By Kathryn Cawdrey
DES MOINES, Iowa — When Ruth Khasaya Oniang’o took the stage to celebrate 30 years of Sasakawa in Africa, she stepped out from behind the podium and into the crowd — her preferred way of speaking.
Oniang’o is the chairperson of the Sasakawa Africa Organization and its sister organization the Sasakawa Africa Fund for Extension Education, which are international non governmental organizations that aim to create a more food-secure rural Africa. SAA began in 1986 when Norman Borlaug, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and philanthropist Yohei Sasakawa came together to combat world hunger.
Oniang’o said she met Norman Borlaug at an event in Narobi years later when she was a member of the Kenyan Parliament.
“Everyone was so excited, and everyone was surrounding him,” Oniang’o said.
And then Borlaug approached her. He took her hand, firmly enveloped it in his hands, and encouraged her to make a change. He told her that it was the politicians that created opportunities for the hungry in India and Pakistan and now it was her turn to make that change in Africa.
“You can imagine that kind of responsibility,” Oniang’o said. She was overwhelmed by Borlaog’s goals for her.
However, she believed God wouldn’t give her a load that she couldn’t carry, so she prayed for the wisdom to grant Borlaug’s wish. And in 2010, a year after Borlaug’s death, Oniang’o became the chairperson of SSA.
Oniang’o faced many challenges leading SSA: the pressures to diversify, the goals to share scientific findings and managing the field operations. She learned on the job, taking time to learn more about organization and SSA’s history and goals.
Borlaug left an unorganized — and somewhat nonexistent — paper trail. He wasn’t a fan of administrative work or sitting in meetings; he preferred to be with the farmers. Oniang’o continues that tradition and visits farms to see how Borlaug’s technologies have been implemented. However, the books are much more organized under her guidance.
Getting farmers to discuss their experiences is a difficult thing to do, Oniang’o said, but they appreciate, embrace and adopt new technologies and are willing to move forward with SSA.
Kebba Sima, an SSA theme director for Monitoring, Evaluation Learning and Sharing, described the changes he’s seen over one year. He’s seen farmers adopting new technologies and making gains from them. SSA provides boosts to production levels and access to new knowledge and skills.
For Sima, it is really enriching to see smallholder farmers improve their livelihoods. When famers combine their previous, indigenous knowledge with the new scientific technologies, “it becomes crazy.” For him, crazy means there is a significant increase farming success, which for many SSA workers, is very rewarding.
Oniang’o said she loves to join in with the smiles and laughs of the farmers that SSA has helped. Though the organization has made large strides to enhancing the lives of farmers in rural areas, it is not done yet.
As a chairperson of SSA, founder and director of the Rural Outreach Programme and more, Oniang’o has a lot on her plate.
“People tell me to slow down,” she said. “I say, who am I to slow down?”
This story is published in collaboration with the University of Missouri. Read more about their reporting project at the World Food Prize here.