Armed with high-yield commercial seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) founded in 2006 was touted as being able to deliver Africa its own Green Revolution in crop production to reduce hunger and poverty. How has it fared and what are its real impacts on the ground? Jan Urhahn of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Food Sovereignty Programme recently spoke with Mamadou Goïta, Director of the Institute for Research and Promotion of Alternatives in Development (IRPAD), about AGRA’s track record in general and in Mali in particular.
JU: Let’s start with a simple question: what is AGRA?
MG: The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, or AGRA, was established in the year 2006 and is working on transforming agriculture in a number of African countries. The two main founders and donors are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. As its name suggests, it aims for a Green Revolution in Africa and its work is concentrated around different pillars. One is the promotion of synthetic fertilizers, while another is support for developing hybrid seeds.
False Promises: The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)
The study False Promises shines a light on the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)’s lack of transparency and investigates whether AGRA has managed to reach its self-defined targets. It also goes on to make clear why AGRA's approach has not helped to achieve the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, particularly the goal of ending hunger.
Read the study
AGRA claims that by pushing African small-scale food producers to adopt resource- and input-intensive agriculture, we can increase productivity and thus incomes, thereby reducing hunger. In my opinion, it represents a highly technocratic approach to very complex challenges. The Green Revolution is not a new thing, after all—it started in the 1970s in India and other Asian countries.
What, concretely, does AGRA do?
AGRA works at different levels. One of AGRA’s main objectives is to link African small-scale food producers with commercial seed companies. This is about making small-scale food producers lose their own farmers’ seed and replace them with industrial seed. The most propagated crop through AGRA is maize. Maize is not a traditional crop in many African countries, unlike millet or sorghum. Increasingly, AGRA’s programmes are destabilizing the production of these highly nutritious crops.
Another focus of their work is to change seed and other agricultural policies in African countries. It’s basically about opening up the agricultural sector in many African countries to big private-sector investments, then privatizing some of the production assets in the targeted countries.
When did AGRA become active in Mali, and what have they done so far?
AGRA started working in Mali right after its founding in 2006. They work on different angles. The very first project in Mali was a research programme on hybrid maize with the national agricultural research institute, called Institut d’Economie Rurale (IER). In fact, this project was led by only one researcher. The seeds were sold to a private company owned by a woman who was also funded by AGRA.
They also work on “soil fertility”. For AGRA, soil fertility means that you bring as much synthetic fertilizer as possible into the country and sell as much to farmers as possible. In order to sell as much as possible, they train agro-dealers as intermediaries. Agro-dealers are traders of hybrid seed and synthetic fertilizer spread all over the country. You can find them in almost every village in which the projects operate. Their job is to promote the usage of synthetic fertilizers in the countryside.
The third thing they try to do in Mali is to give more space to the private sector on market issues. This includes food processing in particular, but also generating a market on which to trade and sell industrial seeds and fertilizers. The programme is basically the creation of markets for the private sector. Some people are benefiting from that, and some NGOs also took money from AGRA to promote the initiatives.
Do they also try to influence policy?
AGRA put a lot of efforts into advocacy work and tried to influence policies in all the countries they operate. Fortunately, in the case of Mali, they did not succeed at all. They tried to liaise with the Ministry of Agriculture in order to have a say in policy processes—always with the aim of bringing in the private sector as a key player, implementing policies on the ground and ultimately benefiting from them.
Why did AGRA fail to influence policy in Mali?
Civil society and movements in particular are very strong in the country. Small-scale food producers’ groups—their umbrella organization called the Coordination Nationale des Organisations Paysannes (CNOP-Mali)—played a vital role in shaping political processes around food and agriculture. They are even involved in drafting policy. The President opened up this political space in 2004, and since then the farmers’ organizations have kept it.
For instance, they succeeded in establishing the concept of food sovereignty as a guideline for all food- and agriculture-related policies. This marked the very first time that food sovereignty was mentioned and recognized in an official policy document anywhere in the world. We explained the main principles of food sovereignty and how it contradicted AGRA to political decisionmakers.
Additionally, when we learned that AGRA was on its way to Mali, we decided to organize a big international food sovereignty conference in 2007—with the famous Declaration of Nyéléni on food sovereignty principles marking one result. As you can see, there was a strong, farmer-led resistance to AGRA right from its start in the country.
What is your main critique of AGRA? Why do you think AGRA’s Green Revolution won’t work, or could even be dangerous?
