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October 02, 2012

A contrarian view of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa

Chido Makunike

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's baby, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) has been around long enough that no one can fairly say it is not making some positive contributions to farmers in the countries where it has its projects.

At it's just ended Africa Green Revolution Forum, held in Tanzania, AGRA pulled out all its publicity and media-influencing guns to press home the contention that they are simply pure-hearted do-gooders motivated by nothing else than what is beneficial to Africa's small scale farmers.

Why then should such a noble-sounding project still be treated with such deep suspicion by many? (Gasp) Is it not almost sacrilege to doubt the good intentions of Bill Gates and Kofi Annan, to accuse them of being marketing hucksters for Monsanto?

You would not find any hint of an answer to this question in the orgy of self-congratulation that was AGRA's Tanzania meeting, nor in the breathlessly, unquestioningly lapdog style of the reports of the meeting that followed in most media. The media seemed to have been invited simply to provide cheering and adulation for whatever AGRA said. Almost none of the many similar articles that have followed the meeting have deviated from the script of AGRA as the latest of many efforts over the years to come to 'save' Africa and its agriculture.

So what exactly is the beef that many have with AGRA's claimed do-goodism?

AGRA has so swamped and bamboozled much of the African media that this is rarely asked. Any outfit that comes into Africa flashing money as a 'donor' gets a free pass, no questions asked. Strangely enough, the occasional voices one hears giving an alternative, cautionary view of the whole AGRA approach are from the United States, by various activists who are less willing than most of Africa's own media to treat the Gates Foundation's media-sponsored thrust as gospel.

AGRA has wisely chosen to downplay its support for gene modified crops, knowing that this is still a controversial subject in much of Africa, and remembering the early accusations that its main mission was helping the 'hijacking and controlling of Africa's food supply by making farmers dependent on GM seeds.'

A group of international activist organizations that coalesce under the umbrella of Friends of the Earth have been one of the most active and consistent at explaining their gripe with the Gates Foundation's AGRA.

Says a representative of Friends of the Earth Nigeria, "Donors controlling the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) are representing the interests of biotechnology corporations rather than African small farmers. It is time African Governments stop bowing to corporate donors and instead put farmers in the driver's seat."

In short, the charge is that rather than have the best interests of African small scale farmers at heart, the Gates Foundation and AGRA's primary interest is to create new markets for U.S. and European agribusiness corporations with which they are allied.

Suppose that were true. Apart from the Gates Foundation not being quite as philanthropic as they like to appear, what would be so wrong with that? Is there an inherent contradiction between fronting for seed, fertilizer and other western agribusiness companies and giving small scale African farmers a meaningful leg up?

The answer of many critics of the Gates Foundation/AGRA model of agricultural intervention is that yes, the two are incompatible, partly because of the vastly uneven bargaining powers of the two (US/European agribusiness vs. small scale African farmers.) So uneven, and so differing in their whole philosophies of life/livelihood that it is not possible to claim to be reconciling their interests, the argument goes.

Therefore, say the critics, the call of Gates Foundation/AGRA for African farmers to adopt methods of farming which will necessarily mean more dependence on products (seed, fertilizer, pesticides) that western agribusiness corporations dominate the production of is not as 'innocent' as it may sound. Once that dependence sets in, and once the built-in subsidies of AGRA-like 'projects' have fallen away, how will these farmers continue to afford these products?

In all the countless agricultural projects that Africa has been a testing ground for over decades, no one has yet been able to figure out a way for small scale farmers to increase production/income to levels that they can on their own keep up with the (ever-rising) prices of manufactured inputs. The issue of how responsible it is to devise donor-funded pilot projects to hook farmers onto inputs they simply won't be able to sustainably afford once the 'project' expires and the donor pulls out is entirely legitimate.

You would not expect this issue to be brought up at AGRA's recent Tanzania talk shop. But one would have hoped that at least a few amongst the African media from several countries that was roped into the forum would have found the courage to stick their necks out just a little bit to ask this question on behalf of their readers! That almost none of them have done so, choosing instead to be uncritically awed by Gates Foundation/AGRA propaganda, is not only shameful, it is almost criminal.

Malawi is an example of a country currently in the news for grappling with this exact problem, as have many other countries before it. Yields certainly go up when small scale farmers are availed of subsidized (by government or through AGRA-type projects of one kind or another) inputs, but (1) the subsidies are almost always short-term because of their expense and (2) it almost never happens that inputs-access and yield gains can be sustained after those subsidies are lifted.

