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Ghanaian activist leads fight to protect small family farms in Africa

Activists opposed to the expansion of large-scale corporate agriculture in the developing world protest outside the Seattle headquarters of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Nearly everyone agrees that something needs to be done to improve the lot of farmers throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. Where consensus quickly falls apart is when folks start talking about how.

For today’s Humanosphere podcast, we are talking to Bernard (Bern) Guri, chairman of an organization in Accra, Ghana, called the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. Guri, the son of a smallholder farmer, is being honored along with others this Saturday at Seattle Town Hall in a counterpoint event to the World Food Prize.

Guri, along with a farmworker collective based in Florida, will be awarded the Food Sovereignty Prize.

Bern Guri speaks outside the Gates Foundation

Bern Guri speaks outside the Gates Foundation

On Thursday, Guri, along with the local organization Community Alliance for Global Justice sponsoring the Saturday event, joined a small – and soggy – group of activists to protest outside the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is funding a number of major initiatives aimed at improving agricultural productivity and farmer livelihoods in Africa and throughout the developing world.

So what exactly is ‘food sovereignty’ and why are proponents of it opposed to the approach taken by the Gates Foundation and the folks in Iowa behind the World Food Prize? The big Iowa confab this week features a number of African leaders such as former President of Malawi Joyce Banda and specifically honors leading African agricultural scientists who have done things like improve the nutritional value of the staple crop sweet potato and increased drought tolerance in other crops.

The Gates Foundation, which supports the World Food Prize as a means to inspire agricultural innovation, has a massive agricultural reform program that is intended to help smallholder farmers in poor countries.

“A majority of the world’s poorest people – the one billion who live on less than $2 a day – are smallholder farmers who rely on agriculture to feed themselves and their families, yet many cannot grow or raise enough to eat or sell,” said Gates Foundation spokesperson Leonora Diller. “Investing in agricultural development is the most effective way of helping lift the poorest people out of poverty, building self-sufficient and more prosperous societies.”

Diller said the philanthropy’s support for scientists to improve the nutritional value of staple crops, aka biofortification, is aimed at empowering smallholder farmers “with the knowledge, tools, and technologies to improve their livelihoods, lift their families out of poverty, and contribute to a sustainable global food system.”

But Guri and his activist colleagues contend that the Gates Foundation, the World Food Prize Foundation and others with the most power to financially influence the direction of agricultural reform in Africa are favoring the methods and strategies of Western, industrialized farming.

“We want to see more support for indigenous and traditional farming methods,” said Guri. African farmers and farming communities do need new technologies and new methods, he said, but the changes must be seeded (to use a farming metaphor) from the ground up and begin by listening to farmers first. “That is not happening,” he said. “I can tell you that many farming communities believe this is not about helping them but about imposing something on them.”

There can be a big difference, Guri says, between improving agricultural productivity in terms of crop yield and helping farmers. Food sovereignty is about putting the emphasis on helping farmers and farming communities first, he said, with crop productivity an accompanying goal.

As usual, before we talk with our main guest Guri, Tom Paulson and I discuss some of the more interesting headlines in the Humanosphere beginning with a new report that ranks countries in terms of how well they support and empower girls, because this is a key indicator of overall progress. We also discuss a somewhat surprising finding, that good mass transit is a need everywhere and not just in the rich world. We highlight another Lisa Nikolau story exploring why it’s perhaps not helpful for the media – or policymakers – to keep focusing on the latest mosquito-borne disease or infectious disease du jour.  We also note how Tom Murphy’s story from July pointing out the undemocratic danger of Trump and his supporters calling for Clinton to be jailed was resurrected by Buzzfeed because of it arising again in the presidential debates.

Listen in!

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About Author

Imana Gunawan

Imana Gunawan is Humanosphere's social media manager and podcast producer. A University of Washington graduate in journalism and dance, Imana's interests include underrepresented communities, the intersection between politics and culture, global-local issues and the arts. She can be reached at @imanafg on Twitter or