Why Africa’s Green Revolution Failed

Yves here. This is a damning account of how the African Green Revolution, which was supposed to greatly increase agricultural output and reduce hunger through “modern” farming techniques, has only modestly increased output at the cost of soil degradation. Even worse, malnutrition has increased.

By Timothy A. Wise, who directs the Land and Food Rights Program at the U.S.-based Small Planet Institute and is a Senior Researcher at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment. Originally published at the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy blog; cross posted from Triple Crisis

Fourteen years ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) with the goal of bringing Africa its own Green Revolution in agricultural productivity. Armed with high-yield commercial seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, AGRA eventually set the goal to double productivity and incomes by 2020 for 30 million small-scale farming households while reducing food insecurity by half in 20 countries.

According to a new report from a broad-based civil society alliance, based partly on my new background paper, AGRA is “failing on its own terms.” There has been no productivity surge. Many climate-resilient, nutritious crops have been displaced by the expansion in supported crops such as maize. Even where maize production has increased, incomes and food security have scarcely improved for AGRA’s supposed beneficiaries, small-scale farming households. The number of undernourished in AGRA’s 13 focus countries has increased 30% during the organization’s well-funded Green Revolution campaign.

“The results of the study are devastating for AGRA and the prophets of the Green Revolution,” says Jan Urhahn, agricultural expert at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, which funded the research and on July 10 published “False Promises: The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).”

A Record of Failure

As I document in my background paper, “Failing Africa’s Farmers: An Impact Assessment of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa,” AGRA has received nearly $1 billion in contributions, the vast majority from the Gates Foundation but with significant contributions from donor governments, including from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and other countries. AGRA has made over $500 million in grants to promote its vision of a “modernized” African agriculture freed from its limited technology and low yields. The campaign has been fortified with large financial outlays by African governments, much of it in the form of subsidies to farmers to buy the seeds and fertilizers AGRA promotes. These subsidy programs have been estimated to provide as much as $1 billion per year in direct support for such technology adoption.

AGRA has been controversial from the start. Many farmers’ groups on the continent actively opposed the initiative, pointing to negative environmental and social impacts of the first Green Revolution in Asia and Latin America. Since AGRA’s founding, scientists and world leaders have gained growing awareness of the limitations of input-intensive agricultural systems, particularly to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2019 documented the many ways industrialized agriculture contributes to climate change, calling for profound changes to both mitigate and help farmers adapt to climate disruptions.

Surprisingly, as AGRA reaches its self-declared deadline of 2020, the organization has published no overall evaluation of the impacts of its programs on the number of smallholder households reached, the improvements in their yields and household incomes or their food security, nor does it make reference to its goals or progress in achieving them. Neither has the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has provided two-thirds of AGRA’s funding. This lack of accountability represents a serious oversight problem for a program that has both consumed so much in the way of resources and driven the region’s agricultural development policies with its narrative of technology-driven, input-intensive agricultural development.

Our research seeks to fill that accountability gap. Unfortunately, AGRA declined our request to provide data from its own internal monitoring and evaluation of progress. In the absence of data on AGRA’s direct beneficiaries, we use national-level data from 13 AGRA countries through 2018 on production, yield and area harvested for most of the region’s important food crops to assess the extent to which Green Revolution programs are significantly raising productivity. We also examine data on poverty and hunger to gauge whether there are signs that smallholder farmers’ incomes and food security are improving across the region at levels commensurate with AGRA’s goals of improved farmer welfare.

We found no evidence that productivity, incomes or food security were increasing significantly for smallholder households. Specifically, we found:

  • Little evidence AGRA was reaching a significant number of farmers. Its last progress report says only that AGRA had trained 5.3 million farmers in modern practices with “1.86 million farmers using” such practices. This is vague and far short of the stated goal of doubling productivity and incomes for seven million farmers directly and another 21 million indirectly.
  • No evidence of significant increases in smallholder incomes or food security. For AGRA countries as a whole, there has been a 30% increase in the number of people suffering extreme hunger since AGRA began, a condition affecting 130 million people in AGRA countries. Kenya, home to AGRA’s headquarters, saw an increase in the share of its people suffering undernourishment in the AGRA years.
  • No evidence of large productivity increases. For staple crops as a whole, yields are up only 18% over 12 years for AGRA’s 13 countries. Even maize, heavily promoted by Green Revolution programs, showed just 29% yield growth, well short of AGRA’s goal of doubling productivity, which would be a 100% increase.
  • Where technology adoption has taken place, input subsidies provided by African governments seem far more influential than AGRA’s programs. It is difficult to find evidence that AGRA’s programs would have any significant impacts in the absence of such large subsidies from African governments.
  • Even where production increased, as in Zambia, a near-tripling of maize production did not result in reductions in rural poverty or hunger. Small-scale farmers were not benefiting; poverty and hunger remained staggeringly high with 78% of rural Zambians in extreme poverty.
  • Green Revolution incentives for priority crops such as maize drove land into maize and out of more nutritious and climate-resilient traditional crops such as millet and sorghum, eroding food security and nutrition for poor farmers. Millet production declined 24% with yields falling 21% in the AGRA years.
  • No signs of “sustainable intensification,” the goal of sustainably increasing production on existing farmland. Environmental impacts are negative, including acidification of soils under monoculture cultivation with fossil-fuel-based fertilizers. Production increases have come more from farmers bringing new land under cultivation — “extensification” — than from productivity increases. Both trends have implications for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Rwanda: “Africa’s Hungry Poster Child”

Rwanda, widely considered an AGRA success story thanks to rising maize production and yields, illustrates AGRA’s failings. Overall productivity improvements across staple crops have been weak, while the number of undernourished has increased 15% in the AGRA years. Rwanda’s former Agriculture Minister, Agnes Kalibata, now heads AGRA and was recently named to lead a planned U.N. World Food Summit in 2021.

“AGRA’s questionable approach cannot provide the necessary impetus for the U.N. Summit on Food Systems,” says Stig Tanzmann, agricultural expert at Bread for the World and one of the report’s authors.

That summit should instead actively consider agroecology and other low-cost, low-input approaches, which have shown far better short and long-term prospects than high-input Green Revolution practices. One University of Essex study surveyed nearly 300 large ecological agriculture projects across more than 50 poor countries and documented an average 79% increase in productivity with decreasing costs and rising incomes. Such results far surpass AGRA’s.

“In view of the results of the study, the German government must change course consistently and use agroecology and the human right to food as a compass for its policy,” according to Lena Bassermann, agricultural expert from the development organization INKOTA, a co-author of the report and one of the organizations asking the German government to withdraw from AGRA.

“AGRA is a vicious circle that drives small-scale food producers further and further into poverty, destroying their natural resources,” says Mutinta Nketani, an agricultural specialist from PELUM Zambia and author of the report’s case study on Zambia.

As the report makes clear, as AGRA reaches its 2020 deadline, it is time for African governments and the donor community to change course. The report recommends that:

  • Donor governments withdraw their funding from AGRA and shift it to programs that help smallholder farmers, particularly women, develop climate-resilient ecologically sustainable farming practices such as agroecology, which is increasingly recognized and supported by FAO and the international donor community.
  • African governments withdraw from AGRA and other Green Revolution programs, including input-subsidy programs, and transition their agricultural development programs toward a more robust array of policies that respond to smallholder farmers’ expressed needs.

As former FAO Director General Jose Graziano da Silva indicated, “We need to promote a transformative change in the way that we produce and consume food. We need to put forward sustainable food systems that offer healthy and nutritious food, and also preserve the environment. Agroecology can offer several contributions to this process.”

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    So many chemical based farming techniques are the equivalent of eating your seed corn. You can increase production in the short to medium term, while in the longer term degrading your water and soil resources. Its the very definition of unsustainable. They are also of course highly dependent on fossil fuels to produce many of the fertilisers and biocides.

    I’ve also noticed a tendency for supporters of various Green Revolutions to use graphs that show the short term (and very dramatic) increase in outputs while ignoring the long term increase in productivity over time of older style agricultural methods. it reminds me a little of how private equity pretends their successes over the past few years can be extrapolated over the long term, when as we all know, they can’t. Traditional farmers are by nature very cautious – there is a good reason for this.

    1. Prairie Bear

      +1 although I would say that the point about soil and water degradation makes it even worse than eating your seed corn.

      Also, agriculture even in the beginning was very destructive. It tills an area of soil with the aim of killing basically all of the diverse plants that are growing there and replacing it with one species, the desired mono crop. The degradation was very slow at first, with ancient tillage methods and the small scale of the farming, but it was there from the beginning and has accelerated ever since.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        If agriculture even in the beginning was very destructive then why was terra preta agriculture so very constructive in the Amazon for terraforming whole chunks of Amazonia into better-soil upgrade status?

        1. BlakeFelix

          Yeah, I think that you are right, but that was a fairly isolated and unusual practice. Old world agriculture tends to leave deserts I think. It wasn’t all bad but it was mostly bad. Especially goats to my understanding, goats are good at surviving, but their ability to eat anything leaves nothing.

        2. Prairie Bear

          Perhaps the terra preta plots were done on a much smaller scale? That is, there were a great many of them, but each individually small and more like super-intensive horticulture plots than agricultural fields. Also, as BlakeFelix said, they were one exception, in an area that is relatively small when considering the whole of global agriculture. I don’t know enough about the terra preta system to say that much. I have read of them in Charles Mann’s 1491: The Americas Before Columbus and also The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change by Albert Bates. If you have some other sources that talk about it, I would be interested to hear of them.

  2. jr

    It’s too long ago to dig up the source but I recall hearing of some ag company who produced and lobbied for the acceptance of the vitamin A “biofortified” “Golden Rice” GMO in Bangladesh. They also lobbied hard to have the leafy green plants that traditionally supplied people with vitamin A reclassified in the botany text books as a weeds to make them targets for eradication.

    Side note: I looked at a couple of “Golden Rice” sites on DuckDuck, with a few critical exceptions these are the kinds of headlines that came up. It’s all cheerleading and the language is almost childish in it’s insistence that you accept the basic goodness of this crap.

    “The True Story of the Genetically Modified Superfood That Almost Saved Millions”

    “Golden Rice Project: Golden Rice Humanitarian Board”


    “Golden Rice: The GMO crop loved by humanitarians, opposed by Greenpeace”

    This last was from the “Genetic Literacy Project” whose motto is “Science Not Ideology”………………which is, of course, ideology.

  3. Bill Smith

    A Green Revolution, This Time for Africa, BY TINA ROSENBERG APRIL 9, 2014 12:00 PM

    The above is a 2014 NYT article that discusses the problems up that time with the various initiatives in Africa on this subject with includes AGRA.

    It details a number of the likely reasons comparing what didn’t happen in Africa with what did in other places.

    For example:

    There, the climate was too varied, the soils too degraded. Africa lacked infrastructure such as roads, or India’s railway system, that helped farmers to commercialize their grain.

    Asian governments had large programs to provide credit, extension agents to teach new farming methods and subsidized inputs; the Food Corporation of India bought surplus grains at a guaranteed price.

    African governments, for the most part, did not do these things.

    There are also problems like this: Maize Lethal Necrosis in Kenya.

  4. David

    Hello again Development Theory, with its belief that local knowledge and experience count for nothing next to the clever ideas of outsiders. James C Scott pretty much destroyed the idea twenty years ago in Seeing Like a State, which had, if I remember correctly, some discussion of agricultural projects in Africa. But it seems you can’t keep a bad idea down.
    Ironically, intensive agriculture Is now being abandoned in parts of Europe, in favour of traditional techniques that resemble those displaced by this initiative. Not far from where I am typing this are organic farms which use natural means of discouraging pests and weeds, and crop rotation, just like we learnt about in history books.

  5. KLG

    Absolutely nothing new here. For the past 50+ years Wendell Berry (farmer, poet, novelist, social critic, historian, short story writer par excellence) has shown that industrialized agriculture is a futile category error and will remain so. With increasingly dire consequences for the earth and its living creatures. Local knowledge is the one essential for a productive, sustainable agriculture. Anyway, Norman Borlaug had good intentions…not so sure about Bill Gates and the Rockefeller Foundation.

  6. The Rev Kev

    Yes, we should definitely trust Bill Gates with the subject of food security in Africa because if there was anything that Bill Gates was good at it was security at Microsoft. This whole thing could have been predicted sight unseen by a focus on newer agricultural methods over what farmers in Africa had been doing for centuries. What first made me suspicious about modern farming was a conversation that I had with a guy who did an agricultural course in Brisbane about thirty years ago. He was saying how he was taught about pumping the soils with chemical fertilizers and pesticides and going for a mono-cultural approach. But he and his fellow students wondered if the end result would be land that would not be fit to hand down to your grand-kids and I think that they had a point. It would have been far better to go into a place like Africa, analyze the methods that they were using and then refine and develop them instead of imposing western ideas about what works and what does not. Maybe it s not too late.

  7. td

    It is generally difficult in such countries for farmers to get properly paid for their output. Middlemen and government officials take large shares so cash cropping is impractical for a smallholder. Commercial seed and fertilizer require money to purchase, and in many cases, farmers are driven to the wall by debt. There are many stories online about farmers in India committing suicide because of accumulated debts.

    Subsistence farmers at least have their own output to survive on and typically grow a number of crops, giving some variety. Any surplus can be sold to provide small amounts of cash and profitability is less of an issue.

    Even in the so-called developed countries, it is a real question whether large-scale commercial farming is a viable business model for the long-term as the cost of inputs has been rising steadily, with the short-term exception of fuel. Crop prices don’t tend to follow suit.

    Many farmers have been expanding their operations simply to provide enough profit to keep on going, and the current crisis has weakened many of them to the point where we will probably see many bankruptcies without continuing massive subsidies.

