Gates-funded ‘green revolution’ in Africa has failed, critics say

When philanthropists spend vast sums of money on a project, jubilation and high expectations ensue. But money doesn’t necessarily produce results.

A case study, according to critics, is the push for a “green revolution” in Africa, which has spent $1 billion to date, much of it from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The annual African farming summit takes place this week in Rwandaactivists, farmers and faith leaders from Seattle to Nairobi are calling on the Gates Foundation and other funders to stop supporting an effort they say has failed to deliver on promises to radically reduce hunger and increase farmer productivity and income.

Worse, critics say the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, founded in 2006 with money from the Gates and Rockefeller foundations, has promoted an industrial model of agriculture that poisons soils with chemicals and encourages farmers to go into debt by buying expensive seeds, fertilizers and pesticides.

As a result of that debt, some farmers have had to sell their land or household goods like stoves and TVs, said Celestine Otieno and Anne Maina, both active with organizations in Kenya advocating for ecologically friendly practices.

“I think it’s the second phase of colonization,” Otieno said.

A donor-funded evaluation last December offered gentler criticism, concluding the alliance had achieved mixed success over the past five years, with increased corn yields in half the countries it examined.

Most notably, though, it found “AGRA did not meet its headline goal of increased incomes and food security.”

Peter Little, director of the global development program at Emory University, puts it another way: “I don’t think it’s come close to what it promised to do.”

The criticism, while contested by AGRA and Gates Foundation leaders, has clearly stung. This week, AGRA is launching a rebranding that drops the term “green revolution” from the organization’s name, to be known from now on by its acronym only.

“We have been many times misunderstood,” AGRA President Agnes Kalibata said during a break from the summit, which this week also removed the words “green revolution” from its name.

The term hearkens back to a movement that began decades ago and was carried out most strikingly in India. Using chemical treatments and new technologies like high-yielding seeds, the initiative is credited with dramatically improving agricultural productivity and reducing hunger — but also leading to protests and even suicides by indebted farmers.

The new green revolution was intended to avoid mistakes of the past and be uniquely African, Kalibata said. AGRA, for instance, has tried to prevent overuse of one-size-fits-all fertilizers by promoting new ways to analyze soil and target exactly what type and amount of fertilizer it needs.

Kalibata, a former Rwandan agriculture minister, also credits her organization with some “huge successes,” including helping more than 800 Africans get master’s and doctorate degrees in agriculture.

Still, she and Enock Chikava, interim director of the Gates Foundation’s agricultural development team, admit the effort has fallen short of its goals. The most important reason, they say, is climate change.

“In Africa today, the majority of counties are already living in a 1-degree warmer world,” said Chikava, who grew up on his mother’s small farm in Zimbabwe. Back-to-back seasons of drought have brutalized farms that invariably lack access to irrigation.

AGRA is trying to adapt, in part by promoting drought-tolerant seeds and planting trees that keep moisture in the ground. The organization is about to embark on a new five-year strategy that stresses environmentalism and listening more intently to farmers’ needs.

Chikava said the Gates Foundation, which is contributing $200 million over the next five years, is also insisting on having regular evaluations that will be made public.

In some ways, though, he appears to be satisfied with AGRA’s path and frustrated with critics’ demands, such as avoiding chemical fertilizers — implying, in his view, that African farmers shouldn’t have options available to their peers elsewhere.

This much is true: Critics want a complete overhaul.

Heather Day, co-founder and executive director of the Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice, a group that came out of the World Trade Organization protests here in 1999, said she knew AGRA’s model was flawed when she heard a Gates Foundation staffer talk about a green revolution in the movement’s early days.

“It was something that just immediately raised alarm,” said Day, who was familiar with the original green revolution’s track record.

She said she was shocked the Gates Foundation was promoting a similar model.

Her organization, which has worked with an array of African activist and farm groups, helped organize a news conference Sept. 1 to pressure AGRA’s funders.

“When will you stop pushing for these green revolution models that have failed?” Maina, national coordinator of the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya, asked during the news conference.

Other speakers called into question AGRA’s African bona fides. While the alliance has prominent African leaders on its staff and board of directors — its board chair is a former prime minister of Ethiopia — critics claim the real drivers are multinational corporations selling fertilizers, pesticides and seeds that farmers have to buy every year.

AGRA’s grants go to dealers of seeds and various agricultural products, as well as African governments, research institutions, farmers’ groups and other organizations deemed capable of implementing a “transformative agenda.”

The solution to Africa’s hunger problem, some say, is redirecting money to millions of small-scale farmers on the continent and using methods that are both effective and ecologically friendly, like fertilizing with manure.

“What we need now is a green restoration,” Gabriel Manyangadze, of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute, said at the news conference.

He said his group delivered to the Gates Foundation a letter from 500 faith leaders saying as much, prompting a meeting with foundation staff.

“We still have not got what we are asking for,” Manyangadze said.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation underwrites some Seattle Times journalism projects.

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