Groups call for stop to AGRA funding as hunger crisis worsens in Africa 

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Billions of dollars in aid and subsidies for industrial agriculture in Africa are harming food security and worsening malnutrition in one of the world’s hungriest regions, according to a network of African groups asking donors to switch their funding to African-led efforts and agroecology.

The groups led by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, the largest civil society network in Africa, are asking the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and other donors to stop funding industrial agriculture in Africa and particularly the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

That billion-dollar effort has “unequivocally failed in its mission” and “harmed broader efforts to support African farmers,” the groups said.

Recent academic research suggests that AGRA, the Gates Foundation’s signature African agriculture programme, is encouraging an increase in monocultures of corn at the expense of more nutritious and climate-resilient crops such as millet, resulting in declining crop and diet diversity. AGRA disagreed with the research but has not provided any comprehensive reporting on its results over 15 years.

Neither the Gates Foundation nor USAID have responded to calls from African groups to shift their funding strategy. The 50-member Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa wrote to donors in June, asking them to stop funding AGRA and other efforts to expand industrialised agriculture in Africa. Gates Foundation also gave no response to 500 African faith leaders who sent their own appeal asking the foundation to stop supporting a monoculture farming model they said is “deepening the humanitarian crisis” in Africa.

“AGRA does not speak for Africans”

AGRA critics stepped up their campaign in early September with another letter signed by 200 over international groups delivered to donors at the African Green Revolution Forum in Nairobi.

The annual fundraising Forum, established by Yara fertiliser company and funded by corporate and private donors, among others, said it would “elevate the single coordinated African voice” to the United Nations Food Systems Summit on September 23.

That claim rankled African groups and many others who had been calling on UN leaders for two years to champion human rights, food sovereignty and agroecology at its first-ever Food Summit, and said their concerns were ignored.

“No, no, no. We are here to state clearly and categorically that the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa does not speak for Africans,” said Anne Maina, director of the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya. Her group, along with hundreds of other groups including many UN insiders, boycotted the Summit they said was captured by corporations and donors who are pushing technological solutions for hunger while ignoring systemic changes necessary to address hunger and poverty.

AGRA president Agnes Kalibata was appointed Special Envoy in charge of strategy for the Summit. Many critics said that was a conflict of interest, since AGRA is also trying to fundraise for its own programmes.

Though it had no answer for its critics, the Gates Foundation used the UN forum to announce a new pledge of $922 million to “curb global malnutrition,” according to the Associated Press. The pledge came with few details, butAP reported the money would be used “to advance the foundation’s work around poor maternal nutrition and food fortification, a process of adding vitamins and minerals to common foods to improve their nutritional value.” Some experts, the article noted, “have criticised that approach, arguing the focus should be on food, not on nutrients.”

Failing ‘green revolution’? 

Hunger and malnutrition have worsened considerably since the Gates and Rockefeller foundations launched a high-profile effort in 2006 to bring the “green revolution” to Africa.

AGRA’s main focus is transitioning farmers away from traditional seeds and crops to commercial seeds, synthetic fertilizer and other inputs to grow commodity crops for the global market. Bill Gates predicted thatinvestments in inputs would boost agricultural productivity, alleviate hunger and lift small-scale farmers out of poverty.

However, after 15 years and despite huge investments – nearly $1 billion in funding to AGRA and about $1 billion per year spent by African governments on input subsidies – there is little evidence of progress. The number of severely undernourished people in Sub Saharan Africa has increased by nearly 50 percent since 2006, according to the latest UN hunger report. The report paints an alarming picture of the ongoing food crisis in the region worsened by the pandemic.

In their letter to donors, AGRA critics said a decade of research has exposed the failures of the green revolution model. They said AGRA uses its leverage, and significant political influence, to encourage African governments to focus on boosting agricultural yields rather than more systemic solutions.

Reports published in 2020 by the Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute and African and German groups found slow productivity growth for staple crops and no evidence of rising incomes for small-scale farmers in AGRA target countries. The evidence also suggests that farmers are abandoning more nutritious, climate-resilient crops, such as millet, to grow maize. AGRA has said that research is not peer reviewed and does not provide an accurate account of AGRA’s progress.

AGRA views

For years, AGRA said its goals were to double yields and incomes for 30 million African farmers by 2020. Those goals were quietly removed from the AGRA website sometime last year as the group underwent a strategy reboot with the help of McKinsey & Company, a controversial US-based business management firm. AGRA has “not reduced our ambition, but (we) have learned that other more targeted indicators are appropriate,” AGRA Chief of Strategy Andrew Cox said in an interview.

“At farmer level, AGRA focuses on creating the conditions for the smallholder farmers to have access to yield-increasing inputs (seeds, soil fertilizer, good agronomic practices to have better yields under normal conditions), and also facilitates access to storage facilities, and markets to sell their surplus production,” Cox said.

“Our thinking on farmer incomes has thus moved to being more context specific and related to what we can influence directly.”

He added AGRA will publish a full evaluation of results and progress at the end of its 2021 strategy period.

Cox also expressed frustration with the Tufts report criticizing AGRA. “The data used was old national level data, including on Zambia, where we haven’t been operational in for many years.  The data could not possibly be extrapolated onto the kinds of regional/sub regional work that we do,” he wrote via email. “This has been extremely frustrating, not least as transforming (agriculture) in Africa is difficult, and we should all be trying to learn in supporting farmers who have had a pretty raw deal over the decades.”

The AFSA groups, however,  said AGRA’s efforts have been top-down and deaf to the concerns Africa’s small-scale food producers have raised. “We welcome investment in agriculture on our continent,” Million Belay, PhD, and Bridget Mugambe of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), wrote in a recent Scientific American article. “But we seek it in a form that is democratic and responsive to the people at the heart of agriculture.”

Investments in agroecology

AFSA is asking donors to transition their financial and political support to African-led efforts to expand agroecology and low-input farming methods they say can provide more abundant, nutritious foods, protect the environment and create a more equitable, sustainable food system. Leading experts in food security and nutrition have also called for a paradigm shift away from chemical-dependent industrial agriculture and toward agroecology and policies that address social issues and inequality.

However, big philanthropic donors are “holding back investments in agroecological research,” according to a 2020 report from sustainable food system experts. For some of the top donors, “agroecology does not fit within existing investment modalities,” the report notes. “Like many philanthropic givers, the [Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation] looks for quick, tangible returns on investment, and thus favours targeted, technological solutions.”

As many as 85 percent of Gates Foundation research grants supported industrial agriculture, the researchers found, while merely three percent contained elements of agroecology. Kenyan research centers also spent heavily on industrial agriculture, and “low awareness” about green revolution alternatives “emerged as the greatest barrier to supporting and implementing more agroecological projects.”

 ‘Zero response’ from Gates Foundation 

In their June letter, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) asked the Gates Foundation and other donors to provide any research they have supporting the benefits of AGRA. The groups said they received few responses, and no credible evidence of AGRA’s benefits to farmers or the general public.

The African faith groups said they received “zero response” to their appeal to the Gates Foundation. “We’re extremely disappointed to say the least,” said Francesca de Gasparis, director of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI). “We’re making a very important science-based point that this model of agriculture is not serving the people of Africa.”

The US government, which has given $90 million to AGRA since 2006, also did not respond to the letter, or to requests for comment.

A few of AGRA’s donors did respond. The Norwegian government told AFSA via email they are “currently not providing support to AGRA” and are encouraging “increased dialogue and research on options for agricultural development” in Africa. Two other donors, the IKEA Foundation and Canadian International Development Research Group, said they continue to fund aspects of AGRA’s work, and noted they are also funding efforts to expand agroecology.

In response to queries about whether they have assessed the effectiveness of AGRA, a UK government official said, “a comprehensive evaluation of AGRA is currently underway.”

