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Mariam Mayet on how Western aid can do more harm than good to African farmers

A farmer at Um Hujara, Kebkabiya locality, North Darfur - Sudan, with his vegetable bounty. ©FAO/Z. Jones

Ask not what donors can do for agriculture in Africa, ask what African governments can do for themselves. That is the main message from this week’s podcast featuring Director of the African Centre for Biosafety, Mariam Mayet. She tells host Tom Paulson that there is a need for a strong agrarian emphasis by African governments, because about 80 percent of the people on the continent live in rural areas.

Miriam Mayet, African Centre for Biodiversity, and Lin Li Lim, Third World Network.

Miriam Mayet, African Centre for Biodiversity, and Lin Li Lim, Third World Network.

Before becoming an environmental crusader, Mayet worked as a lawyer “during the anti-apartheid days.” She went back to school and then started working with NGOs, thus launching her environmental career. It led her to launch the ACB 10 years ago, with the aim of looking closely at the forces affecting agriculture in Africa, from crop types to privatization.

Her South African-based organization is one of the strongest voices against the introduction and use of genetically modified organisms on the African continent. The issue of GM crops and the influence of Western agricultural practices feature in her discussion with with Tom. Mayet sharply criticizes the efforts that put forward farming practices that rely heavily on fertilizers, hybrid seeds and mono-crops for the sake of income.

“We view the green revolution push as a very violent system,” Mayet said.

The conversation comes on the heels of a deeply critical report on the Gates Foundation’s agricultural investments. Only 10 percent of the $3 billion invested by the foundation for agriculture in Africa is spent on the continent. The vast majority of the money, about 75 percent, goes to U.S.-based organizations according to the Barcelona-based research group Grain.

“The north-south divide is most shocking, however, when we look at the $669 million given to non-government groups for agriculture work,” says Grain in a report published earlier this week. Africa-based groups received just 4 percent. More than 75 percent went to organizations based in the U.S.”

The report’s sharpest criticisms are aligned with points made by Mayet in the podcast. Agricultural investments made by the foundation are focused on the development of technologies that perpetuate the very practices that are harming agriculture in Africa.

“The overwhelming majority of its funding goes to high-tech scientific outfits, not to supporting the solutions that the farmers themselves are developing on the ground. Africa’s farmers are cast as recipients, mere consumers of knowledge and technology from others,” according to the report.

The Gates Foundation rejected the analysis by Grain in a statement issued following the publication of the report. It countered that 20 percent of its agricultural funds go straight to African groups and refuted the idea that non-African actors cannot contribute to improving agriculture on the continent.

“The central assumption is that only organizations located in Africa can benefit African farmers – and we think that is incorrect,” said the foundation in a statement.

It went on to say that “science and innovation can make life easier and better for farmers by making farms more productive and sustainable.”

Listen to this week’s podcast to get a better sense of why some of the efforts to improve agriculture by the West is failing Africa. Before hearing that, I speak with East Coast correspondent Tom Murphy about the latest headlines. We talk about the ever-popular topic of Ebola and why Tom Paulson is down in South Africa at a conference on AIDS. We end with Tom providing some, now-belated, Halloween costume advice for listeners considering wearing a sexy Ebola suit costume.

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About Author

Gabe Spitzer

Gabriel Spitzer covers health and science at KPLU, after a year covering youth and education. He joined KPLU after years covering science, health and the environment at WBEZ in Chicago.