NAIROBI, KENYA — SOME people never give up.
In the 1930s, Norman Borlaug toughed out the Depression on a small Iowa farm and kept his family fed.
Thirty years later - by then an expert on wheat and other food crops - he decided he could not sit by and watch hundreds of thousands of people dying of starvation in India and Pakistan.
So he took his knowledge to the region and helped both countries start growing enough to feed their people. His efforts, which spread throughout most of Asia, became known as the ``Green Revolution,'' in which major increases in wheat and rice production saved millions of lives. In 1970, he received a Nobel Peace Prize for his work.
Then, in 1985, while settling into well-deserved semiretirement, he got a phone call from Ryoichi Sasagawa, the Japanese tycoon whose business dealings and ignominious past shadow his philanthropy.
Mr. Sasagawa had watched the 1983-84 famine in Ethiopia (which claimed an estimated 1 million lives) with the same anguish Mr. Borlaug felt watching the Asian famine. So he asked Borlaug why no one was spearheading a major effort to boost food production in Africa. (Sasagawa, a one-time war criminal and member of the Japanese parliament, has made billions of dollars since the 1950s in speedboat gambling - money that he has in turn used for political gifts and charitable contributions.)
On a recent stopover in Nairobi, Borlaug recalled his reply to Sasagawa: ``I said `I'm too old to start now.' The next day he [Sasagawa] called back and said, `I'm 15 years older than you are, you should have started yesterday. So let's start tomorrow.' ''
With that, Borlaug plunged into the thick of African agriculture. In the past eight years, he has crisscrossed the continent, talked with hundreds of farmers, and laid out strategies for increasing production. He cites significant successes using his strategy of improved seeds, fertilizer, and weed and moisture control.
Now, at 80, he is aiming for bigger stakes than just local farmers. He wants to persuade at least a handful of African heads of state to begin national strategies for boosting food production. His immediate targets are Ghana and Benin, where farmers participating in his program have doubled and tripled their yields, he says.
The program, started in 1986, is simple: A small team of staff members visit farm communities and create trial plots using fertilizers and good-quality seed. Local farmers can then view the results and enroll for training.
Borlaug and Masataka Minagawa, Sasakawa's representative, are planning meetings with senior African officials to discuss national strategies. They also plan to lobby the World Bank, the United Nations, and other organizations to gain support for trimming Africa's heavy loan-repayment burden. Borlaug calls such repayments to Western donors ``extra baggage,'' which African nations cannot afford and which limits their ability to buy large amounts of imported fertilizers and other materials.
He is optimistic about this new phase of his work in Africa. ``That fire still burns,'' he says. ``I'm gonna' win bouts here in Africa in the next five years.''
As president of the Sasakawa Africa Association, he works with Global 2000, a project of former US President Jimmy Carter, and has established programs in Ghana, Tanzania, Benin, Togo, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Sudan.
The stakes in the effort to grow more crops in Africa are very high. Nearly 20 million people in eastern Africa need emergency food aid this year due to drought and civil strife, according to the United States Agency for International Development. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has reported that ``sub-Saharan Africa faces a massive food deficit in 1994.''
Africa also needs to grow more food to keep pace with its population growth. Population in sub-Saharan Africa is growing at 3 percent a year and food production at less than 2 percent, notes Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a private research organization in Washington. He predicts that poverty in Africa will increase by 40 percent by the year 2000.
Meanwhile, African farmers are running out of decent farmland. Until now, farmers have simply cleared new land to increase production to help feed more people, Mr. Pinstrup-Andersen says. From now on, they will have to either clear fragile lands not suitable for farming or coax greater yields out of existing farmland, he says.
That's where Borlaug comes in. Despite arguments by some environmentalists and others against greater application of chemical fertilizers, Borlaug says that without increasing their use, African farmers cannot make the needed breakthroughs in food production.
China, India, and Pakistan all made progress in food production using a combination of organic and chemical fertilizers, he says.
But it takes more than just fertilizers. Borlaug says seeds must be planted at the right time, moisture (from rain or irrigation) must be conserved, weeds need to be controlled, and farmers need financial credit and adequate roads from field to market.
``If you can get the inputs [supplies such as seeds] and transportation, pricing ... in halfway decent balance, you can double and even often triple yields,'' Borlaug says of corn and sorghum.
So can a ``Green Revolution'' take root in Africa?
The differences between Asia and Africa are great. Africa's soils and climate are far less suitable than Asia's for extensive rice and wheat planting. Africa is much drier than Asia. Eighty percent of Kenya, for example, is either arid or semiarid.
``A lot of the [food production] increases in India and Pakistan have been with irrigated agriculture,'' says Donald Thomas, an associate professor of soil and water conservation at the University of Nairobi.
But irrigation schemes in Africa have often proved costly and ineffective. The Bura irrigation project on Kenya's Tana River, for example, was to have been a showcase, Professor Thomas says. But it has ``virtually collapsed'' in part due to the high price of pesticides for cotton, which was intended as the main cash crop.
Irrigation also affects the use of fertilizers. ``[Chemical] fertilizers are worthwhile where you have irrigation or good rainfall,'' Thomas says. In risky areas, ``you plant the seeds, buy your fertilizer, and if it doesn't rain, you've thrown your money away.'' Organic fertilizers do better in dry areas, but most African farmers do not make good use of them, he says. Pollution from chemical fertilizers is not a major problem in most of Africa because the quantities used on the typical small farm are minute, he adds.
Increased food production in Africa is ``going to have to happen, or the world is going to be worse off,'' Borlaug insists. ``And the heads of state better come to recognize that. Also the World Bank.''
The consequences of not making major food-production gains in Africa could be grim, he warns: ``People who are hungry are pretty volatile.''