Last August, about 250 men and women of good intentions gathered in Oslow, Norway, to address former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s 2004 challenge to transform African farming to sustainable modern agriculture. It was the second “Green Africa Revolution Conference.” The first, also hosted by Norway, took place in 2006.
No one has any illusions about the need to modernize the sector. A background report distributed at last year’s conference indicates that, measured per capita, Africa’s agricultural production declined about 5 percent in the previous 20 years, against a 40 percent increase in some developing countries. “Only in Africa are there angry, tired and hungry farmers,” Akinwumi A. Adesina, agricultural economist and vice president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, told attendees.
As bad as it looks now, things may never fall apart as desperation pushes governments to make bold, meaningful changes. Borrowing a page from developed countries, and in defiance of the World Bank, Malawi recently introduced heavy government subsidies for fertilizer and seed. As a result, the country nearly tripled its crop output in two years. Last year, the surplus in grain production was so large that it was able to export for the first time in a decade.
Now this was a true revolt. From 2001 to 2005, Malawi was experiencing catastrophically diminished harvests and needed money to buy food. The government bowed to trade-liberalization conditions from the World Bank, Britain, the United States and other creditor countries and eliminated fertilizer subsidies. It then sold its meager harvests and used the foreign currency it earned to buy cheap food from subsidized farmers in France and the United States.
Agricultural subsidies are a key reason for the stalemate in current World Trade Organization-sponsored global talks to eliminate barriers to trade. The European Union and the United States refuse to back down on the subsidies they give their farmers, while developing countries, including African nations, want to be allowed to cut tariffs on food products by only a little or not at all in order to protect their farmers’ livelihoods from cheap imports. At last year’s Green Africa conference, Adesina stressed the need for subsidies in Africa, arguing “there is no other agriculture in the world that is not subsidized.” Adesina won the 2007 Yara Prize, awarded by Norway’s Yara Foundation, for his efforts to develop agro-dealer networks in Africa.
Others contend that the building of roads and infrastructure to move produce to markets is an equally revolutionary move to solve Africa’s agriculture problems.
A green revolution is a different matter altogether — just another agenda for corporations involved in biotechnology and chemicals to corner Africa’s seed market and sell genetically modified seeds, some say. Aileen Kwa, a researcher at the Thailand nonprofit organization Focus on the Global South, says these corporations are supported by philanthropic organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Yara Foundation, which was established by Yara International, a leading supplier of mineral fertilizers; aid agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Bank, which has played a pivotal role in opening up African countries to agricultural inputs.
“Under [the World Bank’s] influence the seed market across Africa has been privatized, preparing the ground for the entry of private companies,” Kwa writes in a Feb. 21 article for Inter Press Service News Agency titled “Trade-Uganda: Exposing ‘'The African Green Revolution.’”
In the competition for seed markets, the American Seed Trade Association set up the African Seed Trade Association with a mandate “to promote regional integration and harmonization of seed policies and regulations supportive of U.S. seed trade’’ and “an explicit target of securing a 5 percent increase in U.S. seed exports to the region within its first five years,” Kwa writes.
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa was established by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation to help small African farmers lift themselves and their families out of poverty and hunger. Its “interventions” range from strengthening local and regional agricultural markets to helping improve irrigation, soil health and training for farmers and supporting the development of new seed systems to better cope with Africa’s climate.
The African Agricultural Technology Foundation, a British nonprofit, just received $47 million from the Gates to work with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and U.S. agriculture giant Monsanto Co. to develop hardier varieties of maize over 10 years.
No doubt all this will help Africa. But just who is doing the revolting?
By Rosalind McLymont