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Donors, governments and business leaders had another lacklustre African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) this year from 5 to 8 September in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. There was little fanfare, few major announcements and no hint of meaningful input from small-scale farmers, the supposed beneficiaries of the erstwhile Green Revolution for Africa. Tanzanian farmers’ request for a seat at the table, in the form of a more critical side event, was denied.

Some say that if you don’t have a seat at the table, you are probably on the menu. That’s the way Zambian farmers are feeling. Zambia is one of several countries targeted for the so-called “agro-poles”, 250,000-acre blocks of land often taken from local communities to attract agribusiness investment. On the menu indeed.

“Where are the farmers?” asked Tanzanian farmer leader Juma Shabani at a sharply critical August 30 press conference organised by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA). “They are clearly excluded in the coming 2023 AGRF meeting in Tanzania, a country with more than 70 per cent of its population engaged in agriculture.” 

At the August 30 press conference, farm leaders from Kenya, Uganda, Mali, Zimbabwe and Zambia denounced the failures of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (now simply known by its acronym, AGRA, after it withdrew the words “green revolution” from its name). And they decried the undue influence the foreign-funded organisation has on African government policies.

“AGRA’s direct intervention and influence over African government policies, particularly in seeds and biosafety, have tilted the scales in favour of commercial seed providers and Green Revolution technologies,” reads the AFSA press release. “This level of interference has squeezed out alternative voices and approaches like agroecology.”

This is the third consecutive year the food sovereignty alliance and its allies have protested Green Revolution proponents’ zealous faith in their seeds, fertilisers, and pesticides. The only changes farmers have seen are cosmetic. The words “green revolution” have been removed from the forum, which is now called the African Food Systems Summit. And AGRA now stands, literally, for nothing. But Green Revolution policies were on full display at the Summit, despite their proven failures.

Hunger has grown to alarming levels across Sub-Saharan Africa. AGRA’s 13 focus countries have seen rising deprivation as the heavily promoted seeds and fertilisers fail to catalyse a productivity revolution. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other AGRA sponsors promised in 2006 to double productivity and incomes while halving food insecurity by 2020. Instead, the number of chronically hungry has risen by 50 per cent in AGRA countries, according to the United Nations.

Summit host Tanzania has seen the number of “undernourished” jump 34 per cent since it joined AGRA. An estimated 59 per cent of Tanzanians suffer moderate or severe levels of food insecurity.

The hungry and food insecure, many of them small-scale farmers, didn’t get seats at the AGRF table, but they are on the menu as the Green Revolutionaries plan their next corporate-backed effort to displace small-scale farmers with industralised farms.

The latest assault is being led by the African Development Bank (AfDB) under its “Feed Africa” initiative. It is supported by the Gates Foundation, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and AGRA itself, which under its self-proclaimed “AGRA 3.0” strategy is serving as the catalyst in pressing African governments to make their policies more friendly to agribusiness.

A damning donor evaluation last year acknowledged that AGRA had failed to achieve any of its objectives in improving farmer productivity and welfare. But, noted evaluators, it was often successful at changing policies. So AGRA has intensified its work to influence farm policies.

Zambia, which recently rejoined AGRA, is a particular target, and AGRA 3.0 seems willing to hijack more democratic policy efforts.

Zambia had been developing its second National Agriculture Investment Plan (NAIP II) since 2021, the basic framework for agricultural development. After much productive public consultation during the evaluation of NAIP I, Zambian advocates and farmers were surprised to be presented with a completely different investment framework written with support from FAO-sponsored consultants and the resident AGRA consultant who has been attached to the Ministry of Agriculture since 2020.

The Comprehensive Agriculture Transformation Support Programme (CATSP) was in no way based on the emerging consensus and recommendations from the NAIP I evaluation. The massive document calls for a broad set of pro-business policy reforms designed “to enable the private sector” to take over agricultural production and marketing.

The focus is on commodity value chains for a narrow set of commercial crops. Look for more maize, soybeans and wheat, not the sorts of nutritious, climate-resilient foods such as millet and sorghum. The plan expands the development of 250,000-acre “farm blocks” for industrial farms, often on land taken from local farmers and communities.

A damning donor evaluation last year acknowledged that AGRA had failed to achieve any of its objectives in improving farmer productivity and welfare.

Green Mbozi, the Permanent Secretary for Technical Services in the Zambian Ministry of Agriculture, told participants at a meeting convened by the Economics Association of Zambia that “inefficient smallholder farmers will be phased out (stop producing) to pave way for large and commercial farmers to produce efficiently to lower the cost of food”.  The CATSP document and its annexed Policy Implementation Instruments are being rushed through, with a “national validation” scheduled for 5 October 2023, a move seen by many grassroots organisations as unfortunate.

These are the kinds of policies that come from AGRA’s top-down approaches to policy development. The new strategy was prepared by foreign consultants with limited stakeholder consultation. Most smallholder farmers, civil society organisations and faith-based institutions were not at that table, and the few who were either were brought in by cooperating partners or were known to be Green Revolution allies. The final document reflects this exclusion, as smallholder interests are not represented.

USAID has shown its commitment to supporting the plan’s implementation once it is approved. The African Development Bank is financing such schemes across the continent, as the international NGO GRAIN documented in a recent report. Its director, former Nigerian Agriculture Minister Akinwumi Adesina, boasted that African agriculture will be “the new oil”.

Judging by the strong words at the food sovereignty alliance’s August 30 press conference, African farmers will not tolerate another extractive corporate scheme that fails to benefit the poor. They again demanded that private and bilateral donors recognise the proven failures of the Green Revolution approach and shift their support to farmer-centred ecological agriculture. Farmers working with agroecologists are getting far better results than AGRA ever did.

The simple and low-cost innovation of “green manure cover-cropping” has scientists working with some 15 million small-scale maize farmers in Africa to plant local varieties of trees and nitrogen-fixing food crops in their maize fields, tripling maize yields at no cost to the farmer.

Some Zambian farmers have shifted from failing Green Revolution approaches. Organisations such as Kasisi Agricultural Training Center stopped promoting such practices when their agronomists discovered farmers were paying higher input costs but getting little in return. Kasisi now trains farmers in organic farming, with far better results.

The Zambian Alliance for Agroecology and Biodiversity works with a wide network of local “seed savers”, trying to halt the disappearance of local varieties of food crops lost to Green Revolution subsidies and promotion. They are restoring diversity to farmers’ fields.

African farmers will not tolerate another extractive corporate scheme that fails to benefit the poor.

As Mamadou Goïta of Mali’s Institute for Research and Promotion of Alternatives in Development said at the August 30 press conference, “Farmer groups have never accepted these technological fixes. People have been working on their own food systems, to push back on what AGRA was planting.”

“Africans love agriculture, it is the backbone of our economy,” said event moderator Susan Nakacwa, of the international NGO GRAIN. “But when it comes to agricultural policies, this love is not shown back to farmers.”

It is time for donors to take small-scale farmers off the menu. Allowing foreign consultants to hijack policies developed over years by the full range of stakeholders – including farmer groups – as they have in Zambia, is an insult to Zambia’s sovereignty and democratic participation. USAID and other donors should stop putting Zambia’s farmers on the menu, threatening their lands and livelihoods.

Give them back their seat at the table. Better still, let them into the kitchen to plan their own sumptuous menu of African foods that respect local cultures, restore the land, and make farmers more resilient to climate change, not more vulnerable.

They could even decide to use a few Green Revolution ingredients. Or not. It would be their choice. That’s food sovereignty: the right to choose free of corporate pressure and foreign influence.