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Help for African agriculture: Some question the Gates role

Farming in Malawi Credit: Travis Lupick/Flickr

Daniel Maingi weighs his words carefully. In Seattle to challenge the Gates Foundation's Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa or AGRA, which invests in agriculture to reduce hunger and poverty; the Kenyan food rights activist and Director of Growth Partners Africa, says he admires Gates’ public health work. But when it comes to making sure food is available for all, “Gates has got it all wrong.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation looks at the AGRA programs, quite differently, pointing to the struggles of even some small farmers to feed their families. Along with criticisms, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa – often called AGRA – has drawn considerable support in Africa. Indeed the AGRA efforts to increase food output in Africa, somewhat along the lines of Asian and Latin American agricultural advances decades ago, have been both widely praised and criticized. 

The original green revolution began in the 1940s in Mexico, spreading around Latin America and Asia, as agronomist Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, pioneered increases in the yields of hybrid wheat through heavy fertilization. The debate around genetically modified organisms has also fueled some of the criticisms of AGRA. When the Alliance issued a report last year that referred to concerns about GMO crops in Africa as “fear of the unknown,” critics called the report an insult to small farmers.

Maingi will share his views at a public event at 7 p.m. Sunday at Town Hall. Sponsored by the Seattle based Community Alliance for Global Justice, the event, “The Global Struggle for Food Sovereignty,” includes leaders from South Africa, Ethiopia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Maingi likens AGRA policies to those of colonialists who conquered Africa centuries ago. Africa's new green revolution, begun in 2006 with investment from both the Gates Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation, is transforming the continent's agriculture sector, but its doing so largely on behalf of multinational companies intent on promoting genetically modified seeds and fertilizers, he says.

After Kenya gained independence from the British in 1963 the country began wide scale investment in a variety of maize, millet, sorghum and beans, none of them GMOs, explains Maingi. All have proven resilient to Kenya's arid conditions and climate change. Kenya's native seeds also compete favorably with green revolution seeds, which require high-cost fertilizers, often beyond the reach of small scale farmers. But with lobbying from multinationals, says Maingi, Kenya recently passed two law, the Crops Act of 2013 and amendments to the Seed Act. Many governments in Africa have been making changes to their seed laws, which supporters see as modernizing the nations’ practices. But Maingi sees the laws as draconian, saying that if farmers don't plant seeds from dealerships controlled by multinationals such as DuPont, the French seed giant Groupe Limagrain, Monsanto and others, they can be at risk of being accused of “dealing with illegal seeds.”

Many African governments, including his native Kenya, are so cash-strapped, he says, “that if anybody comes in with even a little money, say a million or more, they're given free run to control almost anything."

AGRA frequently works in tandem with USAID, the agency charged with foreign economic development by John F. Kennedy in 1961, says Maingi, along with the World Bank and the IMF. They're all pushing Africa to become “an open market for the business of agriculture.” And that, he says means fertilizers and it means new seeds. “As far as community seed banks are concerned, they're becoming an endangered species.”

Asked for comment, the Gates Foundation initially provided only a brief statement. “Across Africa, smallholder farmers struggle to raise enough food to feed their families and have enough left over to send their kids to school,” the statement said in part. “At the foundation, we believe in investigating any solution that will make that easier. That includes using new approaches to old methods, and also using science and technology to develop the seeds that can combat the effects of a changing climate.”

Michelle Geis with Burness Communications in Bethesda, Maryland later said via email, “AGRA is not aware or involved in any effort to prevent farmers from using the seeds of their choice including seeds developed by local farmers. Its focus is to provide farmers with a wider range of choices and let them make the decision based on the results, particularly as growing conditions change and yields from existing varieties fail.”

Investments from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, she added, “are focused entirely on improving production and increasing incomes for smallholder farmers, growers who typically tend a mix of crops and livestock on a few acres of land or less.”

Geis also pointed to a recent report on AGRA's efforts around soil health, which she says are focused on a holistic, integrated approach to soil fertility that helps farmers use organic materials, manure and legume crops. AGRA's board of directors page lists seven current or former Africans (former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is one) among 12 members, although some critics there see the board as "fronting for Monsanto" and other agri-businesses.

Mariam Mayet with the African Center for Biosafety, a food reform advocate who will speak at Sunday's event, concurs with Daniel Maingi about AGRA. Reached in Johannesburg before her flight to Seattle, Mayet, says AGRA is “the kingpin” in Africa, coordinating seed and soil fertility programs, market access, financing for farmers and agri-business, as well as lobbying governments for favorable national policies. “There's little support for strengthening native seeds systems,” says Mayet. Nor for public research based on agro-ecology, a whole-systems approach which considers environmental degradation and socio-economic factors when determining how best to grow food. Mayet began her career as a lawyer under apartheid and then switched to non-profit work. State expenditures, she says, should focus on open access to seeds and building up local economies. “That's not a model philanthropists want to support,” she says, “because if there are profits or gain to be made, it goes back to local communities. They think that's antiquated or that it can't feed the world."

“But I think we're at a crossroads and the only way we're going to change things is if we show evidence-based work and mobilize farmers to lobby strongly for change.”

The African Center for Biosafety released a new report on Monday, Running to Stand Sill: Small Scale Farmers and the Green Revolution in Malawi.” It found that small-scale farmers are using “shockingly high levels of synthetic fertilizers at great financial costs to themselves and the public purse.” The French seed giant, Groupe Limagrain, the EU's largest seed and plant breeding company, just acquired a 28 percent stake in one of Africa's largest home-grown seed companies, SeedCo. The acquisition, says Mayet, is deeply disturbing for the future of all of Africa's native seeds. 

Members of AGRA Watch, a project of the Town Hall event's sponor, Community Alliance for Global Justice, hope the African leaders will find open dialogue with their U.S. counterparts during their visit and, in particular, with the Gates Foundation. “Our voices are small,” says Bill Aal with AGRA Watch. “Until more African voices are heard from the continent and in large numbers, the foundation isn't going to shift how it does things.”

Disclosure: Crosscut has received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the past.

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