Critical Questions Raised on AGRA
In more than a year of its existence, the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA) has already become very influential in the discussion about how to kick start African agriculture. That is not surprising, backed as it is with a $150 million start-up grant from the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, topped with the star power of Kofi Annan as its chairman.
AGRA has particularly grabbed the attention of many African governments, who hope that it can complement their own efforts to plug the gaps that account for Africa’s food production falling behind the continent’s needs.
But not everybody is pleased about AGRA placing itself at the center of the discussion. Some simply doubt the workability of its methods in the African context. There are also AGRA opponents who not only question the applicability of the proposed interventions, but attribute sinister motives to AGRA’s promoters.
Writing on the Pambazuka News website, Mukoma wa Ngugi argues for the need to “situate AGRA in the context of forces that are undermining the well-being and sovereignty of African nations – forces that are in fact part of the problem, even as they present themselves as part of the solution.” He quotes from a statement made at a conference on “food sovereignty” held in Mali, which states, "AGRA is actually the philanthropic flagship of a large network" designed to "attract private investment, enrol African governments and convince African farmers to buy new seeds and fertilizers."
Ngugi gives evidence of how he considers this to be part of an insidious conspiracy by global agri-business to control Africa’s food supply. He cites the example of how during the Asian green revolution, after initial subsidies were phased out, many Indian farmers lost their land to banks when they found they were unable to repay money they had borrowed for the purchase of agricultural inputs such as hybrid seeds, fertilisers and pesticides. Ngugi says, “The green revolution in India really was the pauperization of the poor Indian farmer. AGRA’s promise to follow the Asian model means small scale African farmers will be strangled by ever widening circles of dependency and debt.”
Nothing gets green revolution opponents more apoplectic than the mention of genetic modification. Aware of the widespread doubts in Africa about the benefits and applicability of GM technology, AGRA has sought to de-emphasise it, but in the process sending out confusing signals on its exact stance in regards to this controversial issue.
To anti-green revolutionists, the mixed signals merely serve as further proof of how diabolical and under-handed are AGRA’s intentions. Encapsulating this view, Ngugi says, “Once the mask of philanthropy is removed, we find profit-hungry corporations vying to control the seed market in African countries, create a path for Genetically Modified seeds and foods, and to pry open a market for chemical fertilizers – which in turn will have an adverse effect on African indigenous seed populations and destroy bio-diversity, not to mention the devastation of the environment and the salination of the soil.” Ngugi concludes his article by urging: “Africans should grasp what is at stake here and mobilize against AGRA.”
Along the same lines as Ngugu’s anti-AGRA argument, but with more agronomic detail, is an article by Grain, an international NGO. It mentions that the high yields achieved during the Asian green revolution were under certain speciliased conditions, and emphasises the economic, agricultural and social costs at which they were achieved.
Grain describes the idea of a green revolution as “a scientific reductionism, which has resulted in monocultures, the use of chemical inputs (such as fertilisers and pesticides) and inappropriate mechanisation. This is alien to Africa's peasant farming systems, which pursue a more holistic approach to agriculture in which crops are combined with livestock, organic manure is used, soils are looked after, and there is a deep respect for the wider environment.”
The NGO is unimpressed by AGRA’s plans to develop a network of agro-dealers to make inputs easier for the farmer to access. Grain argues that previous similar efforts have “been limited by the stubborn resilience of traditional seed systems that have always supplied African farmers with high-quality, affordable, locally adapted and culturally acceptable seeds.”
Grain is scathing in its evaluation of AGRA: “Whether it is the new Green Revolution or the old, the first losers are farmers, especially small farmers. AGRA sets out to replace the seeds that African farmers have carefully developed for their farms and cultures, with varieties suited to industrial monocultures. Such seeds will pave way for the industrialisation of African food crops, opening the door to large agribusiness to come in and dominate.”
Grain concludes, “Programmes such as AGRA, and other so-called "technical" programmes, that ignore the social, economic and political realities of Africa, are unable to make a positive contribution. If African farmers are organised, if they rediscover and value their cultures and their knowledge, this is where Africa will have its real strength for change.”
And Grain’s solution to the problem that has brought about the existence of AGRA in the first place, Africa’s need to feed itself. The NGO says, “Diverse agro-ecological practices exist in all African countries, but are not always known due to the oral nature of the cultures, which is common across the continent. To provide an alternative to AGRA, it is important to promote these local agro-ecological practices, and to work with farmers to improve them, at the local, national and regional level.”
The critical questions that are being raised about AGRA are timely. It is unfortunate that they are so often posed in a shrill way that discourages rather than promotes calm debate. That shrillness puts off and confuses those who want to consider all the competing ideas different interest groups put on the table about improving Africa’s agriculture, but have little interest in the polemics engaged in by either side.
That the Asian green revolution had benefits and costs is not in doubt. What doesn’t? Is it realistic to expect that there will be any strategy to urgently and sufficiently meet Africa’s agricultural crisis that will be cost-free? In other words, are the many valid criticisms that can be made of AGRA and green revolution methodologies enough justification to reject them outright? Does Africa have the luxury and capability to achieve the vastly improved yields of the rest of the world by essentially spurning what Grain calls “technical programmes?” Is the fact that global agri-business sees Africa as a possible huge new market in and of itself evidence of a diabolical plot? The Asian example has shown the pitfalls of farmer dependence on agri-business, but are the profit motive and Africa’s need for new solutions to its problems essentially incompatible?
No less a man than Norman Borlaug, often referred to as “the father of the green revolution,” has recently admitted that Africa poses special challenges to replicating Asia’s yield successes. Among those he mentioned are much poorer infrastructure, more agro-ecological variations and just the fact that Africa is divided into many more nation-states than Asia. So quite apart from whether AGRA is an evil or benign idea, making it work will not be easy. That is a discussion beyond the scope of this article, but the point is that in their own interest, AGRA’s promoters would do well to pay close attention to the many impediments standing in their way, as well as much of the criticism and suspicion of it.
But whatever criticisms are to be made of AGRA-like “technical programmes,” they clearly have the attention of African governments. This is not just because they tend to be backed by agri-business, as cynics might contend. Agree with them or not, they give specific answers to questions in a way that those who exclusively advocate agro-ecological solutions have largely failed to do. Those agro-ecological solutions Grain says are how Africa is to overcome its food crisis have many impediments to their wholesale implementation as well. Among them is the fact that their advantages are so poorly sold by organisations like Grain. They therefore suffer from the reputation of being fine for donor-funded, NGO-run small “projects,” but offering little to the larger agricultural and economic questions that governments must contend with.
So we have an AGRA which offers attractive technical solutions, but some of which the conditions in Africa do not make it possible to take full advantage of. On the other side we have those offering also attractive non-technical solutions, but that tend to romanticise the agricultural practices of a by-gone era that will not return. If the latter had been up to solving Africa’s food security problems, there would not have been a need or an opportunity for AGRA to so quickly position itself as the answer to what ails Africa!
What we have from this impasse is a situation in which are two opposing paradigms which present themselves as being implacably opposed, with no middle ground between them possible. Both over-sell what they are able to do for Africa’s agriculture. It is therefore of particularly critical importance that Africans be able to look beyond the masking non-agricultural issues of both sides to sift through what is best for it under the prevailing situation.
Negotiating this minefield is beyond the scope of one article of this type. The treacherous process of critiquing the ideas of what is being proposed for Africa’s agriculture will therefore be a periodically on-going one.
By Chido Makunike
Makunike is an Agricultural Consultant based in Dakar, Senegal
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