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June 13, 2012

G8 forgets how 'green revolution' conditions in Africa differ from those in Asia

Chido Makunike

U.S. president Barack Obama and his G8 pals are the latest do-gooders who are in short order going to bring about a ''green revolution' in Africa.

So far the entirely predictable reactions have been along the lines of whether that is a good or bad thing. Peddlers of fertilizer and agro-chemicals, hybrid and GM seed, thousands of NGOs and 'non profits' who hope to be part of the feeding trough of 'projects' sure to ensue have all wet themselves with excitement at the G8's New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.

On the other side are the usual motley crew of activists who immediately see red at the expression 'green revolution' for a whole host of reasons not necessary to rehash here. Their skeptical to hostile reaction to the G8 plan is as standard and predictable as agribusinesses' support of it.

But let's  step away from that pro/anti-green revolution dichotomy for a moment, and reflect on some of the reasons why there almost cannot be an Asia-style green revolution in Africa even if there was broad agreement that it was a good thing to aim for, which there clearly isn't.

* Africa is not a country. for better or for worse, it is made up of 50+ sovereign states. To talk about almost anything 'for Africa,' let alone a green revolution, is almost nonsensical by definition. These countries often have great political and economic differences between them. Those differences unfortunately mean they sometimes struggle to cooperate on simple things which would clearly be to their benefit. The idea that outsiders are going to be able to coordinate them into a continent-wide 'Africa green revolution' is silly. The best anybody can do is to seek some examples of national and perhaps regional-level interventions in the relatively few areas that are considered green-revolution prepped, which is by no means all of the continent.

* Africa is a huge land mass; most of its countries much bigger geographically than those of Asia. Population densities in Africa are on average much lower than those in Asia and populations are often much more scattered in Africa. This is one reason why 'development' interventions of any type are much more difficult in such conditions. Asia's relatively small countries and dense population densities made green revolution 'developmental' or business-penetration strategies a very different proposition from those of most parts of Africa.

* Poor infrastructure linking (or not linking) these scattered, sparse populations, with sometimes very long distances between them, are a major reason strapped governments struggle to deliver 'development' to them.

The G8 plan may emphasize the role of 'private sector investment,' but what does that really mean?

A fertilizer multinational that opens depots for its products is 'investing,' but is surely not going to invest in the good roads to improve accessibility at a reasonable price. Of course that is not a foreign private company's responsibility anyway, but no such access infrastructure and you lack one critical 'green revolution' ingredient. The road or railway that would deliver fertilizer to some remote settlement is also what would deliver the farmers' produce to distant markets. These are the great underlying infrastructural challenges to 'development' in many parts of Africa, long before you excitedly dream up a business plan to have many more African farmers as customers for your fertilizer, hybrid or GM seeds.

* The agri-climate conditions in Africa are on average very different from those of Asia. Much of  Asia is in a heavy rain belt while much of Africa is dry and getting drier. No amount of promised new 'drought-tolerant' hybrid or GM seeds is going to make up for this difference.

This is just scratching the surface. The point is that improving agriculture in Africa requires very different thinking than the catch-all expression 'green revolution' can possibly cover. Even if there was unanimity of opinion that a high-inputs green revolution is just what Africa needs, there are so many factors about how to effect it that many of today's 'experts' seem to be oblivious of, like so many others before them.

Long before you read the nitty gritties of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, you get a sense that these very smart, probably generally well-intentioned people are making promises of results in conditions they have very little real understanding of.

African Agriculture


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