Dr. Florence Chenoweth, 2011 Africa Prize Acceptance Speech

October 22, 2011

My dear friends, greetings from Liberia. I thank all of you immensely for being here tonight. I take your being here as an expression of your own concerns about world hunger and poverty, which, I must sadly tell you, can only be described through data and statistics that catalog death, disability and suffering.

As you are aware, the world population has hit seven billion, and we are now facing a hunger crisis unlike anything we have seen in over 50 years. The 2011 World Population Report carries the theme, “A World of Seven Billion.” Threats to the world’s supplies of food and water are looming.

Against this backdrop, let me highlight just a few facts and figures. According to the United Nations (UN), over one billion people in our world live in poverty. Poverty impacts hunger and food insecurity like nothing else. It is multi-dimensional. It involves lack of income, ill-health, illiteracy, and a lack of access to basic social services. And, there is almost no opportunity to participate in processes that affect people’s lives.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the number of hungry people in our world now stands at an estimated 925 million. This is the plight of millions who share space in a world where, ironically, there is already enough food to feed every man, woman and child.

Hunger is exclusion: exclusion from the land, from jobs, from income and from life and citizenship.

Tonight, when someone goes to sleep on an empty stomach, he or she will have endured yet another day of not enough food and another day of being viewed as an object of sympathy. And, tomorrow, those who survive the night will go on hoping and dreaming that they will be seen accurately as people fighting for a fundamental human right — the right to food.

The right to food is not a utopia. I know that it can be achieved.

Just last week, at the World Food Prize events in Iowa, I was happy to see the former Presidents of Brazil and Ghana receiving the 2011 World Food Prize for ensuring food security in their respective countries. I was inspired by the political will that they showed to support and win the fight against hunger in their countries. I firmly believe that the same can happen globally if everyone commits and contributes to make it happen.

My wakeup call on the issue of hunger came when I was 17 years old and just finishing Grade 11. One rainy morning, an official from the National Civil Service Agency of my country Liberia, a gentleman named Mr. Kromah, came to my school to talk to us about career choices and opportunities for employment. Mr. Kromah did something that was routine for his agency: catch young Liberians before they left high school and enlighten them about opportunities for qualified people in the labor market. As always, the conversation started and ended with encouragement for us to go on to college and go as far as possible. He talked about agriculture as a career choice. Agriculture was nowhere on my list of “what I will be when I grow up.” I don’t remember everything he said, but I do remember every word he said about hungry people who were suffering even to the point of death, and about the need for Liberians to choose agriculture as a field of study.

Because she knew that there were hungry people out there, my dear mother, who was a professional nurse, tried to get her children not to waste food. She succeeded in getting us to eat what was on our plates. But I must confess that many days when I looked at some of the “good-for-you” stuff, I thought, “Oh how I wish those hungry people were here to eat the stuff that I do not like.”

I remembered Mr. Kromah’s message. It hit home. Because one day, I threw my list of likely future careers out the window, and I resolved that I would study agriculture. And since that day, I have never looked back!

I committed to grabbing every opportunity to make a difference. I committed to push for actions that would strengthen the governmental institutions dedicated to fighting hunger and poverty. Governments hold the center of political will. Government policies set the framework for individuals, businesses and civil society to contribute to the fight against hunger.

I am also committed to fighting for gender equality, which is intimately linked to hunger and food insecurity, and must be addressed at global and national levels. Globally, women produce more than half of all food grown. This is likely to be the case for years to come, even though there are many struggling and hardworking male farmers. Statistics contradict the stereotype of the farmer as a man, and the trend in many parts of the world towards feminization of agriculture is now recognized.

In sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, women produce up to 80 percent of basic foodstuffs. In Asia, between 50 and 90 percent of the work in the rice field is done by women. In fact, after the harvest, rural women in developing countries are almost entirely responsible for storage, handling, stocking, marketing and processing. They play a crucial role as custodians of genetic diversity, and cultural knowledge on the varieties and uses of food for medicine and other applications. In rural and urban areas all over the world, women bear primary responsibility for feeding their children and their families. They spend a higher proportion of their income on food for the family, and they are largely responsible for cooking and food preparation.

In Liberia, empowering rural women is a key part of the policy and strategy to rebuild our agricultural sector. We spend a lot of time and effort making sure that we get the process right. A process of empowerment has to “fit” a particular group and their particular set of circumstances, and it has to line up with a predetermined goal.

For example, after over 20 years of civil unrest, massive displacement of people in and out of the country, and equally massive loss of lives and livelihood, getting a targeted group of women in the country empowered through access to adult education, was a predetermined goal set by the women themselves and fully endorsed by Government. These women told Liberia’s newly democratically elected President Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (“Mama Ellen” as they affectionately call her) in December 2005: “Top on our list is that you help us to learn to read and write because we believe that not being able to do so increased our suffering and pain during our war days.” She has kept that promise and today, rural women and men, as well as those in urban areas have access to adult education facilities, with more being built to improve accessibility.

In addition, at the national level, actions are being taken, admittedly slow and tedious, to change all policies, legal institutions, civil codes and laws. Getting information about these actions to women is done through rural radio programs. It’s done during training sessions, as well as through the extension workers.

Empowerment entails that women acquire a critical awareness. In other words, for them to be able to say, “I can define my goals and I can take action to work toward achieving them.” It is a very powerful statement.After a quarter century of civil war and political instability, and facing overwhelming reconstruction and development challenges, Liberia’s newly elected government quickly identified an agenda for development that prioritized agriculture and food security. Over the last several years, the Ministry of Agriculture has made significant achievements in strategic planning and policy formulation; in intensifying agricultural production and productivity; in concession negotiations and agreements; and in building human and institutional capacities.

In five years, a vigorous program called “Operation Eliminate Hunger” with the theme “Back to the Soil” has:

  • empowered over 255,000 farmers at the village level;
  • trained County Agricultural Coordinators through the Farmers Field School to improve production, processing and marketing of on-farm and off-farm commodities;
  • trained 20 vet technicians;
  • established two veterinarian labs; and
  • hired four veterinarian doctors to assist in rebuilding the animal population that had been completely decimated;

There was a full revitalization of the fisheries sector. There was an increase in rice production that now allows for purchase of local rice by the World Food Programme under the Purchase for Progress initiative for their 1,400 school feeding programs. And, the sale of home-grown rice in the Liberian local market and in supermarkets has increased. We are now self-sufficient in terms of certified seeds for both paddy production and seed multiplication.

In January 2011, we proudly announced a scientific breakthrough in seed rice production, in that for the first time in the nation’s history, Liberia has produced foundation seeds known as WITA-4 and WITA-19. In 2010/2011, we had a net savings in rice imports of 36 percent.

Dear friends, as I reaffirm my commitment to fight in every way that I can in order to achieve a world without hunger, I call on you to join in and support the bold and urgent steps we are taking to address the root causes of this global crisis.

I commit to using the Africa Prize money to start a foundation which will train women farmers in Liberia to upscale food production and therefore improve their livelihood.

The world is waiting for us to do what is moral and right. The world is waiting for us to find ways and means to remove the obstacles that keep us from ensuring that every man, woman and child lives a life free from hunger and poverty.

My dearest friends, our world is waiting. Thank you!