Why criticism against ‘green revolution’ is growing

AGRA is now hard-pressed to demonstrate its achievements after 15 years and one billion dollars in funding

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Margaret Chamwambia holds green grams at her farm in Tharaka North Sub County, Kenya in this past photo. Mwangi Kirubi/Arete/Rockefeller Foundation/AGRA

When the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in 2006, it was billed as a game-changer for the continent’s hunger crisis. Africa would get the sort of productivity revolution that could reduce hunger, enrich livelihoods and create jobs.

“Sustainable intensification” was the goal – getting more food from the same land; the ‘green in the name being an alternative to “red revolutions” which were sweeping through Asia in the 1960s.

While this ambitious project appeared from the onset as the sort of aid that could transform Africa’s agricultural sector and feed its growing population, AGRA is now hard-pressed to demonstrate its achievements after 15 years and one billion dollars in funding.

The criticisms against AGRA are gaining momentum and emanate from diverse quarters. The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), the continent’s largest civil society network, comprising 35 groups that involve some 200 million food producers, has embarked on a robust campaign, painting AGRA as a misguided effort that has fallen short in bringing any sort of productivity revolution in its 13 focus countries.

Faith leaders in Southern Africa issued their own challenge to the Gates Foundation. Neither letter has yet received replies or evidence from AGRA’s major donors, which include the two US foundations and aid agencies from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Canada.

Those challenges came to a head September 2 at a press conference prior to AGRA’s annual Green Revolution Forum when civil society leaders called for donors to stop funding AGRA. “What African farmers need is support to find communal solutions that increase climate resilience, rather than top-down profit-driven industrial-scale farming systems,” said Francesca de Gasparis, the executive director of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI).

AFSA released an open letter signed by its 35-member networks and 176 international organizations from 40 countries. “AGRA has unequivocally failed in its mission to increase productivity and incomes and reduce food insecurity, and has in fact harmed broader efforts to support African farmers,” reads the strongly worded letter.

AGRA Vice President for Innovation Aggie Asiimwe Konde disagrees. “We focus on informing farmers, enable access to technology and increase production and income to farmers. We have had a resounding success in that we have seen farmers doubling their income, diversification of crops, and integration into the market.”

Searching for evidence of Green Revolution success

AGRA was founded in 2006 with ambitious goals: To double productivity and incomes for 30 million smallholder farming households by 2020 while reducing food insecurity by 50 percent. That deadline has now passed, and independent research suggest that AGRA’s rosy promises are far from being realised.

In fact, AGRA is unable to provide evidence of that progress, says Timothy A. Wise, a senior advisor on the Future of Food at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and senior research fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute. He undertook an impact assessment in 2020 and found no comprehensive evaluations of AGRA’s progress in meeting its goals, from AGRA nor its major donors. After AGRA refused his request for data on its beneficiaries, Wise took a broader and more revealing approach.

“I chose to examine data from AGRA’s 13 priority countries to see if there were indications that a productivity revolution was taking place with rising incomes and improved food security. I found little evidence of significant productivity improvements,” notes Mr. Wise on his research. As he explained in a recent article for The Conversation Africa, “By any estimate, 30 million smallholder farming households represent a significant majority of farmers in the 13 focus countries. If the alliance had doubled yields and incomes and halved food insecurity for that many farming households, that would indeed have shown up in the data.”

It did not. For a basket of staple crops, Mr. Wise found that productivity increased just 18 percent over 12 years. That is nowhere near the goal of doubling productivity, which would be a 100 percent increase. More tellingly, it is barely higher than the rate of productivity growth before AGRA was launched.

Neither incomes nor food security improved significantly too. According to the latest United Nations estimates, the number of severely “undernourished” people in AGRA’s 13 focus countries increased 30 percent since 2006, a far cry from AGRA’s promise of cutting food insecurity by half.

“After 15 years and one billion dollars in outside funding, AGRA has failed to catalyze a productivity revolution in African agriculture. Farmers’ yields have not grown significantly,” Mr. Wise stated at the September 2 press conference.” It is time for donors to listen to African farmers and community leaders.”

He pointed out that his critique goes well beyond AGRA, implicating the entire Green Revolution approach to which African governments devote significant resources, including an estimated one billion dollars per year in subsidies for seeds, fertilizers and other inputs. “Our research assessed the progress of the Green Revolution project as a whole. This should indeed have produced measurable results in 15 years given the billions of dollars invested in the project. It has not,” he wrote in The Conversation.

African and German civil society organisations produced a report drawing on Mr Wise’s research. Titled ‘False Promises,’ it calls on countries to abandon AGRA and its Green Revolution and support initiatives that boost small-scale food producers, particularly women and youth, to develop climate-resilient and environment-friendly farming practices.

A lot of money supported maize production, and total production went up 87 percent, according to the report. But most of that increase came from farmers planting more land in maize, encouraged by the subsidies. Yields increased only 29 percent over 12 years, but land for maize went up nearly 50 percent, hardly a sustainable way of farming.

The bias towards maize at the expense of other equally essential food crops such as millet, which are drought-tolerant and more nutritious, has also been cited as one of the downsides of AGRA’s interventions. Millet production had declined by one-quarter, says the report.

Hunger rising across the continent

The decline in crop variety can result in a drop in diet diversity, which may be contributing to the alarming rise in hunger. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s annual hunger report, published on July 12, the world experienced an almost unprecedented increase in severe hunger from 2019 to 2020. The Agency’s annual estimate of “undernourishment” showed an increase of up to 25 percent over 2019 levels, to between 720 and 811 million people.

In sub-Saharan Africa, about 44 million more people faced severe malnutrition in 2020, with 30 percent of the continent’s population struggling to feed their families. Some 66 percent of the population faced “moderate or severe food security” in 2020, says FAO, representing an increase from 51 percent in 2014, an increase of 244 million food-insecure people in just six years.

Since AGRA was founded in 2006, Mr. Wise points out, hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa has not gone down by half, it has increased nearly 50 percent. “The Green Revolution is taking Africa in precisely the wrong direction,” he says.

AGRA’s defence

AGRA has itself faulted Mr Wise’s survey, conducted under the aegis of Tuft University’s Global Development and Environment Institute, saying the research failed to meet “basic academic and professional standards of peer review…” Andrew Cox, chief of staff and strategy at AGRA, is quoted terming the research as “not professional and ethical.” But Tufts University administrators defended Mr. Wise’s methods.

AGRA’s Konde said in an interview that the organization was successful. “We targeted 9.5 million farmers and now we have 10 million farmers with minimum technology.” She then went on to fault African governments for not doing their part. “Unfortunately, only Ghana, Rwanda, and Nigeria have implemented the 10 percent of their budget to the agricultural sector as per the 2003 Maputo Declaration. The rest of Africa has only committed 2 percent of their budget to agriculture.”

Ms. Konde took issue with the demands of AGRA’s critics. “Taking into account the uncertainties brought about by climate change and the COVID pandemic, it would be unfortunate to call for the disbandment of AGRA at this point in time. I wonder which farmers they are representing. AGRA believes in in increasing choices to farmers, and promotes ways how more farmers can have access to technology and apply them.”

She went on: “We have been carrying out value for money assessments and every $1 we have spent has produced close to $10. The questions we should be asking are did the African farmers get access to information and technology?”

AGRA officials say that the agency’s budget and contributions are too small to have its impacts reflected in national-level data. “The data could not possibly be extrapolated onto the kinds of regional/sub-regional work that we do,” AGRA’s Cox wrote via email to U.S. Right to Know’s Stacy Malkan. Critics point out that if AGRA reached the 30 million farmers it set out to reach and transformed their practices such impacts would be evident. Still, AGRA claims that its recent Annual Report provides evidence of yield increases, income gains and improved food security.

Mr. Wise reviewed the new documents and was critical of the data, saying it was hastily constructed, poorly documented, and highlighted improvements in just a few crops and countries over a very short period. Other critics also consider AGRA’s failure to document its impacts over its full 15-years telling.

Muketoi Wamunyima, country coordinator for PELUM Zambia, which works to improve the livelihoods of small-scale farmers by fostering ecological land use management, co-signed a letter to AGRA last year asking for evidence of its impacts. They got a long response from AGRA’s Andrew Cox which they dismissed as non-evidence.

“As civil society organisations working in Zambia, we have challenged AGRA’s model and engaged with our local government to highlight the fact that AGRA’s approach does not respond to the needs of the small-scale food producers,” Mr. Wamunyima said.

Rwanda is widely touted as a star performer in AGRA’s plan, with a quadrupling of maize production since 2006. But according to the False Promises report the Rwandan ‘miracle’ showed weak overall productivity improvements across staple crops in the country as farmers abandoned more nutritious local crops to grow maize. And according to the UN’s latest hunger estimates, the number of undernourished people in Rwanda has increased by 41 percent since the advent of AGRA.

Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity, said: “For years we have documented the efforts to spread the Green Revolution in Africa, and the dead-ends it will lead to declining soil health, loss of agricultural biodiversity, loss of farmer sovereignty, and locking of African farmers into a system that is not designed for their benefit, but for the profits of mostly Northern multinational corporations.”

Africa is not a monoculture

AGRA’s Konde dismissed AFSA’s criticisms. “We invited those that have been complaining to the AGRF summit so that we can exchange views but they did not come.”

AFSA’s General Coordinator Million Belay confirmed that he was invited but only at the last minute. In an opinion piece for Al Jazeera, he explained why he declined.

“We at AFSA disagree with the Green Revolution’s approach on a basic level. The strategy has indebted our farmers, ruined our environment, harmed our health and undermined our seeds and culture. We object to the flurry of initiatives to amend our seed laws, biosafety standards, and institutionalise fertiliser rules and regulations that seek to entrench Africa’s overreliance on corporate agriculture.”

He took particular issue with AGRA’s claim that the forum would speak for Africa in a “single coordinated African voice.”

“Africa is not a monoculture and we do not want it to become one. Africa does not speak with a single voice, certainly not that of the Green Revolution Forum. Its diversity of voices is as rich as the diversity of the continent’s landscapes, cultures and food traditions. Those voices want to sing, not in monotones but in harmony, with one another, with nature, and with government leaders and donors who value that diversity and support it.”

Ms Maina is the Coordinator of the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya (BIBA-K) concurs. She believes sustainably improving nutrition, increasing production, enhancing biodiversity, raising resilience and boosting incomes will come through the role of all – smallholder farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolk, hunter/gatherers and indigenous peoples – in their diversity and not through expensive, high-input monocultures.

And while AGRA’s technocrats have in the past been more combative in their response to criticism, its board chairman and former Ethiopia’s prime minister Hailemarian Dessalegn sounded conciliatory in an OpEd published by African Arguments this week.

“The solutions for transforming Africa’s food systems (has) come down to one approach over another. Such binary debates are unhelpful and at times counterproductive. Building more resilient food systems on the continent will require a mix of approaches from agroecology to the latest crop and soil science,” wrote Mr Dessalegn.

Whatever the case may be, the need to resolve Africa’s hunger crisis in a sustainable way is an urgent one.

Julius Sigei
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Mr Sigei is a former Agriculture editor at the Nation Media Group, Kenya. Email: juliussigei@gmail.com

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