Averting Famine, Acting Early

Innovations to end hunger: from farmers to fisherman


M. S. Swaminathan, the "Father of the Green Revolution in India".

It is the cruelest form of inequity: denying a child at birth the opportunity to fully express his or her innate genetic potential for physical and mental development. And yet every night nearly one billion children, women and men go to bed hungry.

Maternal and foetal under-nutrition constantly leads to children being born disadvantaged through low birth weight. Such children suffer from many handicaps in later life including impaired cognitive abilities. We cannot allow this unpardonable condition to continue. The world is not short of ideas on social protection against hunger, so adopting a 'business-as-usual' attitude is no longer acceptable. What we need is innovative thinking, action and efficiency. And it is happening in the least expected places.

Today, hunger and poverty have come to occupy a high place in the national and international political and public agenda. What kind of innovative approach will help then to rescue our planet from widespread hunger and deprivation? The answer lies in transformational technologies. At this precise moment they are changing the lives of the producers of food - of farmers and of fishermen - in their everyday work.

There are today uncommon opportunities for introducing a pro-nature, pro-woman and pro-poor orientation to the war against hunger. India has 700 million mobile phones. We are now able to reach people with messages at the right time and in the right places. Almost everybody in the village has a mobile phone, which is why we are concentrating on developing Village Knowledge Centres. Here, local people have ownership; they - particularly the women - run and manage the centres. These are centres where the agricultural and nutritional information that families and farmers need is at hand, ready to be shared by fellow community members.

Most of the 200 knowledge centres we operate are paid for by the local villages and although the physical infrastructure exists, funds are needed for training, capacity building, and content creation. Government should provide adequate resources for establishing more ICT-based Village Knowledge Centres to be operated by the local communities, in particular rural women, as experience shows that bridging the digital divide is also a powerful method of bridging the gender divide.

People ask if knowledge centres can take root in Africa. The answer is 'Yes', but they require transformational leaders with an empathy towards the poor, who are gender sensitive, and who are willing to give time to help bridge the digital divide. What this will demand is a whole army of trained people who are both professionally competent and highly socially motivated.

Mobile phones ¬ all 700 million of them in India - are transforming how we work. An example: fishermen who go out to sea are able to have data on wave heights, location of fish shoals and so on. Thus small fisheries that used to spend about 10 hours a day in the ocean are now able to return within two hours with a good catch of fish. After the tsunami of December 26, 2004, fishermen were afraid of venturing into the sea over a long distance. They are now able to set out with confidence, aware of the likely wave heights at different distances from the shore. For small family farmers in India, the monsoon and the market are two major determinants of income security. Today it is possible to convey reliable information through mobile phones on the likely behaviour of the monsoon, as well as the market. This transformational technology transforms the way people operate, the things they know, and enables them to own their lives.

Meanwhile, one of cheapest and most efficient ways of overcoming many of the underlying problems of malnutrition is to converge agriculture, nutrition and health programmes. That is, to marry agricultural and nutritional considerations. That's exactly what we are trying to do in India - in our 200 districts where malnutrition is high we are building nutritional literacy among farmers. By 2020 we should see a vast improvement and much more speedy impact on health and human nutrition. We are making local people in charge of this innovation, and what they need is both dynamic information and generic information that they then manage themselves.

UNICEF is a powerful leader in this struggle for a hunger-free world and healthy and happy children. By mobilizing transformational technologies and leaders UNICEF will be able to assist all nations accelerate progress in the elimination of hunger and increase the growth of sustainable livelihoods.

M. S. Swaminathan is known as the "Father of the Green Revolution in India". He is the chairman of the National Commission on Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Security of India.