Borlaug: sowing `Green Revolution' among African leaders
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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.