Cover image courtesy of Jade Babolcsay
–by Justin Long-Moton–
Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is an organization primarily funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) that seeks to address poverty in Africa through increasing the agricultural production and incomes of small African farmers. This is accomplished through the promotion of Big Tech, utilizing genetically modified (GM) crops and chemicals to increase output. The organization advocates that there is a direct correlation between crop yields and African poverty and that increasing the former serves as a direct solution for hunger on the African continent. AGRA contends that its approach is African-led in order to produce African solutions. However, this article attempts to depict the actuality of such initiatives, revealing that the voice of the small African farmer seems to be muffled and silenced, further validating the historical assumption that the West thinks it knows what is best for those in the Global South. The initial Green Revolution methodology serves as the foundation for AGRA’s development ideology and here lies the initial problem.
Through the examination of the methods and practices of AGRA, this article seeks to shed light on the overarching issue of Western intervention in Africa through the agricultural sector and how ‘helping’ can create conditions that cause more harm than good. As is the case with AGRA, Western ‘help’ often prioritizes technical solutions over societal reform, the promotion of science as opposed to the advocacy of people. While combating hunger and poverty is said to be the primary objective, actual outcomes suggest a development model designed in the interests of big corporations, a new mode of colonial rule through philanthrocapitalism. This article will provide a brief overview of the initial Green Revolution, then shift its attention to present day implementation, discussing the methods as well as potential motives, to provide readers with enough contextual understanding to reach their own conclusion on just whose interests AGRA represents.
The urge to help is a global obsession, as international organizations, state governments and ordinary civilians dedicate their time and resources to address some of the issues that plague mankind. Often the urge can be considered a call to one’s humanity, an expressed inability to stand by the wayside as millions suffer from ailments perceived to have practical solutions. Here lies one of the main issues regarding humanitarianism: there is never consensus on the correct solution to each problem, and this divides efforts into fragmented approaches spearheaded by various actors with varying interests to serve. In the case of AGRA, it was essentially founded on the tenets of the Green Revolution, which is a reference to the spread of new agricultural technologies in the developing world primarily in Asia during the mid 20th Century. These new technologies included the introduction of GM crops that were superior to locally planted crops in both yield increase and yield stability as well as in other agricultural measurement areas. Additionally, new technologies resulted in the emergence of fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation systems that, in conjunction with GM crops, increased food production for the developing world.
Using this as a model, in 2006 AGRA was founded with the sole purpose of bringing the Green Revolution to Africa in an effort to fight poverty and hunger and empower small African farmers. According to the organization, “the alliance has built the systems and tools for Africa’s agriculture: high quality seeds, better soil health, access to markets and credit, and coupled by stronger farmer organizations and agriculture policies. It was established to catalyze the transformation of smallholder agriculture into a highly productive, efficient, sustainable and competitive system, while also protecting the natural resource base on which agriculture depends”. It is apparent that the organization has a clear direction and mode of execution that on the surface seems feasible and in the best interest of the targeted population.
Then why have activist groups in major cities like Seattle and London gathered in protest against the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s push to industrialize farming in Africa?
Across the African continent and primarily within six nations of operations, AGRA has identified interrelated challenges affecting the productivity of smallholder farmers along the agricultural value chain and within the policy arena. Concerning input systems, AGRA identified inefficient, inequitable and unsustainable delivery of new seed technologies to farmers. Within the processing stage some of the challenges present were poor market structure as it relates to transport systems, storage facilities and financial systems. These are only a few of the issues identified. AGRA developed a four-pronged package of interventions tackling: input systems, agribusiness development & innovation finance, resilience building, and policy & country support. The organization strives to develop the systems that ensure sustained availability, delivery and adoption of improved seed and fertilizer. AGRA looks to provide affordable financing to smallholder farmers with the hopes of transforming farms and businesses into sustainable and profitable enterprises. Lastly, from a policy standpoint AGRA is working with governments to strengthen national capacities to deepen and sustain the gains made through policy decisions. The approach is systematic and all-inclusive, clearly laid out in its strategic business plan. However, the question is whether the organization has been successful in its implementation and are there any other underlining factors to consider when taking on such an enormous task.
The West Knows Best
Western involvement in Africa has consistently maintained a paternalistic position, seen in the early days of slavery to the colonial period. Within the context of humanitarianism, such paternalism is still present. The West has assumed the role of the global parent to the developing world and consequently begun to decide the needs of the African people as if to say they are in capable of defining their own perils. In accordance with specific agendas, the West has ultimately decided for Africa what Africa needs to become in alignment with Western standards. AGRA lauds that it is pivoted toward African inclusion, suggesting the organization is essentially For Africans By Africans. However, this supposed inclusion is a far reach from the actual things occurring on the ground. Elizabeth Mpofu, the current general coordinator of the international peasant movement La Via Campesina and the Zimbabwe Small Organic Farmers’ Forum is quoted saying, “we really want to control our land, to control our seeds, to produce the food we want, no one should come to tell us to produce food. We are big enough. We are human enough. We know what we want.” Mpofu’s stance suggests a dictatorial development approach is being taken by AGRA in which the decisions that directly impact the local populace are left in the hands of external influencers as opposed to the farmers themselves. Phil Bereano, a professor at the University of Washington and an AGRA Watch food sovereignty activist, during a protest stated, “we robbed Africa of its minerals, we robbed Africa of its people… now the next deal for exploitation, the new colonialism, is: ‘let’s take their seeds’ and interfere with their food sovereignty, their right to have a secure system to feed their children.” These activists maintain the belief that the actions taken by organizations like AGRA not only undermine African society, but can be likened to colonialization. This push for agricultural reformation on the African continent enacted by AGRA and its partners furthers Western modes of thought. The solution proposed is for farmers to adopt a ‘high input – high output’ model based on the United States and European style of agriculture. Western agricultural methods are presumed to be better than the local methods and thus education is Western-centric.
When founding AGRA, the BMGF is said to have consulted with the largest seed and fertilizer companies, with big philanthropy, and with multilateral development agencies. However, there has yet to be a forum in which peasant farmer organizations have been allowed to give their views on the kind of agricultural development they believe will most benefit them. AGRA seems to be practicing exclusion when in fact it is the African people who know their needs best and should be afforded the opportunity to voice their opinions. Million Belay, an Ethiopian food rights leader argues that before imposing programs from the outside, one should have an accurate understanding of a people’s history. In the case of AGRA, this understanding is absent and this has led to some of the systemic failures and shortcomings that will be addressed in later portions of this article. This lack of understanding then gives credence to the discussion concerning why Western organizations like AGRA opt to disregard the cultural aspects of a societal problem and begin implementing reforms with little knowledge of the present and historical societal complexities. Is this done due to an assumed perception of superiority? Are Western humanitarian organizations valuing profit over results?
Small Seeds Big Business
The Green Revolution can be said to be the industrialization of the agriculture sector. It has its foundational base on the promotion and introduction of high yielding varieties (HYVs) of food grains designed to increase output. These HYVs require a package of associated biochemical inputs: fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides. While increasing agricultural productivity and local incomes, AGRA serves as the vehicle for strategic philanthropy in which biotech companies get rich. The inclusion of GM crops in Africa create an eventual dependence on the contents of the package to which companies amass enormous profits. Within the developed world there is a growing suspicion toward GM crops resulting in transnational corporations needing to expand into markets in the underdeveloped world to sustain profitability.  The overarching objective is to steer Africa further into the world market which then creates additional markets for this increase in agricultural inputs and products.
Transnational corporations like Monsanto, the world’s biggest seed company and second biggest biotechnology corporation have aligned themselves as partners with AGRA. Such a partnership allows them to operate under the cover of strategic philanthropy while maintaining profit motives satisfies through capitalizing on hunger. Money or profitability can then be viewed as a driving force with the liberation of African farmers from hunger and poverty occurring as a consequent. Interestingly enough, the interests of major biotechnology multinational companies are certainly AGRA priority given the fact that the former Vice-President for International Development Partnerships, of Monsanto Corporation, Dr. Robert Horsch, was hired by as AGRAs Senior Program Officer of the Global Development Program. Additionally, the convergence of interests is further illuminated when considering the fact that Bill Gates owns approximately $23 million dollars’ worth of Monsanto stock.  In the case of AGRA, business seems to be at the forefront, with many stakeholders significantly profiting off of the supposed urge to help. In the development of humanitarian solutions to issues like poverty and hungry, should profitability be factored into the equation? Is it possible to operate an aid organization without cooperate influence, and does said influence minimize the impact of the work being done?
Impact: What the Numbers Say
If we’re looking at the impact AGRA has had since its formation back in 2006 solely from a statistical standpoint, it can be said that they’ve had great success. Between 2006 and 2016, 873, 238 farmers received training on Post Harvest Handling, approximately 1.86million farmers began using Integrated Soil Fertility Management technologies, and 562 new seed varieties commercialized. These numbers certainly attest to the rising sophistication of the African agricultural sector. The 2016 AGRA Progress Report reveals significant achievements in each phase of the agricultural value chain. Concerning production level, the table below depicts the number of metric tons of improved seeds produced by countries AGRA operates.
In order to provide a more personal depiction of the impact AGRA is having on the lives of African farmers we shall turn to a real-world example of some reaping the benefits of this organizations push for agricultural industrialization. In the case of Sam Odey, a Ugandan farmer whose primary crop is maize, adoption of the Yara 41 and Yara 42 seed varieties proved beneficial in mitigating loss of crops due to the maize streak virus. Supplied by Victoria Seeds Limited, these new varieties were maize streak virus-resistant. Odeya was able to enter into a contractual agreement with Victoria Seeds to where he would continue receiving these new varieties as well as technical support. Prior to utilizing these new varieties Odeya would get less than half a ton per hectare. However, using these new varieties, Odeya recorded yields of 1.5 t/ha. The increase in productivity resulted in increases in profit. At the local market, Odeya would get UGX 400/kg. When selling to Victoria Seeds he received UGX 1,600/kg. Odeya’s case certainly shows the real-world application and results of the AGRA developmental model. However, one would be urged to consider the unintended outcomes prevalent within AGRAs approach as well.
Impact: Truth Behind the Numbers
The case of Odeya is certainly heartwarming as he participated in the field program as a means for climbing out of poverty. However, the great results he experienced cannot be said to be universally applicable. While there a multitudes of triumph stories just like Odeya published in AGRAs regular newsletters and progress reports. Little publicity is given to the negative aspects of such a development model. AGRAs promotion of modern varieties approach is heavily vested with the packages of associated biochemical inputs. Considering the first Green Revolution is the foundation to which ARGA is based its results can then be applicable. The high cost of these purchased inputs deepened the divide between large farmers and smallholders because the latter could not afford the technology. Level of access comes into play with regards to these packages and as was the case during the initial Green Revolution, it is not farfetched to assume inequality will increase.
An assumption within the AGRA development approach was that the Asian Green Revolution could be applied to Africa. This is certainly faulty logic when considering the vastly different economic and societal structures of the nations in question. Such application of a development model designed for certain Asian conditions could be detrimental when applied to a nation with internal structures in direct conflict with the development plan. This is what is occurring in Rwanda. The Green Revolution is making Rwandan farmers poorer in many respects. The Green Revolution asserts that income generation is the most important part of agriculture. This line of reasoning applied in Rwanda has prioritized specialization as opposed to crop diversity. Within Rwanda society, farmers would traditionally cultivate up to 60 different crops. However, under the guidelines of the Green Revolution, diversification of crops is substituted with emphasis placed on profit yielding crops. Within the Green Revolution promoted by AGRA, diversity is supplanted by monoculture which potentially leads to dietary diversity and increased malnutrition. Specialization in a few commodities for export, such as coffee or cocoa, has increased Africa’s dependence on food imports from developed countries.
In Rwanda, the numbers suggest consistent economic growth with increases in crop production and a decline in income based poverty from 57% to 45% from 2006 to 2011.This decrease in poverty denotes success in AGRA’s developmental approach. However, farmers are forced to make significant adjustments in shifting from polyculture to monoculture and this has had detrimental effects. Restricted freedom of choice has resulted in a decline in wellbeing within Rwandan households. Ultimately crop specialization “disrupts local social practice, trade and labor patterns as well as farming methods.” The numbers do not tell the full story of the unintended outcomes that come as a consequent of the aggressive push for agricultural systems based on genetically engineered crops.
AGRA promotes soil-building with nitrogen-fixing legumes understanding that fertilizer application alone ultimately destroys soils in the tropics. In the case of Malawi, studies were conducted to identify AGRAs impacts on farmers. The legume-based soil improvement techniques can take a considerable amount of time to begin to demonstrate results. Given the lack of immediacy, farmers in Malawi quickly returned to their traditional crops because they could see no direct advantage given by GM. Farmers require proven results and should this not be the case and it is not in their immediate best interest, they are unlikely to continue. This brings into focus the notion of sustainability.
Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the philanthropic brain child of Bill Gates, purports that cash crops and access to markets is the way forward concerning the fight against poverty. This methodology positions technological fixes over necessary policy changes. This is not surprising given that the man leading the charge is a tech guru. However, technology in the form of GM crops is not the only solution available and should not be the only solution considered. Beyond the clear need to include African farmers in the discussion, AGRA can look to agroecological options and economic alternatives for sustainable production. Primarily the program needs to takethe wants of the African farmer into consideration as opposed to assuming his needs and the appropriate method to attaining them. There needs to be collaboration at all levels resulting in synchronization. Such activity is extremely difficult when you’re an organization that has to consider the interests of transnational cooperations as well. AGRA has demonstrated successes as well as failures in its pursuit to rid the African continent of hunger and poverty. There can be no triumph without struggle. If the West begins to view the developing world as a peer and collaborate, eradication of the ails of mankind is inevitable.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
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