The Last Hunger Season (A book review)

You can buy “The Last Hunger Season” using this link.

How we will be able to explain to children why there used to be hungry people in the world?

People sometimes wonder why God would allow so much suffering in our world. Maybe instead we should be wondering why we do. – Jim Palmer

I started reading this book 8-17-02016 and finished it 8-22-02016. I had found out about it after listening to the TED talk by the founder of One Acre Fund, Andrew Youn.

You can learn more about the organization (and any other charities) via Charity Navigator. Charity Navigator is great for helping you feel at ease donating to various organizations. You can know so much about a group. You can see the salaries of the top paid people. The tax returns of the charities for the past years. Tons of information. Back to the book.

One Acre Fund is a NGO (Non-Government Organization, charity, non-profit) that works with farmers in rural Africa to provide them productive seeds and planting techniques. Most of these farmers plant .5 acres or 1 acre. The “super farmers’ plant 2 acres. The planting is all done by hand. Sometimes they are able to have their fields plowed by an animal but some just work it by hand also.

The book follows the story of several farmers in Kenya through their year of 2011 working with the new techniques and hybrid seeds provided to them by One Acre Fund. It chronicles their lives, planting season, struggles with money to feed their families, keep their kids in school, deal with illnesses and deaths and skipping celebrations because they didn’t have the money for food.

As an engineer I really appreciated how thorough the book was regarding the inputs, costs of seed and fertilizer, and outputs, what the farmers are paid for their harvest. It also chronicles how the cost of food varies by over 100% over the year and how farmers often have to sell early when the price is low and then buy later when it is high, a double whammy to the net worth (or lack of) of the individuals.

Another thing that was astonishing to me was concept of a hunger season, the “wanjala”. Many times they talked about how they would have tea for breakfast and perhaps nothing to eat during the day.

Money was talked about a lot. Always in Kenya Shillings. I found it easiest to approximate 100 shillings = $1. For example, one of the men’s salaries was 1500 shillings a month, or $15 (Page 34). To be fair, it didn’t say how much he worked, but I suspect it was more than 1 hour. They also shared the price of one man’s bean and fertilizer purchase to plant a quarter acre of beans. 1800 schillings, $18. It also records his returns, 158.8 kg x 80 shillings a kg = 12,704 shillings or $127 on an investment of $18, that’s a 700% return! If we could all get that kind of return wouldn’t we be happy? (Page 65).

The tough decisions these people face each day was eye opening. I could feel a little bit of the weight they felt as they were making decisions to sell a bag of rice to buy some medicine to treat a family member. Or the choice to sell a cow to pay for schooling for a child. While I could try to feel the weight, I really couldn’t even fathom it. How does a person in the USA even consider living on a few hundred dollars a year?

Later it discussed the various companies trying to address the challenge of storing the maize and other grains. Since sitting in air it can spoil easily if it gets wet. There are various companies working on plastic storage bins, about 6 ft tall for some of them. That doesn’t seem like a lot of storage but when you are farming an acre it can be huge! Between those companies and One Acre Fund trying to educate on farming techniques and share new seeds, there is really a lot of improvement coming about in a small time in Kenya and other parts of the world.

After I read this book I decided to read one or two reviews of it. One quote I got from this review was “Africa’s future is not as a continent of happy peasants” pointing to the successful Brazilian model – highly mechanized production and greater urbanization is the answer, enabling the children of smallholder farmers to move off the land.”

While I can understand his sentiment I would have to ask him where he thinks these small time farmers will get the money to buy small enough tractors to till 1 acre of land and make it profitable? Where will be the infrastructure to fix the vehicles when they break? I believe that Andrew Youn and One Acre Fund are doing exactly what is right for the right time in history. He is rolling out something that can be implemented immediately to allow the farmers to literally fight off days that would require them to not eat! The farmers are even doing as the writer of the article suggests and investing in their children’s futures. The children already have a brighter (less manual labor and less likelihood of hunger) than their parents and the parents futures look bright because of the kids. It should be unnecessary to mention but I will anyway, most of these people don’t have much put away in terms of money savings. The do talk a lot about diversifying their businesses as far as getting different animals and planting different crops. They are sharp people doing the best with what they have. One Acre Fund is just trying to get them the tools to do even better.

This was my 2nd favorite book I have read in the last 2 years after “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” and I would recommend anyone and everyone reads it.
Bringing this back to my opening quote, I wonder how we will be able to explain to children why there used to be hungry people in the world? I say “used to” because “I really hope I am able to look out my window in 02041 and say “There are no hungry people today.” (based on my post “The Last Hungry Person”)

Here is an article with some information about how farmers partnering with One Acre Fund are doing.

World Goal

“No battle was ever won according to plan, but no battle was ever won without one.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower

Another version

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

– Dwight D. Eisenhower

Since it’s a near year the topic of New Year’s Resolutions might be on some people’s minds but if you are serious about attaining your goals you won’t wait for an arbitrary start date. You should set them as soon as you are able to articulate them and get started.  What are your goals? If you ask most people this question they probably won’t have a very good answer. In fact I do not have perfect goals set at this point but I am developing them.

Since it seems the next 11 months will be filled with politics I can also link that in here. Politicians are really just running on what their goals are. Unfortunately they all seem to have very vague goals. Politicians are generally focused on getting elected which is just a popularity contest. As some scientists are seeming to discover, people are not smart enough for democracy to work and it doesn’t seem as if any of Plato’s Philosopher Kings are in our future.  

Our biggest goal for the world should be providing security to each person, the security to prosper independently or in collaboration with each other. People should get the opportunity to seek any position they desire. There will be people who don’t reach their goals but the fact that they got the opportunity to try is the important thing.

On a positive note according to  Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth in 2001 1.1 billion of 6.1 billion (18%) people lived in extreme poverty whereas in 1981 1.5 billion of 4.4 billion (34%) people in the world were in extreme poverty. The positive note here is that there are fewer people in poverty now and the percent is also lower.

This is a good start but it also seems to be slow progress to me. I believe with more dedication on our part (the rich of the world and if you are reading this on a computer and live in the US you can consider yourself rich, check the Global Rich List if you think you aren’t)  we could help others prosper much quicker, certainly before the end of my lifetime (which should be over 50 years) but hopefully in 20 years or less (that’s my specific goal).

Sure this is a large goal and it’s much larger than any one person. The good news is we aren’t in this alone. We are all in this together. Let’s take the historic example of another seemingly incredible goal with a short deadline, going to the moon.

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” – JFK

See the power of a goal? A problem is if we don’t know where we are, we can’t know where we are going. Most people are so wrapped up in the day to day of their lives. For some this is imperative. They have to worry about where their next meal will come from. For others their daily worry is how their stock market holdings will play out or how soon they can buy their next car or see their next movie or their upcoming vacation. Which group are you in?

The good news is that as shown above, we are on a good path and just by looking around you will see that education is pervading. You can learn more today for free than you could ever learn in the past, even if you traveled the whole world. There are free classes online from MIT. There are channels dedicated to teaching on a more fun level. There is also Wikipedia.

There are also plenty of local, national and international organizations dedicated to helping others escape the cycle of poverty. The sad thing is that these organizations are often underfunded. It’s more fun to play with cars (my own personal vice) or other things, than spend your time helping other.

It is only by bringing our collective brain power to bear on the challenges of those who have not that we can bring the whole of society forward.

The Most Important Thing

In the intro to “Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth” Buckminster Fuller’s granddaughter recalls a car ride that he asked her “What is the most important thing we can be thinking about right now?”

Here is the list of things that I thought of off the top of my head that are I am trying to determine if they are important. I think most of them are but how to decide “the most important”? I’ve probably started writing about half of these but often I find there is something else I thought was more important to write about at that time or I reached a point where I wasn’t sure what I thought about it.

How to help Syrian Refugees?
Can I “adopt” a refugee?
How to stop abortions?
How to stop senseless violence?
How to stop people from shooting each other in Waterloo, IA (where I live)?
How to effectively guide the charity I just became vice president of?
How what is my 5 year plan?
What are my life goals?
Will I ever get married?
Do I want to get married?
Why do I want to get married?
Can I more effectively “fix the world” if I’m single?
How much should I save in my 401k and how much should I invest in people?
Should I buy an electric car?
Should I sell all my “toys” and donate that money to some charity?
Should I buy a house?
What book do I want to write?
Why do I want to write a book?
Why do I spend so much time writing this blog stuff?
What is my purpose in life?
How do I be a better older brother?
Do I want to start my own company?
What would that company even do?
How do I help those less fortunate than myself?
How do I start a company that I enjoy working at, helps the world and makes money (self sustains).
What am I really passionate about?
Should I go back to college for more school or should I just learn by doing in life?
Is there a God?
If there is why is everyone telling me about their own different god’s and acting like some of them are the same god when it’s pretty obvious to me they are different?
How do I politely ask people about beliefs of theirs that I think are ridiculous?
Is it ok to be selfish sometimes?
Is it better to try to be a politician to change the world or do it outside politics?
Is it selfish to have your own kids?
Why are most Christians so obsessed with the bible but they don’t seem to remember that Paul said it is better to be single like he was?
Why do Jews have so many laws but try so hard to get around them?
Why do so many Christians leaders (pastors etc) preach “following the Bible” but forget that Paul had a full time job outside of preaching about Jesus?
How do I love more and judge less?
Should I listen when people are negative or tell them to just change their attitude and that will change their circumstances?
Instead of converting people to Christianity in places where that belief could get them killed why don’t Christians work to change the laws of that country or work to get people out of that country?
How do you motivate people to improve their situation?
What is the situation in other countries for labor? I hear about factories in China, Afghanistan, where people are paid very little and there are still effectively “company stores”. Are those true? If so how do we stop those practices?
How does my purchase of cheap stuff from other countries affect the above?
How do we expose people to the “very poor” and get them motivated to help those people?
Would religions be more effective helping people if they were less worried about pushing their doctrine on others?
What makes me happy?
What makes others happy?
What does it mean to be happy?
Is there an afterlife?
How do we store energy so we can use renewable but not consistent power sources like wind and solar?
When will the Chinese people become sick of restrictive laws like the 1 child policy and the conditions of the factories I mentioned above and have a large revolution?
How do we stop child sex trafficking, both in the USA and in the rest of the world?
Is it selfish to lift weights and eat a lot of protein and generally “be huge” while some people starve? I am not trying to be critical of people who lift weights. I am just generally interested in why we don’t help others more. This is also asked above in the 401K vs Charity question. I think about “Is this action selfish” a lot.
Why is promiscuous sexuality so stigmatized as a sin in Christian churches while obesity (gluttony) is not?
“You’ve got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation. Explain that one! – Nix (Tomorrowland – movie)

What do you think is the most important thing you could be thinking about today?

On Giving

“No one ever became poor by giving.” – Anne Frank

In 2014 the Gross World Product (GWP) was between $87 trillion and $75 trillion. GWP is a count of all the money “made” from sales of good in a year in the whole world, legal goods. That comes to $16,000 per person. This means everybody! The old. The sick. The hurt. The children.  This means that if money were divided equally each person would have about $16,000 a year to live off of. How much did you spend last year?

The Motley Fool said that the average American spends $140 a day or $51,000 a year. That’s crazy!  $51,000/$16,000=3.2 (Subtract one for yourself) So that means that the average american is using 3.2 people’s worth of money! Now I’m certainly not saying I’m exempt from this situation. I am fortunate to have a high income. I have been considering how to effectively use this gift I’ve been given. What could we do with that money instead? Give it away!

This study by the National Center For Charitable Statistics shares some facts on giving. The “normal” US family gives between 2% and 6%. Honestly, 6% was better than I was expecting, but that’s for people who make $10 million +. For us “mortals” There’s a correlation between lower wages and higher percentage of income given. Ranging between up to 4% for people making $45k while those making between $100,000 and $2 million are giving around 2.5%. While that is more money total, we should all remember the great words of Uncle Ben “With great power comes great responsibility.”

There are a myriad of reasons the “normal” person doesn’t give. One is we are afraid we won’t have enough. We compare ourselves to our neighbor who undoubtedly has more stuff than we do, but if we compare ourselves to, for example, the Syrian refugees, we seem to have a lot. If you are reading this on a computer you already have electricity and internet which puts you ahead of most people in the world. If you have electricity you likely have running water and a reliable grocery store within 30 minutes of your house. If you have a steady job you are already more privileged than most in the world.

No one told us it was good to give. Some people are just so caught up in the consumer lifestyle in the US from watching crap like Jersey Shore and The Kardasians that they think all you can do is spend money on stupid crap. For these people I will just say, stop watching that crap. Also stop going to the store to buy whatever strikes your fancy. I know the power of advertising as much as anyone. I walked into Walmart yesterday just to “Look at the new Star Wars toys” since I’m a bit of a Star Wars nerd. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with Star Wars or entertainment (besides Disney disregarding 30 years of continuum books to make boatloads of money on new toy deals but that’s an argument for another day). But the sheer volume of new toys for that is staggering! Also I succumbed to buying a handful of new Hot Wheels, naturally Fast and Furious branded. Marketing is tough stuff! That’s why it’s just better to stay away!

Another reason we don’t give more is we don’t think our money will be used effectively when given to a charity. This is a valid concern. Some people I talk to don’t want to donate money abroad because they are unsure if it will actually reach the people they are trying to help. That is a great and valid concern, but we shouldn’t let it paralyze us. There are plenty of sites that independently audit non-profits and give them effectiveness ratings. An alternative would be that you could donate to a charity in your town. Most of us spend time with people in the same boat as us, economically. We feel uncomfortable going to a different part of town where the houses are a bit run down. We should embrace those people. They are our neighbors also. The more we embrace uncomfortable situations the more comfortable we will become in them. We also might just help some of those people out of those situations and that will be good for everyone. For these people I’d reference Matthew 6:21.

“Where your treasure is there also your heart will be.”

If you are donating money to some organization and also volunteering there you will be able to be sure that your money is actually helping others. An added benefit is that you aren’t out spending money if you are volunteering!

How will we see this world improve for everyone? We have to start with ourselves. If we don’t help our neighbor, why would we expect anyone else to help them?

So how does your giving compare to the “average person”?

How does your yearly spend compare to the world per capita income? Could you live on less and still enjoy life? I’d challenge you to think about those questions.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Ghandi



There is a lot that happens around the world we cannot control. We cannot stop earthquakes, we cannot prevent droughts, and we cannot prevent all conflict, but when we know where the hungry, the homeless and the sick exist, then we can help.Jan Schakowsky

Somedays I get so frustrated with the world. There seems to be so much “bad” happening. There’s a huge boxing fight that millions of people are excited about but then a few complain that one of the boxers has been tried for domestic abuse. There is a huge earthquake ½ way around the world that I sure feel like I can’t help the victims and if I do donate to some charity that’s helping where’s my assurance that the money actually helps? Even in my own city there are shootings seemingly every week! I don’t know any of the people who are shot or how to stop it. I feel helpless.

For a while I’ve been trying to stop and actually talk with homeless people instead of just handing them money when I see them sitting by the road. I feel like if I spend some time to get to know them that perhaps I can help more than just handing them money. I finally saw the opportunity last week and built up enough courage to stop. I parked my car and walked up to the man. He was sitting on a gas can eating a Snickers. I asked him how he was and introduced myself. He said “Hello” and that his name was Giovanni. After asking a few questions all the answer I got was that he didn’t speak English much. Not a great start. I continued trying to ask a few questions.
Where are you from? What are you looking for? Do you need anything?

What I got was that he was from Romania. Apparently he had 2 kids and a brother in Phoenix, AZ. Why he was here I still was not able to understand. Another man, Greg, came walking up and introduced himself also. We talked a little more and just weren’t getting much. I handed Giovanni some money and my phone number and email address and told him if he needed help to let me know. Greg said he’d fill up the gas tank. We walked back to Greg’s truck and he and I talked a little. Giovanni started to motion to me that he wanted to talk again so I walked back to him. He motioned over to his van. I cautiously walked over there. Of course it was a suspicious looking vehicle. 2002 Ford Conversion van with all the window shades down. I was not sure if he was going to try to shoot me? Who knows in situations like that? He ended up not shooting me. Thank God. He said his van was not running good. I told him I’d come back to the same spot the next day after work and look at it for him.

The next day I was pretty excited. I was ready to help someone in need fix their broken car. This was basically what I had been training to do after years of fixing up cars! A friend at work asked what I was up to that night so I told him helping a guy I had just met fix his car. The friend was immediately skeptical replying “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Well that was not the reaction I was expecting. He then proceeded to tell me that he was skeptical of anyone who needed help and that they were likely to scam you in some way. I asked for any specific times he had tried to help someone and something bad had resulted. He couldn’t tell me of any actual instances but he did assure me his dad had some stories.