The president and CEO of Yara International, Svein Tore Holsether, told AFSA he hoped its members would consider the African Green Revolution Forum “as an opportunity for an honest exchange, rather than seeing it as a battleground for fixed positions.” But it was only after AFSA held a press conference a few days before the start of the Forum, and aired their concerns in East Africa’s largest newspaper, that the Forum’s leaders reached out to the group.

In a September 6 email, AGRA president Agnes Kalibata invited AFSA’s Million Belay to participate on an “Insights Panel to discuss walking the path to change” later that week. Belay’s group declined the invitation to speak for “five or so minutes” near the end of the event.

“We disagree with the Green Revolution’s approach on a basic level,” Belay wrote to Kalibata. “The strategy has indebted our farmers, ruined our environment, harmed our health, and undermined our seeds and culture elsewhere and in Africa. It is extremely detrimental to Africa’s future.”

AGRA’s work to change seed laws, biosafety standards and fertiliser rules will make Africa “far more reliant on corporate-led agriculture,” Belay wrote. “For us, the Green Revolution is a source of great anxiety. We are part of a burgeoning agroecology movement … That is, we believe Africa’s future and our mission is to focus on scientifically sound techniques which, combined with the knowledge and wisdom of African food producers, safeguard our people’s food/life sovereignty.”

 Praise from Rockefeller Foundation 

Roy Steiner, managing director of the food initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation, said via email that his foundation did not receive AFSA’s letter until September and is working on its response. “Like any programme, AGRA has had some very successful initiatives and has its share of challenges,” Steiner said. “Overall we think it has been a successful programme – in particular building the capacity of African scientists, entrepreneurs and farmers to make decisions for themselves.”

Steiner said he is “particularly proud of the hundreds of soil scientists and plant breeders (with significant representation of women) developing crops suited for the African environment that are building African self-reliance.” As evidence of AGRA’s progress, he pointed to AGRA’s most recent impact report, a report on its seed system program, and an impact report by an AGRA partner, the One Acre Fund.

“As AGRA moves forward,” Steiner said, “I have no doubt that it will continue to embrace more regenerative, circular agricultural approaches and we look forward to partnering with them in also adopting renewable energy into their programmes.”

Bill Gates, the ‘800 pound gorilla’   

The African groups were not impressed by AGRA’s reporting methods and said they have seen no evidence to change their minds that AGRA’s approach is harming Africa. AGRA’s work on seed laws that protect patented seeds and penalize seed trading “is particularly problematic for small-scale farmers in Africa,” wrote SAFCEI’s de Gasparis and Gabriel Manyangadze in a recent article that ran in several African news outlets.

The “corporatisation of seed,” they said, undermines indigenous knowledge systems, centralises control of production systems and disempowers small-scale farmers. “Around the globe, agribusinesses, driven by initiatives like AGRA, have been trying to convince governments and financial institutions that they hold the answer to solve the world’s hunger problems through improved production,” the faith leaders wrote.

“However, this concept has been debunked by food system research and a complete lack of success. The world does not have a food production problem, rather hunger is a result of lack of access and inequality.”

Researcher Timothy Wise, author of the 2020 Tufts report criticising AGRA, also found fault with AGRA’s recent impact report. The report “provides some data but no convincing evidence of progress” toward AGRA’s top goals, Wise wrote in his review. He said the new report repeats the same problem as previous AGRA reports, using “vague data from undocumented sources.”

The most objectionable thing in the AGRA reports, Wise wrote, is AGRA’s “obsessive focus” on hybrid maize seed that must be purchased every year. “In one illustrative story, Rwanda proclaims ‘self-sufficiency’ — not in food, but in hybrid maize seed production.” Meanwhile, Wise said, AGRA and the Gates Foundation are pushing seed privatization laws across Africa.

Wise referred to Bill Gates as the “800 pound gorilla” in the room of food system negotiations. “He goes where he wants and does what he wants. He is operating behind the scenes to influence policies and laws in African countries with such deep influence and no accountability,” Wise said. “It’s the influence no one wants to talk about. Gates is playing a very dangerous game.”

Stacy Malkan
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Stacy Malkan is co-founder and managing editor of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health.

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