By ARIEL DAVID and TOM MALITI
AHERO, Kenya (AP) -- Joram Abiero remembers it was not too long ago that his neighbors went to bed hungry.
Now they and thousands of others in the lowlands of western Kenya are able to get year-round work as farm laborers or earn money from their once-neglected rice paddies. The government's investment in a rundown irrigation project has revived a rural economy that was in the dumps for years.
The discernible change a season's harvest of rice has brought to the western Kenyan town of Ahero also helps illustrate a message the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has trumpeted this year: governments need to invest more in agriculture to reduce the number of people who need food aid -- currently one in six people on the globe.
Heads of state and government from around the world gather in Rome on Monday at an FAO summit to explore new strategies. The summit's top goal is to rally the world behind a change in aid policy, and to secure a pledge to spend more money to develop agriculture in poor countries.
Kenya's program could serve as a model for a radical change in aid policy -- getting people to feed themselves.
"When they wake up, there is somewhere they can go and work," Abiero said of his neighbors Friday as he sat at the edge of the four-acre paddy he's had since 1968. "Before they used to go to sleep hungry and did not know whether they will be able to get food the following day."
At a different plot, Erka Adhiambo Okiki echoed Abiero's thoughts as she trudged through the paddy, pulling out weeds. Okiki said she prefers to work as a laborer in the rice fields, even though she grows maize and arrow roots on her own small plot.
"I have found maize does not do so well because it either rains too much or too little," Okiki said. "I come here (the rice paddies) to get my daily income."
Okiki earns at least $3 a day. Importantly, there is work throughout the year.
Ahero rice farmers have been able to sell their surplus to the U.N.'s World Food Program, Kenya's national food agency, the National Cereals and Produce Board, among others.
Mugambi Gitonga, a senior official of Kenya's National Irrigation Board that revived the Ahero Irrigation Scheme, says there is a dramatic change in people's lifestyles.
For Ahero's carpenters, "the best selling items were coffins. People were dying of so many diseases," says Gitonga, the board's chief planning officer. "Now the best selling items are furniture. Ahero is thriving."
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, which is hosting the three-day summit at its Rome headquarters, says the share of international aid allocated to agriculture has plummeted from around 19 percent in 1980 to 3.8 percent in 2006.
Only recently has this trend started to reverse, but in the meantime high food prices and the financial meltdown have pushed the number of hungry people this year to a record 1.02 billion people -- nearly a sixth of the world's population.
Small farmers in the developing world could feed themselves and their compatriots if only they had access to basic items like seeds, tools, irrigation systems as well as training and infrastructure such as storage facilities and roads from fields to markets, FAO says.
But with food prices relatively low until the spike in 2007-2008, government and private investors felt there was less need to put money into agriculture, said FAO economist Kostas Stamoulis.
Money was diverted instead to less complex and more attention-grabbing projects.
"Agriculture lost its glitter," Stamoulis told The Associated Press. "It's much more media-friendly to go cut a ribbon in a hospital or a school rather than mess around with agriculture research or water projects."
The 2,200-acre Ahero Irrigation Scheme in Kenya offers an example of how a poor nation's government investing its own money in agriculture, with some outside help, can make farming attractive once more.
The National Irrigation Board revived the scheme in 2005, repairing or replacing equipment neglected for close to a decade and re-establishing contact with farmers. FAO then provided enough seeds, fertilizers and pesticides to be used on 1,000 acres.
Slowly, more and more farmers returned to rice. Last year the farmers harvested about 5,600 tons of rice, says Abdi Ahmed, the project's manager.
The board had administered the project up to the late 1990s and stopped, leading to its collapse and Ahero's economic decline. At the time the board had full control, telling farmers when and what to plant, providing them with seeds and fertilizers on credit, and milling and selling the rice.
Farmers at a similar but larger project in central Kenya rose against the board in the late 1990s, demanding a better price for their produce and more control over their farms. That revolt pushed the government to restructure the board and it rethought its relationship with farmers.
Ahmed says the board now concentrates on running and maintaining the irrigation infrastructure, charging the farmers a subsidized fee for each acre. The board is no longer involved in production or marketing. As part of reviving the Ahero scheme, however, the government got its agriculture financing agency to lend them money to buy seeds, fertilizers and pesticides.
"They (the farmers) were able to return 100 percent of what they were lent by the Agriculture Finance Corp.," Ahmed says. "We were able to overcome the challenge that existed, that is farmers not getting critical inputs."
After the success of the Ahero Irrigation Scheme, the government has decided to extend the model to other government-built and run projects as well as privately managed ones in western Kenya, covering a total of 8,000 acres, Ahmed said.
Ariel David contributed to this report from Rome.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.