Change tack in Africa’s food security drive


A farmer ploughs at Kaaboi in Turbo, Uasin Gishu in readiness for the planting season. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG

A major evaluation commissioned for donors to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), including the United States Agency for International Development (USAid) and other international donors, has confirmed what many of us in the continent have claimed for years: The billion-dollar AGRA “did not meet its headline goal of increased incomes and food security for nine million smallholders.”

Women farmers, who were supposed to be among the main beneficiaries, are losing out. As the evaluators state, the few who benefited “were typically younger, male, and relatively wealthier… productivity and income gains were also concentrated among these relatively high-resource farmers.”

I was not surprised to read the evaluators’ conclusions that AGRA’s well-funded effort to promote commercial seeds and fertilisers was failing to consistently increase yields and often left farmers and their land worse off.

At my organisation, the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya, we have seen farmers suffer due to these top-down development schemes for years.

I co-authored a report two years ago, ‘False Promises: The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa’ that documented many of the poor farmer outcomes now recognised by the new donor evaluation.

After 15 years and $1 billion in donor funding, it is time for USAid and other donors to reconsider this failing effort.

Unfortunately, a USAid spokesperson was quick to say the agency would continue to support AGRA, stating, “We appreciate AGRA’s response to the report conclusions and concur with their proposed next steps to improve performance outcomes”.

That is why other African civil society and faith leaders and I are taking our messages to US Congress to urge members to shift funding to more promising ecological programmes when it votes to re-authorise the Global Food Security Act this year.

In Kenya, the failures are everywhere to see. Farmers are ending up in debt as they pay high prices for seeds and fertilisers, which often fail to produce high yields. One group of women lost their pooled savings and some household possessions after they used them as collateral for loans, in the form of maize seeds and fertiliser.

They lost the right to choose their seeds and had to pay the loan back in cash. Such policies have led to an unhealthy reliance on maize and the decline in diversity from more nutritious and climate-resilient crops like millet, sorghum, sweet potatoes and many others.

Farmers who have grown dependent on commercial seeds and fertilisers saw supplies disrupted by Covid-19. They scrambled to restore their stocks of local seeds from neighbouring farmers, so they could get a crop in for their one growing season.

Now fertiliser prices have doubled, so only the wealthiest farmers will be able to afford them. It makes no sense to try to coerce farmers into using such expensive and unreliable inputs.

Meanwhile, farmer organisations are producing good quality bio fertilisers and biopesticides that are made from local materials. They not only build our soils but are safe and cost half the price.

The data do not lie. As our report documented, yields for maize, AGRA’s most supported and subsidised crop, have declined by four percent since AGRA started, and so have yields for many other staple crops.

So rural poverty remains high, and the number of severely undernourished Kenyans increased by four percent, even before the pandemic. More than half of Kenyans suffer moderate or severe food insecurity, according to the United Nations.

My message to Congress is simple: The Green Revolution programme has failed, and it is time to change course.

At the end of the day, it is the agrochemical dealers and multinational corporations selling synthetic fertilisers and seeds, not farmers, that reap high profits from AGRA’s interventions. Meanwhile, it promotes fertiliser policies that call on governments to commit scarce resources to provide fertiliser subsidies.

We need support for agriculture that works with nature, builds crop and diet diversity, is climate-resilient and empowers our farmers, particularly women, to improve their farms and feed their families.

Anne Maina, National coordinator of the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya