Letters

A few questions for Agra on farming revamp

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Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) president Agnes Kalibata. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Summary

  • As Agra reaches its self-declared deadline of 2020, the organisation has not published any overall evaluation of the impacts of its programmes on the number of smallholder households reached, the improvements in their yields and household incomes or their food security.

If you are one of the 2,000 delegates virtually attending this week’s African Green Revolution Forum hosted by Rwanda, you wouldn’t know that heavy storm clouds hang over the gathering.

A recent report assessing the impacts of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), which hosts the annual forum, shows that it may be “failing on its own terms.”

Agra had set the goals of doubling productivity and incomes by 2020 for 30 million small-scale farming households while reducing food insecurity by half in 20 countries.

Yet according my research, which contributed to July report False Promises, there has been no productivity surge. The number of undernourished people in Agra’s 13 focus countries has increased 31 percent during the organisation’s well-funded Green Revolution campaign, according to UN data.

As Jan Urhahn, an agricultural expert at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, which commissioned the research and the report says, the “the results of the study are devastating for Agra and the prophets of the Green Revolution.”

Agra has received nearly $1 billion in contributions, the vast majority from the Gates Foundation but with significant contributions from donor governments.

Agra has made more than $500 million in grants to promote its vision of a “modernised” African agriculture.

The campaign has been fortified with large financial outlays by African governments, much of it in the form of subsidies to farmers to buy the seeds and fertilisers which Agra promotes.

These programmes have been estimated to provide as much as $1 billion per year in direct support for such technology adoption.

As Agra reaches its self-declared deadline of 2020, the organisation has not published any overall evaluation of the impacts of its programmes on the number of smallholder households reached, the improvements in their yields and household incomes or their food security.

Using national-level data from 13 Agra countries through 2018 on crop yields, poverty, and hunger to gauge its impacts, we found no evidence that productivity, incomes or food security were increasing significantly for smallholder households.

Specifically, we found little evidence that Agra was reaching a significant number of farmers, far short of the 30 million it set out to help. Kenya, home to Agra’s headquarters, saw an increase in the share of its people suffering undernourishment in the Agra years.

There was also no evidence of large productivity increases. For staple crops as a whole, yields are up only 18 percent over 12 years for Agra’s 13 countries.

We found that even where technology adoption has taken place, input subsidies provided by African governments seem far more influential than Agra’s programmes. It is difficult to find evidence that Agra’s programmes would have any significant impacts in the absence of such large subsidies from African governments.

Even where production increased, as in AGRF host Rwanda, a quadrupling of maize production did not result in reductions in hunger. According to the latest UN data, the number of undernourished Rwandans increased 41 percent since 2006.

Green Revolution incentives for priority crops such as maize drove land into maize and out of more nutritious and climate-resilient traditional crops such as millet and sorghum, eroding food security and nutrition for poor farmers. Millet production declined 24 percent with yields falling 21 percent in the Agra years.

The report argues that African governments and donors should instead actively consider agroecology and other low-cost, low-input approaches, which have shown far better short- and long-term prospects. One University of Essex study surveyed nearly 300 large ecological agriculture projects across more than 50 poor countries and documented an average 79 percent increase in productivity with decreasing costs and rising incomes.

In the words of Mutinta Nketani, an agricultural specialist from PELUM Zambia, "Agra is a vicious circle that drives small-scale food producers further and further into poverty, destroying their natural resources."

Nketani was the author of the report’s case study on Zambia. PELUM and two other African organisations on September 7 issued a public letter challenging Agra to provide evidence of its impacts.

Timothy A. Wise, Senior adviser, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and senior research Fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute.