In late November of 2007, in a small village in Selingue Mali, I joined over 100 small-scale farmer, pastoralist, organic and civil society organizations from 25 African and 10 non-African countries at a conference that questioned the relevance of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation initiative, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
Together with the Rockefeller Foundation, the Gates Foundation has pledged a total of $150 million “to help millions of small-scale farmers and their families lift themselves out of poverty and hunger” in Africa.
AGRA has promised do this by overhauling Africa’s agricultural industry, from planting seeds to restructuring local and national markets.
What struck me during that conference taking place with much of the world unaware was the audacity and courage of these organizations.
Abandoned by African governments hungry for the $150 million-purse, it was brave of them to question AGRA – a gift boasting the support of arguably the most powerful philanthropic machinery in world history.
Here was a side of Africa that the rest of the world does not see – Africans gathered not to ask for help from the West, but to discuss alternatives to that help in very serious, informed and fraternal ways, with their own knowledge, science and experiences as a key part of the solution.
AGRA’s chairman is former UN General Secretary, Kofi Annan, hence AGRA’s claim that it is an African initiative.
But we tend to forget that Africa is huge – the continent can fit the United States three times and leave room for China, and houses over 680 million people!
A truly African initiative needs to have the mandate of those whom it will affect the most.
AGRA with its super scientists is missing the point. Hunger in Africa is mostly a political and economic disparity problem.
To end hunger, political stability, proper distribution of food and land within nations, and less emphasis on cash-crop farming and more on food- crop farming will be more effective, friendlier to the environment and less costly than the super-seeds that will require tons of pesticides - and eventually, cost a lot of money.
Also take the example of US farm subsidies that result in African farmers losing millions of dollars each year. Oxfam reports that in 2001 Malian cotton farmers lost $ 43 million dollars while US foreign aid was 37.7 million that same year.
Why not lobby for fair competition and equal international trade rather than throw more aid and pesticides at the Malian farmers?
AGRA has not taken a definitive stand against genetically modified seeds. Instead it states that it does “not preclude future support for genetic engineering as an approach to crop variety improvement” leading many to understand it as Trojan horse for GM seeds.
It is important that AGRA takes a definite stand against GM seeds, which if introduced will create mass dependency on corporate engineered seeds, and at the same time make farming more expensive.
This in turns means that poor farmers will be perpetually in debt. A similar tightening cycle of dependency on the one hand, and expensive seeds and pesticides on the other has recently led to thousands of farmer suicides in India.
The conclusion here is one that might seem like a paradox of a beggar having choice - AGRA will do more harm than good.
Understanding this, the participants committed themselves to, amongst other things, demanding “transparency, and accountability from all Green Revolution institutions and seed, chemical and fertilizer companies.”
Mukoma Wa Ngugi is co-editor of Pambazuka News and author of Hurling Words at Consciousness.