Ideas & Debate

Low farm yields, incomes dampen Africa’s green revolution dream

MAIZE-FARMING

A man harvests maize in Laikipia County. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Summary

  • The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) was founded in 2006 with the goals of doubling yields and incomes for 30 million small-scale farming households while halving food insecurity by 2020.
  • Agra commissioned evaluations on its progress at the mid-point of its 2017-2021 strategy.
  • Those internal evaluations show no new evidence that AGRA is making progress improving yields, incomes and food security for African farmers.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) was founded in 2006 with the goals of doubling yields and incomes for 30 million small-scale farming households while halving food insecurity by 2020.

Agra commissioned evaluations on its progress at the mid-point of its 2017-2021 strategy.

Those internal evaluations show no new evidence that AGRA is making progress improving yields, incomes and food security for African farmers. In fact, the reports suggest that AGRA is only now beginning to track progress.

A US transparency organisation acquired copies of the reports from the US Agency for International Development late last year. To its credit, AGRA has now published its mid-term evaluation and its 11 country outcomes surveys on its website.

I was asked to review those documents for evidence that AGRA was making progress toward its topline goals on yields, incomes, and food security.

I was the lead researcher on the 2020 report, “False Promises,” which documented limited progress across AGRA’s 13 focus countries in achieving those goals despite $1 billion in funding.

Using national-level data, we found that for AGRA’s 13 countries as a group, yield gains were just 18 percent for staple crops from 2006-2018, well below the goal of doubling productivity (a 100 percent increase).

We found few signs of income gains, and the number of undernourished people increased 30 percent.

I was hopeful these new reports, totalling 1,365 pages of documentation, would shed some light on AGRA’s impacts. I was disappointed to find little if any evidence of impacts.

NO EVIDENCE OF PRODUCTIVITY IMPACTS

Eleven country Outcome Monitoring Reports did not include any evidence showing the impacts AGRA’s interventions had on its beneficiary farmers’ yields, incomes or food security.

That is because the surveys make no reference to AGRA’s first 10 years of programming, report no outcomes from that earlier period, and state that the current surveys will establish a baseline from which to evaluate progress in the future.

POOR YIELDS EVEN WITH HIGH TECHNOLOGY ADOPTION

For maize farmers, AGRA documents relatively high levels of adoption of promoted green revolution practices, yet reported maize yields remain quite poor. In no country did maize yields exceed three tons per hectare.

For example, in Tanzania, moderately well-off farmers showed 82 percent technology adoption, used on average 52 kg/ha of fertiliser — above the African Union target of 50 kg/ha — but got mediocre yields of just 1.3 tons/ha on average, with the vast majority of surveyed farmers getting well below 1.0 tons/ha.

LIMITED INCOME GAINS FROM SALES OF CROPS

AGRA’s ‘theory of change’ is that small-scale farming households will increase crop yields through adoption of green revolution inputs, which will lead to increased sales and higher incomes.

Incomes from sales of maize appear to be very low. in Tanzania evaluators estimated the average income from total maize sales at just $77 per household for the year, less than $.04 per person. In a section of the mid-term evaluation in which evaluators separate their own observations from those agreed with AGRA staff, they are quite critical, recommending AGRA reconsider its ‘intervention logic’ and interrogate “the assumptions and evidence that their inputs and outputs will result in expected outcomes and impacts such as inclusive agricultural transformation….”

As our ‘False Promises’ report suggested, AGRA should indeed question its ‘theory of change’ which is based on a flawed green revolution model. AGRA needs to provide evidence that these interventions, which cost African governments millions of dollars per year to subsidise fertilisers and commercial seeds, are working.

Wise is a senior adviser at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and a senior fellow at Tufts’ Global Development and Environment Institute.