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AGRA’s failed promises: Liberating African Agriculture

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On 6 August 2020, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) in collaboration with the African Faith and Justice Network (AFJN), Navdanya International, and the Institute for Research and Promotion of Alternative Development (IRPAD) convened a webinar, themed: AGRA’s Failed Promises: Liberating our Agriculture.

The conversation was based on the recent report by a coalition of groups including Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Bread for the World, IRPAD and Biodiversity & Biosafety Association of Kenya (BIBA). The report – False Promises-The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa – outlines the promises that AGRA dangled before African countries and what the result has been in over 14 years after the launch of the so-called Green Revolution in Africa.

The webinar outlined ways by which African Agriculture can be liberated from under the thumb of institutions that may be “well meaning” but are utterly and even dangerously wrong in their approaches.

Panelists included Timothy Wise, co-author of the report and senior advisor at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy; Mamadou Goita, also a co-author of the report, a development economist and Executive Director of IRPAD; Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate, and renowned anti-globalization author; and Devinder Sharma, one of India’s leading agriculture, food and trade policy expert, researcher, and writer. Participants from across the world joined the conversation via Zoom and Facebook.

Our continent is blessed with vast natural resources and is equipped to produce enough to feed its population. With more than 60% of the world’s arable land, rich biological and cultural diversity, and its unique economic and political realities, Africa can sustain itself and be able to compete in the global food market. The continent has about two-thirds of its population employed in the Agriculture sector with the majority as small holder farmers who produce over 80% of food consumed.

It is true that there are challenges in Agriculture today that must be addressed. Climate change is one of the most influential with the attendant desert encroachment, flooding/unpredictable weather patterns and pests and disease invasions. The twist is that while there are diverse agro-ecological practices that ensure resilience to the impacts of climate change, the phenomenon itself is caused partly by the industrial, fossil fuels dependent agriculture that is now being promoted as a way out.
The population of Africa is projected to reach 9 billion in the year 2050.

Although research has shown that we currently produce food enough to feed the projected population size and more, majority of it is lost to post harvest losses. Majority of our people due to poverty have no access to the food. Farmers have over time lost support in terms of credit schemes, extension services, infrastructure and market for their produce. The advent of the structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) in the 1980s contributed its fair share to the problems.

Instead of addressing the root of food insecurity on the continent, our governments are led to adopt and invest in programmes and agriculture models that further worsen the situation for farmers and for African households.

One of such programmes is that of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. (AGRA). Founded in 2006 by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, AGRA promised to double the agricultural yields and incomes of 30 million small-scale farming households by 2020 and thereby halve hunger and poverty in the 13 countries of focus.

To attain this, AGRA received as much as US$1billion, mainly from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but also from governments like the US, UK and Germany. African governments have supported this programme with $1billion a year on items including subsidies for fertilizers.

Speaking at the webinar, Timothy Wise pointed out that there is no evidence of 100% increase in productivity or income doubling as AGRA promised. Instead, there has been a 31% increase in the number of undernourished people in the 13 focus countries.

Maize was heavily supported by the program but it showed just 29% yield growth and even where production increased, as in Zambia, the near-tripling of maize production did not result in reduction in rural poverty or hunger. Small-scale farmers were not benefiting; poverty and hunger remained staggeringly high with 78% of rural Zambians in extreme poverty.

According to Wise, the focus on maize drove land use out of more nutritious and climate-resilient traditional crops such as millet and sorghum, eroding food security and nutrition for poor farmers. He added that the use of artificial chemical fertilizers has led to the degradation of soil quality.
He noted that the Green Revolution model is failing and stressed that agroecology offers higher net returns, diverse and nutritious crops, lower costs to governments and farmers, soil-restoration and other environmental benefits.

Time for Africa to wake up!
The Green Revolution (GR), according to Vandana Shiva, from the beginning was not about feeding the world but about selling fertilizers. She stated that the programme should more appropriately be termed war chemical revolution.

The GR uses more land and water to grow commodities (which do not indicate nutritional content or cost of inputs) and this translates to less food for the people. Agribusiness models are driving hunger. The industries produce for industries while the people hunger.

According to Vandana Shiva, “We should measure true productivity not pseudo productivity; measure total output and true yield not the fiction of high-yielding varieties; and measure the true costs of production and not hide cost with a commodification measure like GDP which only measures commodification of an economy not the true production, not how much food people have, not how healthy the soil is. That is why there is questioning of GDP around the world.

“The Green Revolution is a failed model; it failed in Europe, in India, in America and the best ways to understand this is in what it has done to the environment, to human health and nutrition and to farmers’ income”, explained Devinder Sharma.

He further explained that in India, over 50 years after the programme was introduced, farmers, despite producing record harvests every year are still living in distress. In Punjab, about 1000 farmers commit suicide yearly. This model of agriculture has kept farmers in poverty and small scale farmers are the worst affected. In 2007, the government of India reported that the average annual income for farmers was US$250 – an amount that can’t rear a cow or dog for a year. Between the year 2000 and 2016, farmers are reported to have lost up to US$600 billion and in the last 2 decades farmers’ income has either remained negative or frozen.

Sharma advised that “Africa should learn from India’s mistake. We see that this model has not only failed in the developed countries but also in the developing countries. This tells us that we need a new model of agriculture, different from the chemical intensive industrial farming model. Farmers need a kind of farming system that is ecologically sustainable and economically viable and that provides them with assured income. Farmers shouldn’t be left alone to face the volatility of markets.”

African farmers can feed Africa, have surpluses and contribute in a sustainable way to global food trade if post-harvest loses are curtailed. Mamadou Goita emphasized that and stressed on the need for food producers to be adequately supported in terms of infrastructure, extension services and favorable markets.

According to Goita, “We don’t need the homogenization of policies in the continent that the AGRA programme promotes because the contexts are not the same, the farmers are not at the same level of production. Africa is diverse and we need to consider the territoriality of African food systems.
We need to change our way of investing in Agriculture. We cannot rely on foreign investments that lead to land grabbing. Investment in agriculture must be based on a vision and that vision is Agroecology which is not an imported system but an African way of farming in tune with Nature. The agroecological perspective that people are pushing forward on the continent will be a key instrument in feeding the world and in creating wealth.”

The webinar noted and endorsed the key recommendations of the report- False Promises.

Among the recommendations are:
Donor governments should withdraw their funding from AGRA and shift it to programmes that help smallholder farmers, particularly women, develop climate-resilient ecologically sustainable farming practices such as agroecology, which is increasingly recognized and supported by FAO and the international donor community.

Secondly, African governments should withdraw from AGRA and other Green Revolution programs, including input-subsidy programs, and transition their agricultural development programs toward a more robust array of policies that respond to smallholder farmers’ expressed needs.

It was also recommended that all governments and donors should respect the right to food, peasants’ rights and other internal organisations. Seeing how AGRA has failed, it was agreed that it did not make sense for AGRA’s head, Agnes Kalibata, to be the special envoy of the UN Secretary General to the UN 2020 World Food Summit.

At the conclusion of the webinar, Nnimmo Bassey, Director of HOMEF encouraged African governments to “take the recommendations to heart and remember that when we move in the wrong direction, no matter how far or fast we go, we will never get to the right destination. When one makes a mistake and takes a wrong road, wisdom says turn back.”