International donors are not heeding African farmers’ calls to change course, writes Timothy Wise ahead of the annual African Green Revolution Forum on Sept. 5-8 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
By Timothy Wise
in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Inter Press Service
As the adage goes, when you find yourself stuck in a hole, stop digging. As African leaders and their philanthropic and bilateral sponsors prepare for another glitzy African Green Revolution Forum, convening Sept. 5-8 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, they are instead handing out new shovels to dig the continent deeper into a hunger crisis caused in part by their failing obsession with corporate-led industrialized agriculture.
Instead of cutting food insecurity in half, as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) promised at its founding in 2006, the continent has spiraled in the opposite direction. The number of chronically “undernourished” people in AGRA’s 13 focus countries has increased nearly 50 percent, not decreased, according to recent hunger data from the United Nations.
AGRA’s corporate cheerleaders will try to blame the continent’s deepening cavern of hunger on disruptions from the Covid pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, but chronic hunger had already risen 31 percent by 2018 in AGRA countries, as I documented in my 2020 Tufts University study. The hole was already getting deeper.
Summit host Tanzania is a case in point. As the government readies another Green Revolution festival of self-congratulation, refusing to allow Tanzanian farm groups to offer a more critical perspective and more effective solutions, U.N. figures show a 34 percent increase in the number of undernourished Tanzanians since 2006. An estimated 59 percent of Tanzanians suffer moderate or severe levels of food insecurity, according to survey data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
African Farmers Say ‘Change Course’
Once again, African farmer organizations are calling on African leaders and the donors who support them to put down the Green Revolution shovels, climb out of the hole, survey the damage their failing agricultural development model has wrought, and change course to more farmer-centered and sustainable ecological agriculture.
The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa concluded its recent continental meeting on seed rights denouncing “AGRA and other corporate actors’ continued pressure to influence African government seed policies and biosafety regulations to increase corporate capture and control of seed on the continent.” They held a virtual press conference on Aug. 30, demanding “No Decisions About Us Without Us!”
In calling for a strategic reset, they are not ignoring the complex causes of hunger on the continent — climate change, conflict and corruption exacerbated by pandemic disruptions and rising costs of fertilizers and food imports from Russia and Ukraine. They are recognizing that the Green Revolution’s corporate-driven, technology-based strategy for rural uplift has proven unfit to help small-scale farmers cope with such challenges.
In 2006, AGRA offered a coherent strategy and admirably ambitious goals. Its aggressive promotion of commercial seeds and synthetic fertilizers would catalyze a virtuous cycle of agricultural development. Rising yields would feed the hungry and stimulate further investments in productivity-enhancing farm technologies. AGRA’s self-proclaimed “theory of change” would double food-crop productivity and incomes for 30 million small-scale farming households by 2020 while cutting hunger in half.
Seventeen years — and more than one billion dollars — later, the evidence shows that AGRA’s theory of change was flawed at every turn. Those seeds and fertilizers did not produce a productivity revolution. Yields rose only 18 percent over 14 years, barely faster than before the new Green Revolution push. Maize yields grew only 29 percent despite billions of dollars in government subsidies to allow farmers to buy — and corporations to sell — the inputs. Meanwhile, more nutritious and climate-resilient traditional crops such as millet and sorghum saw yields stagnate or decline as farmers planted more subsidized maize.
With limited yield improvements, farmers didn’t see more food or higher incomes from sales of their promised new surplus production. They saw a losing proposition, with the costs of seeds and fertilizers outpacing the expected returns from crop sales. When the subsidies were cut as government budgets were squeezed, farmers stopped buying the seeds and fertilizers and went back to their old seeds, if they had managed to save any. Many found themselves in debt after input purchases failed to pay off their investment.
Most found farmland that was now less fertile than before, the nutrients drained by monocultures of maize. The fertilizers fed the maize, not the soil, which continued to lose fertility, starved for the organic matter provided by more ecological methods such as intercropping and manure applications.
So no one should be surprised to find hunger on the rise. Farmers were not growing much more food. What food they were growing — mostly starchy staples like maize and rice — were less nutritious than the mix of crops they used to grow. And they had little new cash income to purchase more food, never mind a diverse and nutritious diet. Many had less cash as they tried to pay off debts from their failed investments in commercial seeds and fertilizers.
Cosmetic Changes, Less Transparency
International donors have failed to heed African farmers’ calls to change course. Instead, AGRA rolls out new corporate branding, a facelift not the full makeover Africa needs.
At last year’s Green Revolution Forum, attendees were treated to a slick set of videos announcing that the forum was removing the term “green revolution” from its name. Indeed, this year’s gathering calls itself the African Food Systems Summit. And AGRA itself dropped “green revolution” from its name, declaring with no real explanation that it would now just go by its acronym, AGRA.
AGRA literally stands for nothing at this point. Calling its new five-year strategy “AGRA 3.0,” leaders refuse to acknowledge the failures of their Green Revolution model. They keep promoting new versions of the same failed approaches. AGRA continues to foster pro-business policy changes within African governments, like the one it has helped push in Zambia this year. It promotes “agro-poles” — 250,000 acre “farm blocks,” often located on land grabbed from local communities so corporate investors can establish industrial-scale farms.
Like many tech upgrades, AGRA 3.0 gives African farmers less of what they really need, not more.
This year, AGRA’s cosmetic changes include a newly redesigned web site, replete with AGRA’s new logo but missing even the rudimentary progress reports it used to make available to the public. Scrubbed from the site — or conveniently buried in it — is last year’s damning donor-commissioned evaluation, which highlighted AGRA’s many failures to deliver on its promises.
African farmers have a different vision. They want donors and governments to stop supporting the failing Green Revolution initiative and instead shift their support to lower cost, farmer-centered, ecological agriculture. Farmers are producing their own organic fertilizers and pesticides from local materials, with excellent results. The simple and low-cost innovation of “green manure-cover-cropping” has scientists working with some 15 million small-scale maize farmers in Africa to plant local varieties of trees and nitrogen-fixing food crops in their maize fields, tripling maize yields at no cost to the farmer.
The solutions are at hand. It is past time for Green Revolution promoters to put down the shovels and stop digging Africa deeper into hunger.
*Timothy A. Wise is senior adviser at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and a senior research fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute.