Q&A with an architect of the Gates-funded ‘green revolution’ for Africa

Kofi Annan and Melinda Gates at 2012 African Green Revolution Forum, Tanzania
Flickr, agrforum

While Bill Gates was in New York City to stump for polio eradication at last week’s ‘high-level’ side meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, Melinda Gates was attending another fairly high-level meeting in Arusha, Tanzania – the African Green Revolution Forum.

One of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s top priorities is to improve agricultural productivity and the lives of smallholder farmers in Africa, where crop yields have historically been much lower than elsewhere in the world contributing to much of the continent’s poverty. Most Africans are smallholder farmers, most farmers are women and most are poor.

With former United Nations Secretary General and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kofi Annan as its leading spokesman, the Gates Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation in 2006 launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

It hasn’t been without controversy.

To begin with, the term “Green Revolution” comes with baggage. The first Green Revolution was an agricultural reform initiative led half a century ago by an amazing agricultural scientist named Norman Borlaug and pushed by the Rockefeller Foundation aimed at improving crop yields in poor countries.

That first Green Revolution in the 1950s and ’60s did improve yields dramatically in many regions of the world, saving lives and ending hunger. But it also promoted a Western-style, industrialized approach to agriculture that favored large-scale monoculture crops and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This had the adverse effect of knocking many smallholder farmers off their land in favor of corporate farming, caused environmental problems and actually sometimes increased costs for farmers. The lesson: Improving crop yield isn’t everything.

Also, Africa got skipped over in the first Green Revolution.

So when the Gates Foundation announced a few years back that it was sponsoring a second Green Revolution for Africa, many took them as fighting words. Organizations like Seattle-based AGRA Watch is a leading critic of the Gates approach and has organized protests focused on the philanthropy’s partnerships with big agri-businesses like Monsanto.

Roy Steiner
Gates Foundation

Roy Steiner is deputy director for agriculture in the development program at the Gates Foundation. Roy, who as been there since before the philanthropy dug into the dirt, has degrees in all sort of things from all sorts of major universities. He has lived in Africa and worked on a number of projects, both agricultural and technological, and went to the meeting last week in Tanzania as well.

I asked Roy to explain where they are with this ‘green revolution’ for Africa, what it is the world’s biggest philanthropy is trying to do for poor farmers and why it remains controversial.

Q Why is the idea of launching a ‘green revolution’ for Africa so controversial?

RS: I think it’s more problematic in the north than in Africa. Many African leaders want a green revolution. They want to be able to feed their people and move away from food aid. The first green revolution did cause some significant social, economic and environmental problems and we don’t want to repeat those problems.

Q Critics of the Gates-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) say it still favors large-scale, industrialized farming approaches. Does it?

RS: If you look at our grants, it’s clear that our focus is on smallholder farmers, particularly women farmers. The seed companies we support sell packs of seeds in one or two kilogram packets because that’s what individual farmers buy. The materials we develop are in hundreds of different languages and our support often goes to smallholder organizations.

If we were interested in promoting large-scale plantation agriculture, we wouldn’t be putting most of our efforts into reaching smallholder farmers. We measure success in our projects not by overall agricultural GDP in a country but by detailed surveys of farmers and communities.

Q So what has been accomplished in the five years since AGRA was launched?

RS: To begin with, we have learned how important it is to put women at the center of agricultural reform. That’s why the new president of AGRA is a woman, Jane Karuka. I think that sends a very clear message that women need to be at the center of the agricultural development paradigm.

Secondly, AGRA has revolutionized the indigenous seed programs in these countries. We have created 70 local seed companies that sell seeds that have been bred to perform better in the local conditions. We have something like 200 varieties of these locally adapted seeds, such as for maize and cow peas. They’re adapted to local needs for smallholder farmers and the companies are locally owned and run. None of them are genetically modified sees.AGRAdoes not invest in GMOs.

Another big area for us has been in soil fertility management. In many parts of Africa, the soil is very poor. What’s needed to improve the soil is a systems approach that is tailored to the local ecology. You can use either organic or inorganic fertilizer. Soil is a living organism and improving it requires an integrated approach.

Q How did agriculture come to be a primary focus of the Gates Foundation’s efforts to reduce poverty?

RS: It emerged from the research and analyses we did. Our goals in global health, for example, are intimately connected in many poor communities to agricultural productivity. Take nutrition. Good health depends upon more than absence of disease. You need to have good, healthy food. You need good sanitation and water systems.

It became increasingly clear as we pursued our health goals that they had a strong inter-relationship with agriculture. We believe improving agriculture is one of the most effective levers against poverty, yet it has been an incredibly neglected area in development.

Q What has changed most in the Gates Foundation’s approach to agricultural development since it started?

RS: In the beginning, I think it’s fair to say we operated in silos. Targeting specific problems. We’ve learned how important it is to focus on farmers first, to make our projects ‘farmer-centric’ and better integrated into their daily lives. We are becoming much more aware of what that means.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.