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Subsistence to Surplus: How Gifty Went from Barely Making Ends Meet to Meeting President Obama

By USAID Bureau for Food Security & Deputy Coordinator for Development for Feed the Future

Gifty Jemal Hussein met President Obama this week during his visit to Ethiopia. Read on to find out how she transformed her life from a subsistence existence to extraordinary success that’s benefiting her entire community—with a little help from the United States.

Gifty was a typical smallholder farmer in Ethiopia. She grew Ethiopian banana, corn and a few coffee plants in her backyard to feed her family and earn a meager income to make ends meet.

Harvests were low and unpredictable. Land was limited. This was life.

But 2013 was different.

In 2013, Gifty planted her small patch of land with new corn seeds, using techniques she’d learned from a development program in her community. She used just the right amount of fertilizer and checked on the corn stalks as they grew. When it came time to harvest them, she exclaimed to herself: Thank God! Her crops had yielded three times as much corn in a single season as before.

It seemed almost too good to be true. She touched every ear of corn she’d harvested. The results were real.

Gifty was so surprised, happy and proud of her harvest that she laid the ears of corn out in front of her house for all to see. She went door-to-door telling others and inviting them to see it with their own eyes. She took a quarter of the harvest to her four adult children in the capital city.

Her neighbors, impressed and happy for her, wanted to know how she’d managed to turn a sparse backyard garden into an abundant farm.

Unlocking Agriculture’s Potential

Gifty had been a leader in her community before 2012, but it took on new meaning now. People were paying more attention. She had newfound confidence that life could change—and she would be the one to make it happen.

Gifty went to the local government and asked to lease one hectare of land – for free – for her women’s group to farm. She rented a tractor with her own money to plow the land. She gathered other women in her community to help her sow the corn seeds that had given her a bumper harvest last season and then apply fertilizer, which she bought on her own.

As the corn grew, she brought the 20 women in her group to show them how tall the plants were getting. Then she asked each to invest in this farming venture – to become stakeholders in their shared success. Each woman paid a portion to compensate her for the cost of the tractor and fertilizer. The following season, they also helped buy the seeds.

“It isn’t reasonable to invest in something that doesn’t give you a return,” Gifty said. “So I don’t invest in the [old seed], instead I invest in the new hybrid seed.”

Gifty and her group opened a savings account for the income they were earning from better corn harvests. With it, they’re making investment plans for the future and have a safety net for tough times.

Women representatives visited from other districts to see the group’s bountiful corn crop. They were so impressed that they gifted Gifty a set of farm tools to honor her for her initiative and entrepreneurship.

Taller plants and larger ears of corn translated into more income for Gifty. She’s invested the returns into her farming enterprise, buying a cow, which she’s leveraged into an additional revenue stream by selling the milk and calves. With this money, she’s purchased extra seeds to grow more nutritious and lucrative crops liketeff, cabbage, carrots and potatoes. She’s expanded the number of coffee plants she grows too.

Gifty is also using her income to improve her family’s standard of living. She built a new home—her proudest undertaking. She’s paid for her husband’s medical treatment for a disability he has and for her son’s final years of high school. She even had enough to contribute to one of her daughters’ weddings.

From Individual Success to Global Impact  

Fortunately, Gifty’s story is less and less unique these days.Rural communities across countries like Ethiopia are establishing a new normal: One with less poverty and hunger and with more prosperity and opportunity.

Smallholder farmers, with help from the United States, are moving from barely surviving off their farms to running profitable farming businesses—ones that give them enough income to pay for things like school, health care and new homes.

Rural communities across countries like Ethiopia are establishing a new normal: One with less poverty and hunger and with more prosperity and opportunity.

In Ethiopia last year, the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative helped more than 218,000 producers like Gifty use new technologies and management practices to increase their yields.

And through nutrition programs, the U.S. Government reached more than 1.3 million young children in Ethiopia with help—including training more than 20,000 adults in child health and nutrition.

Results like these add up to impact, in the lives of individual farmers like Gifty and – increasingly – nationwide. Between 2011 and 2014, stunting – a measure of malnutrition often associated with undernourishment – among young children dropped in Ethiopia by 9 percent. This impact reflects the leadership and efforts of the Government of Ethiopia as well as U.S. Government.

The United States has led the world in taking hold of the tremendous opportunity to unlock the transformative potential of agriculture to connect more people to the global economy and pave a path out of poverty through initiatives like Feed the Future and partnerships like the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.

In fact, as President Obama was meeting with Gifty today, we announced that the program that helped Gifty jumpstart her success with new seeds – a public-private partnership between Ethiopia, the United States and DuPont Pioneer – is expanding to reach 100,000 more farmers and help them flourish, much like Gifty has.

The work is far from finished, but the results and impact are promising. The future looks bright for rural families like Gifty’s.

This post originally appeared on the USAID blog.

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