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The Gates Foundation’s Not-Green Revolution in Africa

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Jan Urhahn writes in Jacobin about the negative effects of the Gates Foundation’s efforts to promote a Green Revolution in Africa and to reduce hunger. Bill Gates, I presume, means well. Butt all too often his bold ideas fail, as they have in American education, because he imposes them instead of listening to those who do the work.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation promised Africa a “Green Revolution” to fight hunger and poverty. It hasn’t worked — but it has upped corporate agriculture’s profits. Local farmers are being left empty-handed, and hunger is rising.

Bill Gates created the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to improve agricultural productivity, but things have not gone well.

AGRA was established in 2006 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Deploying high-yield commercial seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides as its main weapons, the program is meant to help Africa unleash its own Green Revolution in agriculture to fight hunger and poverty. At least, that’s the promise.

Upon its foundation, AGRA set out to double the agricultural yields and incomes of thirty million smallholder households, thereby halving both hunger and poverty in twenty African countries by 2020. To achieve this, the “alliance” funds various projects and lobbies African governments to implement structural changes that would set the stage for its “Green Revolution.” Since its foundation, AGRA has received contributions of about $1 billion, mainly from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Large grants have also come from the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and other countries.

From these donations, AGRA has awarded grants of more than $500 million across the continent. African governments support AGRA’s goals with public funds through so-called farm input subsidy programs (FISPs), with which farmers are expected to purchase the seeds — mostly hybrid — and synthetic fertilizers promoted by AGRA. The state subsidies for small farms provide an incentive to introduce the bundle of farming technologies AGRA counts as part of its Green Revolution. FISPs have been introduced on a significant scale in ten of AGRA’s thirteen “focus countries” including Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Rwanda, Zambia, and Tanzania.

But fourteen years after AGRA was founded, it’s safe to say that the initiative has failed to meet its goals. Rather than combat hunger and poverty, hunger has actually increased by 30 percent in the AGRA focus countries — meaning that thirty million more people are suffering from it than when AGRA started. By 2018, agricultural yields in the focus countries had increased by only 18 percent, as opposed to the 100 percent AGRA promised. In the period before AGRA, yields in these countries had grown by 17 percent. The increases in yields with and without AGRA were therefore almost identical.

AGRA’s results are devastating for small-scale farmers. Most AGRA projects primarily entail selling them expensive inputs such as hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilizers via agrochemical companies. These inputs are extremely costly and thus drastically increase farmers’ risk of falling into indebtedness. Examples from Tanzania show that small-scale farmers have not been able to repay seed and fertilizer debts directly after the harvest, even forcing some to sell their livestock.

The AGRA formula — “doubled yields equal doubled incomes” — simply does not pan out in practice. In the AGRA model, any short-term increases in yield have to be bought at great expense with seeds, fertilizer, and often pesticides — an arrangement that only boosts the incomes of seed and fertilizer companies.

Moreover, freedom of choice is restricted: in AGRA projects in Kenya, small-scale farmers are not allowed to decide for themselves which corn seed they plant and which fertilizers and pesticides they use on their fields. The managers of AGRA projects assume that participating agrochemical companies make the best decisions for the farmers. AGRA’s focus is on a few food crops such as corn or soy, causing traditional nutrient-rich foods to be neglected and even displaced.

Statistics for the thirteen AGRA focus countries show that production of cereals has fallen by 21 percent since the initiative was launched. A yield decline of 7 percent was recorded for root and tuber crops. All in all, AGRA reduces the diversity in farmers’ fields and thus also the variety of seeds being used. This development in turn makes agriculture even more vulnerable to the consequences of the climate crisis.

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