GUNCHIRE, Ethiopia--President Barack Obama is counting on an unusual mix of taxpayer dollars and investments from profit-hunting agribusiness giants such as DuPont to feed the globe's growing population.
For the plan to work, small-scale Ethiopian farmers like Tekalgna Abebe will need to greatly increase their paltry yields of corn and other crops. That will be no small achievement in a country where farmers typically plow by hand or with oxen and still plant their crops by tossing the seed willy-nilly out on the ground instead of placing it in rows.
Abebe, 38, a participant in DuPont's program, a harvested about 4 tons of corn from just over an acre of land last year, four times what he produced the year before.
The extra corn will help him pay for schooling for his four children, the oldest of whom is 8. "I am confident that my children will have a bright future," he said through an interpreter.
His village of Gunchire has a long history of food shortages, and it is one of the places that DuPont's Iowa-based seed business, DuPont Pioneer, and the U.S. Agency for International Development are testing a new approach to improve the production of corn among the millions of poor, small-scale farmers who dominate African agriculture.
The plan, part of the Obama administration's Feed the Future initiative, is to give farmers bags of nonbiotech hybrid seed and train them on how to properly plant the seeds and apply chemical fertilizers. Only 1 in 10 Ethiopian farmers who grows corn typically uses improved seeds.
Under Feed the Future, the administration is spending more than $1 billion a year to increase food production in 19 target countries. And in a novel approach to international agricultural assistance, the taxpayer funding now is being supplemented in some countries by commitments from corporations such as DuPont, Cargill and beverage giant Diageo.
The administration launched Feed the Future in the wake of the 2008 food price spikes that sparked civil unrest in some countries and brought global criticism to U.S. biofuel policies that were seen as contributing to the soaring prices.
"Feed the Future demonstrates a new model of development, one working alongside partner governments, the private sector, civil society and innovators to help the world's most vulnerable communities progress from dependency to self-sufficiency," said USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah. "This is a true expression of American values."
The initiative also is providing a modest counterweight to the billions of dollars that China is investing in Africa though the financing and construction of major infrastructure projects, including a critical freight rail line in Ethiopia, upgrades to rural roads, a hydroelectric dam on the Nile River and a mass transit project in Addis Ababa.
Critics say the administration had no business enlisting the private sector. "Corporations are accountable to their shareholders, obliged to make a profit. They are not charities. They are bound by law, but not by the public interest," wrote Sophia Murphy of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
Under the program, farmers are given seeds the first year. After that, they have to buy them.
Early results from DuPont's project in Ethiopia have shown some promise. Some of the 20 farmers say they harvested as much as four times more corn in 2013 from the same amount of land as they did the year before. They were among 320 farmers in 16 districts around central Ethiopia who received training in 2013.
More than 3,000 farmers were added this year, and that is scheduled to jump to more than 30,000 in 2015.
Farmers only recently started harvesting this year's crop, but DuPont officials say the yields should be improved again this year and that the project remains on track.
Abebe doubled his acreage this year and trained 20 to 30 farmers in the methods he learned, including the use of hybrid seed.
An older female farmer near Gunchire, Gifty Jemal, said she learned from the project to plant the hybrid seed in rows. She also used twice as much fertilizer as she did before, and made it more effective by applying it near the seeds. The extra corn meant that she had more than she needed and could sell some in the local market.
A 2010 study by the International Food Policy Research Institute estimated that Ethiopian farmers could increase corn production by more than 60 percent just by adopting commercial seeds and improving their practices on one-quarter of the nation's cropland.
But the study found in part that government control of the public-sector seed price was making it very difficult for private-sector companies like DuPont to compete.
Tekalign Mamo, a top adviser in the Ethiopian agriculture ministry, likes the competition that DuPont can provide to the local seed sector. Even though the Pioneer seed can cost three times as much as locally produced varieties, farmers will buy it because of the results, he said. He said the commercial competition creates a "check-and-balance system. This will make the locals work hard."
DuPont is expanding the project to Ghana and Zambia, two other Feed the Future countries. To support the Ethiopia project, DuPont this spring opened a warehouse with state-of-the-art equipment for cleaning and conditioning seed at a far higher speed than it could before. Properly processed seed will be more uniform in size and germination, increasing yields.
The company used the facility to process 9,000 tons of seed in 2014, more than 20 times what it sold in the country the year before.
Paul Schickler, president of Johnston-based DuPont Pioneer, insists the Ethiopian project is neither a public relations stunt nor an attempt to exploit African farmers and coax them into adopting American-style farming practices.
"Our goal is to improve farmer livelihoods, and that's in Iowa, and in China, and in Ethiopia," Schickler said.
He said improving food production in Ethiopia has to be done "farm by farm, providing them the inputs that they need, the financing that they need, but then equally important is the knowledge."
DuPont's Ethiopia business, which dates back to the end of the country's communist rule more than two decades ago, is only a blip in DuPont's agriculture division, which had $12 billion in sales in 2013. DuPont expects $500 million in total African sales in the next few years and $1 billion over the next decade, according to a plan outlining the multinational corporation's commitments in Ethiopia.
Whether Feed the Future has a long-lasting effect remains to be seen. The initiative is designed to promote a series of demonstration projects — DuPont's is one — that can be shown to increase food production and reduce hunger. But it will then be up to the countries themselves to see that successful ideas are carried out.
Ethiopia has so far been slow to act on 15 promised policy and legal changes the government made to entice the investment from DuPont, Diageo, DuPont rival Syngenta and other multinational companies. All of the changes were to have been made by April 2014; as of this summer only one had been completed.
The government implemented a new policy for regulating seeds, a critical move for DuPont. But it has so far failed, for example, to lift an export ban on grains, which would encourage private investment in farming.
Ethiopia also is hamstrung at least temporarily by the steep cost of the Chinese-driven infrastructure program. The Ethiopian government required banks to buy bonds worth 27 percent of their annual loans, a move that has made private financing harder to get for agriculture and other sectors.
Still, Jonathan Shrier, the State Department's top diplomat for food-security issues, says that relying on host governments makes it more likely Feed the Future will ultimately deliver long-lasting results.
"The old style of development was criticized in the past for creating a perpetual dependency on assistance. That's not the idea here," he said.
Signs of progress: Shoes, roofs and seeds
Melaku Admasu, the Ethiopian operations manager for the DuPont Pioneer seed business, has a mental checklist for economic improvement as he travels through the country's rural areas.
One sign, he tells a visiting reporter, is when people wear shoes as they walk along the road, rather than go barefoot. Other signs: roofs made of corrugated metal, instead of thatch; and a homestead with two huts, rather than one. The second hut means the livestock are being kept separate from the humans.
Admasu hopes his work with DuPont and the U.S. Agency for International Development's Feed the Future initiative will result in more of the latter — while also growing the company's business, which has long struggled to compete against the government-protected public seed sector.
"If we increase their productivity ... they will increase their income," said Admasu, who has been working for DuPont since 1993. "If they improve their income, we can change their lifestyle."
But he says it will take time and education to get farmers to think differently about how they farm and to take better care of their land.
"This is not something you can change overnight. You need to change the mindset of the people. You need to help them think for the future. What are you going to leave behind for your children?"