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October 19, 2008

AGRA committed to African green revolution, but response to its efforts is mixed

“When we started,” Rajiv Shah recalled in Nairobi, Kenya, “developing-world agriculture seemed very much out of fashion.” That was before the food riots and rice tariffs and dire predictions of mass starvation that accompanied the global rise in food prices last spring. And it was before the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for which Shah has worked since 2001, made agriculture, particularly African agriculture, a top priority.

Agriculture may have been unfashionable four years ago, when Shah and others on the foundation’s “strategic opportunities” team began discussing an agriculture initiative, but it is fashionable now. This is partly a result of market forces leading to the prospect of severe food shortages; but it is also partly because of the market-making power of the Gates Foundation itself. Bill Gates began this year with a promise to nearly double the foundation’s commitment to agricultural development with $306 million in additional grants.

To judge from what I saw as Shah and I bumped along back roads in Kenya and Tanzania on a recent inspection tour, the Gates Foundation is in agriculture for the long term. At the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, for example, Shah spent an afternoon walking the fields with lab-coated researchers and hearing dire warnings about a wheat disease called rust.

The foundation earmarked $26.8 million to be managed by Cornell University to improve disease resistance in wheat; most of the field research would be at the Kenyan institute and a similar institute in Ethiopia. The project was typical of the foundation’s agricultural work: close to the ground and oriented toward practical innovation that reduces risk for small farmers and increases their incomes. Many of the foundation’s projects are similarly basic: more than $42 million was allotted this year for developing drought-tolerant maize.

The foundation’s other notable emphasis is on making agricultural markets work better. One project is devoted to using radio to disseminate market and weather information. The Program for Africa’s Seed Systems, largely financed by Gates with $100 million, aims to develop seeds as well as to establish a network of retail agro-dealers to market them. But it’s a new project with the World Food Program that best illustrates the huge solutions the Gates Foundation is trying to implement.

The project, called Purchase for Progress, will use the W.F.P.’s immense buying power to create a stable and accessible market for small farmers, enabling them to invest based on a reasonable expectation of reliable demand from the W.F.P. and predictable prices. Because farmers in Africa have such difficulty adequately supplying markets, the W.F.P. typically spends a substantial portion of its budget on food aid to sub-Saharan Africa; the hope with the new program is that, over time, the resulting increased quality and productivity will help the African agriculture market itself become much more effective in delivering food. The five-year pilot program aims to reach 350,000 farmers, with the Gates Foundation’s share of the budget at $66 million.

The W.F.P. had sought to make this readjustment of its purchasing system for some time. But it was only with the Gates grant that it was able to do so. “What has been one of the main missing pieces of development,” Shah told me as we drove north from Nairobi en route to a meeting with a farm association, “has been a supply of cash to help farmers with incentives to produce. If they know the W.F.P. is going to buy from them dependably, and in effect with forward contracts, then that incentive is there.”

Shah provided a narrative of what had gone wrong in Africa. The so-called Green Revolution, which developed high-yielding crops and increased the use of pesticides and fertilizers, transformed Asian and Latin American food production in the 1950s and ’60s. But it did not touch Africa; the limited number of high-yielding crops did not take local environments in Africa into account and performed poorly when tested there. In those years, food on the African continent was relatively inexpensive, populations were low and development aid was directed at urban industry. Agencies like the World Bank stressed fiscal discipline, leading African states to withdraw support for agriculture.

By the ’70s, when things really started to deteriorate in African agriculture, African governments and foreign donors had entirely lost interest in developing it. In the ’80s, Shah said, World Bank orthodoxy required that “much of what was being produced went to export, further marginalizing the small-holding farmers who are in the majority in Africa.” To this already decaying situation, Shah noted, “you can now add the destabilizing effects of climate change.”

On a trip to see a seed grower in Tanzania, I asked a plant geneticist named Joseph DeVries why he thought the situation of small farmers in Africa had grown so dire. DeVries, who worked for many years at the Rockefeller Foundation, now helps direct the Nairobi-based Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and oversees the program of seed-related research that the Gates Foundation undertakes jointly with the Rockefeller Foundation.

“Look,” DeVries said, “Africa has a lot of land and used to have a low population. People were always able to get by. But we’ve reached the limit: that’s why you’ve had this downward cycling.” His voice hardened. “The choices that confront African farmers and the world at large,” he went on, are simple and stark: “Either we will increase agricultural yields on the lands now under cultivation, or the combination of low yields and population increase will force smallholders to cut down virgin forest lands and cultivate them. There are no other realistic possibilities.”

