A career in the food industry helped John Craig learn something about hunger-relief efforts that bring food from parts of the world where food is abundant to poverty-stricken regions where food is scarce.
Temporary emergency relief in response to a natural disaster or political turmoil is one thing. But ongoing reliance on such efforts can tend to be self-perpetuating and breeds dependency, he said.
“It’s not a great solution, because it basically kills the economics of local production,” said Craig, a part-time Carbondale resident who along with his wife, Judy Craig, founded the nonprofit organization Eliminate Poverty Now five years ago.
“It might enable people to survive,” he added, “but not to prosper.”
So, after retiring in his early 50s from a career that included 18 years with Kraft Foods, eight as president of the Lender’s Bagels division, he and Judy decided to devote their time toward helping to eliminate poverty in Africa.
Especially in the sub-Saharan regions of Africa, the bigger problem “is that they are not growing enough food locally,” even though it is possible with training and guidance, Craig said.
By introducing the people in those regions, including women and children, to modern irrigation and growing methods, training them how to market their goods, and letting them learn to be self-sufficient, they not only can feed themselves, but they can start to make a living, Craig said.
SEEDS OF CHANGE
Farmers of the Future is one of several programs funded by EPN that are aimed at teaching self-sufficiency, including instructional programs that help empower women to earn a living and scholarships that provide secondary education opportunities for children.
Currently, EPN funds programs in four African countries, Kenya and Rwanda in the east, and Benin and Niger in the west-central part of the continent.
Niger, in particular, “is literally the poorest country on earth,” Craig said, citing the 2013 UN Human Development Index rankings.
Eighty percent of the 17 million people in the Niger live in rural areas just south of the Sahara desert and depend on rain-fed crops for their livelihood. But, with regular drought in two out of every five years, the food supply is at constant risk.
The result is that subsistence farmers are trapped in a cycle of endless poverty. They also view farming as simply a “way to live,” Craig said, rather than a way to make a living.
The region actually has a large underground aquifer that’s fairly shallow, but it has remained mostly untapped without the introduction of modern irrigation techniques.
Craig explains that Farmers of the Future was the brainchild of Professor Dov Pasternak, a world-renowned agricultural scientist from Israel who helped develop drip irrigation technology. Now in his mid-70s, he has devoted his life to growing crops in extremely arid conditions.
With funding assistance from EPN and its supporters, including Rotary Clubs in the Roaring Fork Valley, Farmers of the Future has worked on a pilot basis for the past three years to help a handful of small farmers make the leap from growing primarily rain-fed crops to using intensive farming practices through irrigation.
“Through the use of irrigation, they can increase the economic value of a one-acre plot of land 20-fold,” Craig said.
Instead of relying solely on the traditional field grains that they’ve grown for centuries, they are now able to grow vegetables and fruit trees, and are raising small animals like sheep and goats.
“It’s an opportunity for them to have a balanced diet, and it addresses poverty, hunger and malnutrition all in one shot,” Craig said.
Special emphasis is placed on training women in sustainable farming practices, and the concepts are being taught in the local primary schools so that the next generation can learn to be sufficient.
GROWING MORE ROOTS
“Rotary has been meaningfully involved in helping to fund the pilot phase of the project,” Craig, a member of the Carbondale club, said of the $80,000 so far that has come from the Carbondale, Mount Sopris, Snowmass Village and Aspen clubs, with matching support from the District 5470 and Rotary International.
Four Rotary clubs in Toronto, Canada have also participated.
Through the pilot program, the project has provided the infrastructure and working capital for three years of training.
Farmers of the Future is now working to take the program nationally with a rigorous quantitative test by establishing 15 test plots and 15 control villages.
This summer, a new $3 million fundraising effort was launched with the goal of beginning implementation as soon as possible.
The ultimate goal is to expand the curriculum to 1,000 primary schools in the country, Craig said.
“With that level of exposure, we feel like it will be enough for people to see how agriculture can change lives,” he said.
The Craigs also assist with the ground training teams with regular trips to Africa, usually twice a year, he said.
For more information about EPN, visit their website at www.eliminatepovertynow.org