One Kenyan man's mission: free Africa from yoke of aid

With a few radical ideas and a band of scrappy followers armed with hoes and pitchforks, a self-taught economist from Kenya is trying to set Africa free - liberate it from the billions of dollars in aid it receives every year from rich countries.

The US alone spent $3.3 billion on aid to Africa last year. But James Shikwati - along with an increasing number of Africans - argues that rich-nation aid often ends up fostering a welfare mentality that mires Africans in dependence and sloth.

With famine and food aid currently on the rise in Africa, his critique is timely and tough. "We need to grow up," Mr. Shikwati says of Africa. "But if daddy" - the West and its aid groups - "is always helping, when will we?"

In this famine-prone area of eastern Kenya, he's begun a hunger-fighting project that involves changing attitudes, not doling out money or food.

He's encouraging traditional farmers to think like entrepreneurs and develop their own new methods and tools. And he's persuading agribusiness firms to view residents here not as famine victims but as potential customers. By connecting producers and suppliers, he aims to jump-start new markets, and break dependence on food aid.

And Shikwati isn't alone in challenging the Western aid system.

"Donors need to abandon the idea that the solution to Africa's problem is money," argues Andrew Mwenda, a Ugandan economist and radio talk show host. "In fact, money may be Africa's Achilles heel." Shoveling food and money into Africa "makes African governments lose the incentive to invest in long term solutions," he says.

But Shikwati knows his ideas need to be proven. That's where the farmers come in.

Driving through the region, past tin-roofed shops with Coke signs everywhere, he muses, "If agriculture companies were as aggressive as Coca-Cola, everyone would eat." Local farmers cultivate tiny plots with ancient methods. He says of them: "We are pushing for people to own the problem - so they can come up with solutions."

Many NGOs operate here - and Kenyan politicians come to hand out Western-provided food in return for votes.

Politicians and aid organizations have created a system that "encourages laziness," says Aaron Kitaka, vice-chairman of the Kalawani Mwanzo Self-Help Group, which Shikwati's Inter Region Economic Network helped start. "A farmer knows the government will bring food, so he doesn't work."

So group members like David Muthoka are trying new approaches. This year, after joining the self-help group and getting new ideas, for the first time Mr. Muthoka bought hybrid seeds to mix with the cheaper, less-hearty variety he's long used on his two-acre plot. He also plans to buy as much commercial fertilizer as he can afford - to add to the natural fertilizer he gets from his two cows.

He hopes the small investments will bring a better crop, so he can save money to buy more high-quality seeds next year and eventually become a commercial farmer, not just a lone man tending his tiny plot. Indeed, the self-help group aims to leverage its growing bargaining power to extract lower prices from seed sellers next year.

The group also aims "to come together to create a bait for the seed companies," explains Shikwati.

"More and more we're diversifying into small-holder areas" like Kalawani, says Peter Veal, head of Syngenta East Africa, a division of a Swiss agribusiness giant.

For such firms, adjusting to this market requires flexibility and creativity. One shift: Downsizing seed-pack size. Poor farmers have money, Mr. Veal says, but not enough to buy 10-pound seed bags. Next year he expects to sell one-pound bags, which will enable him "to access the money in people's pockets much better."

He and other executives are also brainstorming about how to nurture this market. Unlike NGOs, though, the corporate motive isn't charity but long-term self interest. And that, Shikwati says, makes a difference. Companies are more attentive to locals' needs, he argues, and more committed to a long-term presence. It's a premise many take issue with - saying companies are liable to exploit poor farmers.

Either way, Veal knows he'll have to be patient. The move into these areas "is going to really impact on our bottom line," he says confidently, "but maybe not until 2010."

Meanwhile, NGOs in Africa are increasingly scrambling to meet pressing crises that can't be ignored while longer-term programs like Shikwati's take root.

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