Next I asked another friend if he’d come along with me. He agreed but also shared his skepticism with me that we should be careful and that Giovanni might be just setting us up to be sued. Great! Two friends, both sure some guy I’m trying to help is only trying to scam me. Now I know why people are so reluctant to help others. The risk to reward sure seems small! I assured my friend that we’d be very careful to not do anything that seemed like it’d make us liable for anything.

I appreciated my friends advice.  After work we headed over to the spot I had agreed to the day before with Giovanni. I was happy to have a friend along since I wasn’t fully sure what I was getting into.Giovanni was there with his wife, who also spoke no English. I had brought an OBD II scanner so I plugged it into the car. It provided very few codes and none that actually told us anything was specifically wrong. I asked Giovanni to drive the car and volunteered to ride along. He and his wife both insisted that I drive but after the talks from my friends I was playing it very safe. I assured them that if there was something so wrong we’d be able to tell it from riding. We drove around a bit and my friend and I could not tell anything was wrong. We drove it to the auto parts store and asked them to perform the same diagnostic test for a second opinion. They found the same issues we did and said there was likely nothing to wrong. We thanked him and asked Giovanni to drive us back to the store. We bought a wrench and he started taking off a few parts, insisting that he’d show us what was wrong. He had told us it was the spark plugs and then that it was a few other parts. All of these we assured him were ok. Eventually having determined that there was nothing that we could do and basically telling that to Giovanni he shook our hands, said Thank You and we walked away.

I sure felt like a failure. I hadn’t fixed his car. Of course I also couldn’t find anything wrong with it. I talked with my friend about it and he assured me that we had done everything in our power at that time to help. Is that true I will never know.

Reflecting on that situation, one of the real challenges was lack of communication. True it was exacerbated by the language barrier but overall I think we understood what he was saying. That his car didn’t run good. That was not confirmed to us by the testing that we did. We were not able to clearly identify Giovanni’s need so we could not provide him the help he thought he needed. We also didn’t really understand if he was looking for work here. Why he was her and not by his kids and brother in Phoenix? Was he an illegal alien? He had shown me some papers saying he had a legal entry to the US.

This helped me think more about need. How do we know when someone is in need? Often we don’t. Perhaps it’s because we don’t have good communication with others. Perhaps it’s because people are hiding their actual needs from us because they don’t want us to think less to them? Is it a pride thing? Perhaps others don’t actually have any need?

The problem is we as a society have gotten so used to lying to each other. We do it all the time. Any magazine you read is a lie, especially the fitness magazines. We look at sculpted abs and huge muscles and it tells us we should look like that. “They” promise us this look will come easy and fast if we buy their pill. The lie comes in when the hours at the gym or the dollars spent on surgery or steroids are not mentioned. We are too obsessed with appearance.

This crosses over into our personal lives also. People are ashamed to admit that they need help for fear they will be looked down upon. Thus, we lie to each other that we are not in need. Truthfully everyone is in need of  something. Often we try to cover up our needs by focusing on something else. Usually it’s “good times”. We neglect the important aspects of our lives but spend time partying to make it feel better. Often the partying includes things that are actually harmful to us, like drinking 10+ beers, watching porn or going to a strip club. These things will make us feel happy for a short time but eventually they will make us feel worse.

Romans 12:4-8

4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your[a] faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead,[b] do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

None of us is a self made man, no matter how much you are inclined to think that. Once you make an connection and show you are willing to do a little work you will open more opportunities for yourself. Based on that, I believe we have a duty to our fellow man to help him when he is down, as we’ve all been there before and someone helped us. Often we forget the hard times when we get to the top. We only look for more to satisfy our continual hunger for success. How do we start to get ourselves back on track as a society? Perhaps we should start valuing what is actually good for us instead of what just feel good at the moment? Lets have more serious conversations at work or just with our neighbor. And after we have those conversations lets go out and DO something about the injustices we have talked about. The most important thing is to not talk ourselves out of doing something because of the tiny possibility of something bad happening to us. Ask yourself, what is the chance that bad thing actually happens? Like my story above, the likelihood is very small, especially if you are careful with what you do.

I leave you with this message from the Beatles and the challenge to expand who you think of as “your friends”.

I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends – The Beatles