We launched a process with farmers’ organizations and other civil society groups in West Africa to analyse AGRA and discuss perspectives. We came up with ten reasons to reject the initiative. We said that we need to learn from what happened in the past. If you look at the Green Revolution in Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, the first thing that grabs your attention is the widened gap between poor and rich farmers there. Through AGRA, those who already have access to resources will get even more access to them.
AGRA always says they are addressing the needs of poor farmers and want to provide them with more resources, but it is not working and it is not true. AGRA mainly works with agro-dealers, but the poorest of the poor can’t afford their inputs such as hybrid seeds or synthetic fertilizers. And if they do buy from them, they will most likely fall into a debt trap. At the end of the day they will be forced to sell what little they possess such as their land to private companies or other well-off farmers in order to service their debts.
Secondly, AGRA will jeopardize farmers’ seed because they will lose their own varieties and will depend on companies to supply them with hybrid seeds. They will also depend on the synthetic fertilizer companies, because hybrid seeds only work in combination with fertilizer and pesticides. It’s a vicious cycle, driving small-scale food producers further and further into poverty.
Thirdly, we all know that many actors part of AGRA since the very beginning are just trying to create new means to sell their technologies and products. The whole thing is about creating new markets for the few companies linked to the process. All of this comes at a very high cost. To give you a concrete example: through creating markets for hybrid seed, mainly bred for mono-cropping, you will lose agrobiodiversity. Agrobiodiversity is not just the basis for the livelihoods of millions of small-scale food producers, but also the basis for resilient food and agricultural systems, especially in times of climate change.
Can you give me any other reasons you want to mention?
The fourth reason for rejecting AGRA is it only pays attention to a very limited part of the agricultural system. In Mali, for example, cattle are very important, as are forestry and the fishing sector. AGRA is silent about these, and following a “pure” AGRA approach would lead to neglect of important sectors, particularly in the Global South.
For us, it’s not just a matter of increasing the productivity of a limited number of crops, but creating conditions for people to produce food in a sustainable way and for others to have access to this food. The ones who have cattle can have access to cereals, and those who have access to crops can have access to fish for a better quality of food overall.
Hunger and poverty are real problems in Mali. How do you want to tackle them?
Hunger is not a problem of production in Mali, we produce enough food. The problem is that the people who are in need of this food don’t have access to it. It is therefore a structural problem.
Just to give you an example: in Mali, we produce around 9 million tonnes of dry cereals. The total need for these products in the country is around 3.8 million tons. The structural causes for inequality in the market system need to be sorted out first.
AGRA postulates that there is no alternative to their approach of farming as big business, but this is not true. Alternatives are there, including many agroecological practices in production, processing, storage, trade, and nutrition. The application of agroecology would bring more food, more accessibility, and more resilience into the food and agricultural systems worldwide, but particularly in Mali and the other Sahel countries.
While rejecting AGRA and its concept of Green Revolution, what are your alternatives for now but also in the future?
This is maybe one of the most important questions. We have been working very hard to show that there are many things we could work on to improve our agricultural and food systems. What is important for us is to recognize agriculture in all its diversity. It consists of keeping cattle, forestry, fisheries, and growing crops—they are all equally important to us and interlinked.
First, if you look at the seed system, there are so many things that we have. We have a very well-functioning farmer-managed seed system that is now protected by Malian law. More than 80 percent of the seed used in Mali is farmers’ seed. And if you look at the improvements in terms of productivity from the 1970s up to now, you will see that we don’t need these hybrid seeds that ultimately jeopardize our production system and make small-scale farmers dependent on corporate seed.
If you look at soil fertility, there are many measures you can apply instead of using synthetic fertilizer. One is agroforestry to regenerate the soils, or using organic manure or flex-cropping instead of monocropping. There are many simple but efficient ways of improving soil fertility without applying expansive synthetic fertilizers which actually destroy the ecosystems in our soils completely.
Lastly, markets are very important, but they need to work for small-scale food producers. The international market is not for them. We don’t have any control over it. What we need to do is organize territorial markets at different levels (village, national, or even cross-border markets). Territorial markets are a better place to improve food production, create strong links between production systems and food systems, and increase revenue for both small-scale food producers as well as those who work on the farms. In addition, they are places where wealth accumulation and redistribution are more equitable and contribute to local development. We need these territorial markets, firstly to feed the people, before thinking about international markets. Processing crops is very important because it creates job opportunities for the youth, but also women. We need markets that are much more oriented towards the needs of the people instead of just generating profits. And don’t forget—food is so much more than just a commodity.