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AGRA, as the program is known, has been accused of funneling fertilizers into African food systems, fueling debt and raising environmental risks.
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A billion-dollar program meant to revolutionize African agriculture, backed by the likes of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the German government, is fighting to defend its future as more critics argue it’s actually hurting farmers.
AGRA — which until recently stood for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa — was founded in 2006 by the Gates and Rockefeller foundations as a way to increase agricultural yields and farm profits across sub-Saharan Africa by making it easier for smallholder farmers to access and use modern fertilizers and seeds. The program says it has mobilized over €1 billion in investments over this time, facilitating policy reforms, training hundreds of university graduates in crop breeding, crop science and agronomy, and helping thousands of farmers adopt commercial fertilizers and seeds.
But 16 years later, as the continent grapples with dual food and energy crises, critics say these achievements obscure the real truth: While more and more farmers may be adopting AGRA’s model, their incomes from crop sales have not materialized and rural poverty remains endemic.
Even internally, the project has admitted it’s not meeting its goals: An evaluation commissioned by AGRA’s donors earlier this year found the initiative “did not meet its headline goal of increased incomes and food security for 9 million smallholders, despite reaching over 10 million” of them.
Hoping to address its shortcomings, AGRA underwent a major rebranding this month — it dropped the “green revolution” from its name — and launched a new five-year plan.
But earlier this month, a group of regional civil society, farm and faith groups called on international donors, including in Germany, the Netherlands and the U.K., to defund the initiative completely. They argued that AGRA’s rebrand fails to address its fundamental issue: it puts farmers at the mercy of volatile global markets while worsening the continent’s food security and harming the environment.
“We demand not a rebranding of AGRA, but an end to funding for harmful green revolution programs,” said Gabriel Manyangadze of the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute.
Despite the criticism, AGRA’s donors are sticking to the program.
A spokesperson for the Gates Foundation said the program “is playing a critical role in helping countries implement the priorities and policies contained in their national agricultural development strategies and building resilient regional food systems.” A spokesperson for the Rockefeller Foundation said “even successful programs come with lessons we can take into our future work.”
A spokesperson for the Dutch foreign ministry said the ministry evaluates AGRA’s effectiveness “per specific program.” Depending on the local context, “external inputs, like chemical fertilizer, might be part of the solution package, but not necessarily,” the spokesperson added.
A new report, co-financed by the German federal development ministry (BMZ), has called on the German government to end its work with AGRA, but a BMZ spokesperson said future support “must be gauged on if and how AGRA can contribute to a socially and ecologically sound transformation of agri-food systems.”
At the heart of the program is the aim to get African farmers to use more synthetic fertilizers.
Representatives of AGRA that POLITICO spoke to said the low fertilizer use is the main reason why agricultural yields across much of Africa have remained stagnant. Africa’s sub-Saharan farmers continue to apply by far the lowest amounts in the world — around 17 to 20 kilograms per hectare each year. By comparison, Dutch farmers apply on average around 15 times as much.
Multinational fertilizer giants see sub-Saharan Africa as their last unconquered frontier and AGRA doesn’t shy away from admitting that it’s played a role in helping them gain a stronger foothold, even as it aims to help African governments boost domestic production at the same time.
“Fertilizer consumption in sub-Saharan Africa has doubled over the past two decades. Some of this success or change can be linked to our work,” an AGRA spokesperson said.
While synthetic fertilizers help boost yields, they do exact an environmental cost. North America and Europe are approaching limits on how much synthetic fertilizer they can put in the soil, and the EU is looking to reduce its own use altogether.
“AGRA propagates this idea that African farmers don’t produce enough food because they don’t use enough chemical fertilizers,” said Million Belay from the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, a Uganda-based group. “The implication is that if we pump soils with chemicals, we will grow more food. But we know what that means in terms of polluting the soil, making farmers dependent on external inputs, and climate change.”
And as global fertilizer prices reach record-high levels, Africa’s farmers are finding themselves the hardest hit. Demand for locally produced fertilizer is rising, but some countries depend on imports for up to 70-80 percent of their fertilizer needs, and, cash-strapped themselves, they are struggling to provide assistance to farmers.
The critics say some of this vulnerability can be attributed to the groundwork laid down by AGRA.
In Zambia and Tanzania, one report found, AGRA convinced smallholder farmers to take out loans so they could purchase commercial fertilizers and seeds. But when the prices of grain dropped, the farmers were no longer able to repay their lenders, and some were forced to sell their livestock, pushing them into further debt. AGRA has also been criticized for helping seed and pesticide multinationals like Bayer, DuPont and Syngenta expand into several of the countries it is active in.
In response, AGRA’s representatives say they are trying to adopt a more holistic vision of what agriculture in Africa should look like, taking lessons “about approaches that work.”
In its new five-year strategy, fertilizers are no longer mentioned explicitly, with the strategy instead doubling down on strengthening markets and promoting access to commercial seeds.
“It’s an extremely important part of what AGRA does — recognizing that we can change farmers’ lives just by helping them have access to the seeds,” said AGRA’s President Agnes Kalibata, adding that technology, fertilizers and irrigation “are also needed.” Kalibata said the focus on “partnerships” will be central to its approach going forward.
But Timothy Wise, from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a research and advocacy group, said “there is almost nothing new” in the strategy.
“They certainly do nothing to address the many ways in which the Green Revolution model of agriculture is fostering unsustainable land use, acidifying soils rather than making them more fertile, and weakening farmers’ resilience to climate change,” Wise said.
“Honestly, the failure to make improved food security and farmers’ prosperity more of a priority, or even something they would measure, is shocking to me.”
AGRA, he said, “has had 17 years to produce results, with literally billions of dollars in support. Time’s up.”
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