    1. Felix_47

      Good point. Without substantial government price supports, tax advantages, and ethanol subsidies farmers in the US would be having problems. Here in rural Germany most all of the agriculture is growing corn to make into ethanol at great expense with less energy produced than required to grow it. Same political picture as the US. The problem in Africa is that the population has outstripped its resources by a long shot. Africans are living more and more in cities with the only survival option being transfer payments from relatives working or on public support in Europe or the US. Paul Theroux wrote a great editorial about the issues in Africa in the New York Times called the”Rock Stars Burden.” It was published in December 2005.

      1. Thuto

        “The problem in Africa is that the population has outstripped resources by a long shot”…

        Really? This finger wagging “Africa owes its plight to overpopulation” trope is always conveniently pushed by western academic and liberal elites to deflect attention from how the West continues to benefit from our continent’s underdevelopment, and indeed how its playbook of using captured local political elites and so-called aid money continues to smother any prospects for advancement. I won’t go into your own country Germany and its record in the country next door to me, Namibia. The long, dark shadow cast on the population of that country by Germany’s actions continues to stunt its development today, specifically with respect to the dispossessed and disenfranchised natives, not the German settlers who continue to own much of the productive land and the economy in general. Western sponsored Industrial farming parachuted in “economic hit men” who dispossessed local small scale farmers of their land under the guise of “modernizing farming and increasing crop yield”. Western “investors” are beating a path to Africa’s door to get in on a feeding frenzy of goobling up fertile land across the continent at fire-sale prices, working with corrupt local politicians to trick small scale farmers who never needed the west to feed their families and earn an income by selling their surplus produce in local farmers markets into parting with their land, making them ripe for exploitation by the new owners who waste no time turning them into indentured (slave) wage labourers.

        This neocolonial land grab is one the big reasons why rural Africans move to the big cities. I’d advise you be more circumspect peddling these types of convenient, simplistic tropes gleaned from op-eds from the NYT because you know not whose agenda they serve.

        1. John Zelnicker

          July 19, 2020 at 4:32 am

          Thank you for your excellent comment.

          It never ceases to amaze me how these wealthy folks like Bill Gates and the Rockefellers seem to think they know what’s best for farmers on the other side of the world when they have no idea whatsoever about the lived experience of those farmers and how they survive.

          I’d also wager that they spend exactly zero effort in talking to and trying to understand how these folks live.

          I guess I still have trouble figuring out how having a ton of money makes you smarter than the next guy with little money. Especially for things in which you have no experience.

  8. Susan the other

    One solution fits all. What nonsense. But profitable nonsense. Just think about all the ongoing little ecosystems (many millions of them) that daily adapt to their immediate surroundings because (newsflash!) DNA is really that smart. Yes this happens on a minute by minute basis dear people. Everywhere. That’s why every resort used to have its own fragrant air, distinctive – now everything smells like a wildfire mixed with the stench of diesel. Right? So Africa, if you are listening, please for all of us stick to your ancient wisdom. Monsanto seeds and herbicides were designed for one thing only – for quick profits. How much did Bill Gates make selling the crippled-dog Monsanto to Bayer? Way too much I’m sure. And now it is the German’s who are analyzing this clearly – their Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung. The Stiftung is calling bullshit. This doesn’t surprise me at all. I only regret that here in America we do not have the power to do this. We had decades to expose Monsanto and even though there were many voices, we got no legal satisfaction. Could it possibly have been that Monsanto’s products were so intrinsic to big agricultural exports?

  9. Margaret Bartley

    More than 40 years ago, Francess Moore Lappe wrote Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity. While her examples and numbers may be outdated, the basic premise is more strongly supported than ever: the whole point of the Green Revolution is to bring traditional peoples and land into the control of global governance. Replace traditional foods with export crops that will be sold on the international market, and use the cash to (theoretically) buy more nutritional food for the growers and others in the country. Of course, the cash received by selling exported food is used to pay for the loans, government pay-offs, and technology used, and, predictably, there just isn’t enough left over to feed the people.

    This just goes to show how necessary a realistic assessment of the problem is. As long as the analysis is restricted to graphs of production and input, without an assessment of who pays, who wins, who loses, this can go on into the indefinite future as we wait for more data, more “fixes”, better technology.

    Meanwhile, the conversion of food to cash continues to devastate people around the world.

    1. Dirk77

      I suppose the article was an executive summary, but even so it seemed to have many holes. Numbers are given but lack of mention about controls, such as changes in population or climate, made it so I couldn’t draw any conclusions. Anyways, I deduce from you and the other commenters that if any organization wanted to really help indigenous farmers, the first thing, if not too late, would be to educate them about the nature of “help” from others. In particular those that essentially try to steal their land or water. Thanks.

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