AGRA is by far the Gates Foundation’s biggest grantee and the main institutional vehicle for changing African agriculture. (The Program for African Seed Systems and the W.F.P. project, for example, are both administered mainly through AGRA.) The alliance began in 2006, gaining momentum in June of last year when Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, became AGRA’s chairman. The Gates and Rockefeller foundations are its main backers, with the Gates Foundation committing $264 million to the organization to date.

When I visited AGRA’s offices, located in a gated Nairobi office complex, there was a palpable sense that the chances of success were good and getting better. “We now know,” said Namanga Ngongi, a Cameroonian who is AGRA’s director, “that with the use of high-quality seeds — and please note, I am not talking about genetically modified seeds here — and with a serious effort to rejuvenate African soil, we can absolutely reverse the terrible situation in which so many African smallholders have found themselves for so long. We can do it. I’m sure of that.”

DeVries says he believes it. “For a long time, I don’t think we knew how to solve Africa’s agricultural problems,” he said. “But the answer is a second green revolution,” which would focus on developing crops that performed in the local environment and produced high yields without large quantities of pesticides and fertilizers that small farmers could not afford. He paused, then added quickly: “You know, I don’t need our critics to tell me what was wrong with the first green revolution. We’re not talking about repeating that experience uncritically, whatever they think.” Returning to his theme, he said, “Seed and improving soil nutrition are the keys, and now we know how to go about doing it.”

The Gates Foundation´s rather sudden domination of a very politically charged sector of the developed-world economy has earned it some enemies. There is, of course, a seemingly unshakable enmity attached to anything associated, however distantly, with Microsoft. But the foundation’s methods are themselves drawing criticism.

Raj Patel, the author of “Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System,” is one of the foundation’s most eloquent critics. He said he came away from a meeting with Shah in Berkeley, Calif., feeling that it was “impossible to get a straight answer as to what they’re doing. It seemed so up in the air. And of course while a public institution would have to be clear, they do not, and it’s hard not to feel that what we’re seeing is a foundation playing God in Africa.”

He was careful to note that the reason the Gates Foundation could do this at all was that “no one else has the kind of money the foundation does.” Still, he said, “There has to be something problematic about a few big brains in Washington State making decisions about an entire continent.”

Patel was also quick to point out that his anxiety about the foundation’s lack of democratic accountability was only part of his critique. Rather, his substantive critique of the Gates Foundation’s agricultural initiatives focuses on its excessive confidence in technology and market-based solutions — what Bill Gates himself has called “creative capitalism.” For Patel and other leaders of the agro-environmental movement, the net effect of Gates’s efforts is to enshrine this narrowly technical approach as the global response to the food crisis in Africa. “I’m happy to impute the best possible motives to them,” he told me. “But Gates’s success in imposing his terms on the debate strengthens the status quo rather than doing what needs to be done — which is to transform it.”

Not everyone is as measured in their criticisms as Patel. At a recent conference of the Slow Food movement in San Francisco, the Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva denounced the Gates Foundation as being the “greatest threat to farmers in the developing world.” Critics like Shiva note with concern that the Gates Foundation has hired from major agricultural multinationals a number of senior officials, including, notably, Rob Horsch, a leading agronomist who spent much of his career with the agricultural biotech company Monsanto.

Peter Rosset, a Chiapas, Mexico-based agricultural expert with Via Campesina, the international food-sovereignty movement, says, “Monsanto already controls much of the world’s seed market, and AGRA and by extension Gates is courting the major firms like Monsanto and Syngenta.”

In a scathing report issued last year, the Canadian ecological watchdog group E.T.C. warned of “a growing trend toward privatization of foreign aid, and the fusing of the private sector with governments.” The authors of the report went on to add bitterly that “these days, where Bill Gates goes, so goes government. Every head of every aid agency in the O.E.C.D. wants a photo-op announcing a joint venture with the megabillionaire.”

Gates Foundation officials steadfastly deny imposing any particular vision of their own on the debate. What the critics call ideology, they call reality. As for their hiring practices, it is an article of faith at the foundation that its officials have something to learn from people of every conceivable worldview, from veterans of Monsanto to veterans of the anti-globalization movement. What they do readily acknowledge is that their philanthropic efforts are in part intended to goad governments into action. As Mark Suzman, a former senior official at the United Nations Development Program who is now the foundation’s global development and advocacy director, put it to me, “One of our goals is to get donors to rethink their commitment to agriculture in Africa — and African governments as well.”

DeVries seemed contemptuous of the foundation’s critics, and Ngongi seemed indifferent to them. But Shah seemed unhappy. “After I went to Berkeley to meet with the Food First people I came away very much wanting to work more closely with agro-ecological groups. We talk to anyone who will talk to us. How could we aspire to be transformational if we didn’t?” He paused, and then added musingly: “I guess I really don’t know why there is so much hostility. I really think we have something to learn from them.”


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