in other countries, recognising, however, that they are bound to differ according to social and economic peculiarities and government priorities.
The Network comprises a group of like-minded professionals who believe that it is Africans themselves who have the genuine potential to bring about a change in their own continent’s fortunes. This change must be made not through hand-outs, but by means of a detailed understanding of the problems and the mechanisms which perpetuate them, and an intelligent application of locally sustainable solutions.
The African Development Network is an example of the kind of enterprise which can be established by energetic, right-thinking reformers. By itself it is not a complete answer to the problem of starvation in Africa any more than Plumpynut or the farming methods of Freedom Gardens. However, all of them represent a promising departure from some of the short-sighted and flawed solutions which have compounded issues in the past.