Recently, three of us from Monsanto’s St. Louis offices had the opportunity to visit a group of women in a Kenyan village. The village is approximately three miles off the equator, and we came there to learn more about the challenges the women, and many more like them throughout Africa, face each agricultural season.
In true Kenyan style, we were greeted with 20 minutes of singing, chanting and dancing when we arrived. They must have sensed our hesitancy to immediately join in. An older woman seized my hand, and with a huge welcoming smile, encouraged me to join in the celebration. Very quickly, we were all laughing and dancing and singing.
The women invited us to sit in a circle under a large tree and learn more about their group. They’ve named themselves “Gold Finger,” because they believe “women’s fingers can produce the equivalence of gold if they have the right tools and resources.”
We listened intently as they described their work to improve crop yields: preparing the soil, applying manure, planting seeds by hand, and weeding the fields. We were inspired by their commitment, enthusiasm and optimism.
This year, they were perhaps especially optimistic because they were supported by Zellipah Githui , a Monsanto researcher. Zelli, a native of Kenya, purchased corn seed and fertilizer, and arranged for an agronomist to provide guidance to the women of Gold Finger. She knows that in a good year with adequate rain, this assistance could double or triple yields. And the women would then be able to purchase other food, household goods or pay for school for their children with the additional food/income.
Unfortunately, this year the rains have not come. The entire maize crop has been lost to drought, and the women will face an extremely difficult time in the next few months to find food for their families.
This story of the Gold Finger women in the 2011 growing season is unfortunately a common reality for many communities across Sub-Saharan Africa.
East Africa is currently in the grips of the most severe drought in 60 years. Between 12 and 14 million people, mostly women and children, are in desperate need of food assistance – and those numbers are expected to rise.
The victims of this drought are very real. They are the women of Gold Finger. In spite of their efforts, they and their families will face hardship and lean times. But, they tell us they will try again in September. It’s a horrifying situation, but I’m amazed by the resilience of this community.
For those of us who have the privilege to work on the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project on behalf of our company, we recognize we must increase our efforts to deliver products that can benefit the lives of people in east Africa.
We will continue our work in conjunction with the Kenyan government, which sees innovation and improved agronomic practices as vital to enhancing food security. In the midst of this crisis, Kenya became the fourth country on the African continent to approve the planting and import of biotech seeds – knowing the technology isn’t a silver bullet, but that it can make a difference.
Our commitment to sustainable agriculture – to help farmers produce more, conserve more and improve lives – is not just a motto or slogan. It’s forging a brighter future for the women of Gold Finger and countless others like them.
By E. Vancil
E. Vancil is Director of Development Partnerships for Monsanto.