Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Ten years into AGRA, Global Hunger Index scores remained in the "serious" or "alarming" categories for 12 of the 13 AGRA countries. (Photo: Global Justice Now/cc/flickr)

Ten years into AGRA, Global Hunger Index scores remained in the "serious" or "alarming" categories for 12 of the 13 AGRA countries. (Photo: Global Justice Now/cc/flickr)

The Battle for the Future of Food in Africa

Certain policies, strongly promoted by the Gates Foundation, open Africa to the multinational seed companies in the name of modernization, but they undermine climate resilience and food security for Africa’s small-scale farmers.

Million BelayTimothy A. Wise

Last month in Ghana, Agnes Kalibata, President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, congratulated an illustrious group of corporate and government leaders for “leapfrogging into the future” in their efforts to “modernize” African agriculture with high-yield commercial seeds, fertilizers, and other technologies.

Unfortunately, such policies are leapfrogging right over Africa’s small-scale farmers. We have seen no such progress on the ground in Africa. Not only are these policies failing to address chronic rural poverty and hunger, they are doing little to improve nutrition, health, and climate resilience.

African farmers have a better idea, grounded in their own experiences and their increasing struggles to grow food in the face of a changing climate. Ecological agriculture, using fewer, not more, chemical inputs, is showing the way forward, as scientists help farmers reduce costs, increase soil fertility, raise more diverse, healthy, and culturally appropriate food crops, and adapt their farms to climate change.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation initiated the latest effort to modernize African agriculture. It launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in 2006 with the ambitious goal of doubling productivity and incomes for 30 million farm families by 2020. There is little evidence AGRA will come anywhere near achieving those goals.

Fed by heavy doses of government subsidies for commercial seeds and synthetic fertilizers, evidence suggests that AGRA has promoted monocultures of a few staple crops, reduced crop and diet diversity, undermined soil fertility, and produced disappointing gains in productivity and farmer incomes.

Fed by heavy doses of government subsidies for commercial seeds and synthetic fertilizers, evidence suggests that AGRA has promoted monocultures of a few staple crops, reduced crop and diet diversity, undermined soil fertility, and produced disappointing gains in productivity and farmer incomes. Ten years into AGRA, Global Hunger Index scores remained in the “serious” or “alarming” categories for 12 of the 13 AGRA countries.

Productivity has risen very slowly even for AGRA’s narrow range of priority staple crops. Of Africa’s top five corn producers, Nigeria and Kenya actually saw declining yields. Even where production increased, such as in Zambia, the gains failed to translate into reductions in rural poverty. Some 78 percent of rural Zambians still live in extreme poverty.

And the subsidies enticed farmers into reducing production of more nutritious and drought-resistant local food crops. Across AGRA countries there was a 35 percent drop in land planted to millet, a hardy native grain, with production falling by nearly half.

This makes small-scale farmers more, not less, vulnerable to climate change. Farmers risk going into debt to purchase the inputs, which often fail to increase production enough to pay for the next year’s seeds and fertilizer. By relying on a single crop, farmers lose diet diversity and put their families’ food security at risk if that one crop fails. Their soil grows less fertile, more acidic, from the overreliance on synthetic fertilizer.

African farmers have a better way.

Agroecology is giving farmers the kinds of innovation they need, farming with nature to promote the soil-building practices that “agricultural modernization” often undermines. Multiple food crops are grown in the same field. Compost, manure, and biofertilizers – not fossil-fuel-based fertilizer – are used to fertilize fields. Biological pest control decreases pesticide use. Researchers work with farmers to improve the productivity of their seeds rather than replacing them with commercial seeds farmers need to buy every year and douse with fertilizer to make them grow.

The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) has documented the effectiveness of agroecology, now widely promoted among its member organizations.

In Kenya, farmers have created a network of community seed banks to identify, save, and distribute nutritious and productive varieties of local food crops, the kind being lost to the green revolution push.

In Malawi women farmers identified 300 vegetables and planted them using permaculture techniques, a highly productive form of agroecology. This has improved their income, nutrition, and health considerably.

In Tigray, Ethiopian farmers and local allies experimented with improving their land through soil and water conservation techniques. They fared much better than those using chemical-based fertilizers. They supplemented this using well-established push-pull biological pest control as well as other techniques and increased their income and improved their health. The program in Ethiopia is now accepted as government policy.

It is unfortunate that many of these promising innovations are threatened by national seed policies that threaten to outlaw farmers’ rights to save, exchange, and sell seeds. Such policies, strongly promoted by the Gates Foundation, open Africa to the multinational seed companies in the name of modernization, but they undermine climate resilience and food security for Africa’s small-scale farmers.

Instead of paying African governments to push commercial seeds and fertilizers, leapfrogging right over their own farmers, the Gates Foundation should be pressing governments to incorporate agroecology into their mandated Climate Adaptation Plans. That is the sustainable path into an uncertain future.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Million Belay

Million Belay is the coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa.

Timothy Wise

Timothy A. Wise

Timothy A. Wise is a senior advisor at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), where his work focuses on agribusiness, family farmers and the future of food, based on his recent book, Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food (The New Press). He was a senior advisor with the Small Planet Institute, where he directed the Land and Food Rights Program from 2016-2020. He is also a senior research fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute, where he founded and directed its Globalization and Sustainable Development Program.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'Love Wins Again': Senate Passes Bill to Protect Same-Sex and Interracial Marriage

"While Congress has taken an important step," said the head of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, "it is incumbent on all of us to continue to push for passage of the comprehensive Equality Act."

Jessica Corbett ·


Groups Blast Biden for 'Siding With Billionaires Over Rail Workers'

As criticism of the president's position mounts, some members of Congress are speaking out in support of including at least seven days of paid sick leave in any measure they pass.

Jessica Corbett ·


'A Very Good Day for Our Republic' as Key Jan. 6 Insurrectionist Convicted of Seditious Conspiracy

"Now the only remaining question is how much higher did those plans go, and who else might be held criminally responsible," said one former federal prosecutor after Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers militia, was found guilty.

Brett Wilkins ·


Australian Report Advises 'Urgent Action' to Combat Slavery in Clean Energy Supply Chains

"We need to see industry, government, the financial sector, and civil society working together to provide access to competitively costed, slavery-free renewable energy."

Brett Wilkins ·


Progressives Mobilize in Georgia for Dec. 6 Senate Runoff

Advocacy groups backing Sen. Raphael Warnock call the Democrat a "reproductive rights champion" who is also "fighting to stop the climate crisis and create good jobs in the process."

Jessica Corbett ·

Common Dreams Logo