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Gates Foundation specialist got her start on Kenya's farms
Posted by Kristi Heim
Mercy Karanja knows first hand what happens when money for agriculture goes away.
She was working in the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture on extension programs for farmers. The system had been funded mostly from outside donors such as the World Bank.
In the early 1990s, the country started a period of structural adjustment under guidance from the World Bank and IMF. That resulted in a complete reorganization of government budgets. One of the first things to go was support for agricultural extension services.
COURTESY OF THE BILL & MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION
For Karanja the change hit suddenly.
"The World Bank just cut the umbilical cord," she said. "It was so harsh."
She recalled receiving a notice that the following week there would no more visits to farmers to take care of cows.
"I had cows myself," she said. "It was like this is incredible. Artificial insemination requires refrigeration. Tell me who is going to invest in that?"
The cost of inseminating one cow jumped from 20 cents to $30, she said.
In 1998 Karanja left her government job and joined the Kenya National Farmers Union. She wanted to mobilize farmers to give them a stronger voice in decision making.
Farmers suddenly had to shift focus from relying on the government to fending for themselves, she said. Yet there was not enough of a private sector to support their needs.
"It was extremely painful and it has never come back," she said. "Farmers are still struggling. In my own experience this is what has caused them to really regress."
In the new scheme, the World Bank funding for agriculture was subsumed under rural development, which meant roads and other priorities, she said. As a result, money for farming went from a significant part of the budget to almost nothing.
The World Bank has since acknowledged that agricultural development is a key to reducing poverty in Africa and has increased its commitment.
Karanja was later tapped for a job in France at the International Federation of Agricultural Producers. She joined the Gates Foundation in early 2008, working under Roy Steiner on farm productivity.
The program targets small farmers living on less than $1 a day.
"We have to be more creative in reaching these small farmers," she said. One project that looks promising uses radio programs to get information out to farmers, such as how to keep plants free of disease.
As for the role of genetically engineered seeds, Karanja says she witnessed a huge debate in Kenya in the early part of the decade. Kenya has a problem with drought, diseases and productivity, she said.
"We asked transgenic proponents what does it offer us?"
Farmers in Kenya are "not ideologically inclined toward one thing or the other," she said. "They're saying give us solutions. Give me whatever medicine can make me better."
Karanja said the Gates program has made progress helping farmers, including getting more varieties of seeds distributed to agro-dealers and reaching some areas with irrigation, but it's too early to see an increase in productivity.
Drought and civil strife have taken a harsh toll in Kenya, which is experiencing hunger in regions where there was no such hunger before. People will have to take a long view of change, she said.
"Please let's keep the momentum for a little longer to create the mechanisms for the system to stand on its own."
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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