What to do then? Abandon the AGRA-targeted farmers to their old low-yield farming methods because the Gates Foundation has shareholding in a giant agribusiness company with a poor public image like Monsanto, or because those farmers might not be able to continue buying the fancy inputs after AGRA pulls out?

The argument of AGRA critics like Friends of the Earth is that there are 'agro-ecological' methods accessible to the farmers to enable them to achieve the same yield gains as the AGRA high-inputs methods. Putting those agro-ecological methods to work in the field is far from as easy and straightforward as the activists sometimes make it sound, so amongst the many grains of truth of their arguments are also a lot of holes.

Some of the anti-AGRA activists are motivated as much by ideology as by interest or knowledge of the day to day reality of farming, so sometimes they sound shrill and unrealistically inflexible in what they say should be 'allowed' in growing crops. There are probably relatively few farmers, especially those struggling at the bottom ends of productivity and survival, who can afford or have the luxury of being as purely ideological as the activists often are. Making a living from the soil is such a hard challenge that most farmers will employ a combination of all the best methods at their disposal at any given time.

That means, for instance, that they may solely use agro-ecological methods partly because of their benefits, but also partly because they cannot afford fertilizer. If you donate or subside the fertilizer to them, most will gladly use it, usually in combination with the 'agro-ecological' methods they normally rely on, but sometimes (unfortunately) they will rely solely on the fertilizer if they are given or can afford enough of it. Are these agro-ecological or high-inputs AGRA-type farmers? These are false categories and demarcations that make sense to various flavours of activists and bureaucrats, but probably to very few farmers.

More often than not, what informs what methods a farmer uses is, 'What inputs/methods that I currently have access to will maximise my yields?,' rather than, 'Am I an AGRA-type farmer or am I a Friend of the Earth type of farmer?'

The main points of this post are to suggest that:

(1) There is nothing essentially new about the Gates Foundation/AGRA green revolution methodologies in Africa, except perhaps the new trick of a blanket propaganda effort through a surprisingly compliant African media. Increasing yields through the use of hybrid seed, fertilizer and pesticides has probably been tried in every African country at one time or another-until the subsidy money ran out, farmers could no longer afford the unsubsidised inputs and fell back to their old farming methods.

The Gates Foundation/AGRA's real 'success' will only be apparent after they pull out of the areas of their current projects. It will then become clear how long the farmers can carry on the AGRA-taught high-inputs methods when they have to purchase them on their own at full market prices. That is the green-revolution-in-Africa riddle that no one has been able to crack yet. It remains to be seen if agri-whiz kids Bill Gates and Kofi Annan have the answer that has escaped everybody else.

(2) The harsher critics of the Gates Foundation/AGRA seem to really believe them to be cynical, diabolical actors who are consciously, knowingly manipulating poor African farmers for the ultimate benefit of the Monsanto in which they (Gates Foundation) are part owners. But even if this view is unfair and extreme, and even if they are genuinely primarily do-gooders, rather than an advance marketing team-to-Africa for Monsanto et al, many of the questions about the fundamental long term and widespread workability/sustainability of the high-inputs model of farming for small holders under the economic conditions prevailing for most African farmers are entirely legitimate, and remain dodged by AGRA. No amount of positive spin they are able to buy or sponsor in African newspapers will change the day of reckoning for that previously tried and failed model.

Whether that model has worked somewhere else is only relevant if you are able to replicate the success conditions of that somewhere else. There is little that AGRA has revealed about its interventions to suggest that it has done that, or that the wide range of those conditions is even within the purview of a donor project to change.

None of this is to suggest that AGRA is 'bad' (or even evil, as some of those who ascribe to it the marketing-for-Monsanto label argue) or that there will be no long-term benefits from its investments and projects. If they are humble, flexible, willing to learn from countless previous failed projects and if they are also lucky, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa may well be able to make an incremental, evolutionary contribution to agricultural development in Africa (training of scientists, imparting of general business skills, etc,etc).

Comparing what AGRA is doing to what has been tried before all over Africa under different names makes me doubtful that there is any farming revolution at their instigation in the offing. The arrogance of not being willing to learn from and take on board the lessons of why methods almost identical to its current efforts did not work where so many other needed conditions were not in place is a needless waste of money and effort.

African Agriculture

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