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Africa: Shades of Green, 2

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Sep 24, 2012 (120924)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the centerpiece of donor-initiated plans for agricultural development in Africa, is replete with positive language about food security, sustainable development, and attention to smallholder farmers. And, notes a new report from the African Centre for Biodiversity, it also recognizes many of the limitations of previous Green Revolution experiences in Asia and Latin America. Nevertheless, the Centre argues, its emphasis on incorporating African agricultural production into global value chains ignores the likely outcome of increased dependence by farmers on large multinational corporations, which will reap the largest share of the rewards.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin, sent out by e-mail as well as available on the web at, contains excerpts from this new report, focusing on critical alternative approaches to the commercialization model of agricultural development being fostered by AGRA. Organizations representing and advocating for small farmers, food security, and sustainable agricultural development, the report argues, have the difficult but necessary task of shaping an approach which does not reject the use of new technology but ensures that its development is subordinated to the interests of farmers and the public rather than to the maximization of profit for large commercial investors.

This is one of a series of three related Bulletins released today. The other two are available on the web but not sent out by e-mail to avoid overloading your in-boxes with too much content in one day.

One of these, available on the web at, contains a clear description of the main features of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), excerpted from the same report. This background analysis, which acknowledges that AGRA has accepted many earlier critiques of the Green Revolution model, gives further credibility to the nuanced but strong critique advanced by the African Centre for Biodiversity.

And a third related Bulletin, available on the web at, focuses on the key issue of "gene grabbing," the privatization of intellectual p;operty in African seeds drawn from the common store of resources developed by African farmers of centuries. Included in this Bulletin are excerpts from a new overview article by Andrew Mushita and Carol Thompson and from a 2010 study from the African Centre for Biodiversity on "The Sorghum Gene Grab."

Note a series to watch on Africa's business boom in Toronto's Globe & Mail. Neither Afro-optimism nor Afropessimism. Winners and losers behind the growth rates.

The official web site for AGRA is

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on food and agriculture issues, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA): Laying the Groundwork for the Commercialisation of African Agriculture

African Centre for Biosafety

September 15 2010

The African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) is a non-profi organisation, based in Johannesburg, South Africa. ... The ACB has a respected record of evidence based work and can play a vital role in the agro-ecological movement by striving towards seed sovereignty, built upon the values of equal access to and use of resources.

About this paper and why the focus on AGRA

This paper examines the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) with a focus on its work around seeds. AGRA's intervention in African agriculture ties together a number of otherwise disparate initiatives by public sector institutions, national and multinational government structures and private companies and investors. AGRA thus provides an organisational and technical nucleus for the expansion of profit-making ventures in African agriculture. It focuses on interventions in seed as one of the central technologies for the commercialisation of agriculture, and as a profit centre.

Appraisals of AGRA from sovereignty movements so far have tended to focus on generic critiques of Green Revolution approaches to agriculture, and on the links between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Gates Foundation) and multinational biotechnology and seed companies, in particular Monsanto. Most existing critiques emerged soon after AGRA's launch in 2006 before much had happened, based on the historical experience of the Green Revolution and the role of the Rockefeller and USAID programmes amongst others, based on the historical experience of the Green Revolution and the role of the Rockefeller and USAID programmes amongst others.

Enough time has passed now since AGRA's launch to begin interrogating the initiative on the basis of its practical experiences. What we have tried to do in this paper is to dig a bit deeper into AGRA's philosophy and practice to understand in more detail what they are proposing and interrogate this. ...

2. Key findings

We have found a fairly complex array of solutions being proposed by AGRA.

On the face of it, it would appear as if AGRA recognises the limits of trying to replicate the Green Revolution as it unfolded in Asia in the 1960s and 1970s in Latin America, where social and ecological conditions are markedly different. In this regard, AGRA appears to be proposing an approach to the introduction of new technologies based on the Green Revolution model that aims to work around some of these limits. In this regard, it emphasises the importance of local adaptation and the blending of different technological approaches according to context. For example, AGRA appears to be promoting work with resource-poor smallholder farmers and participatory plant breeding andselection.

However, AGRA considers hybrid seed, biotechnology (including genetic modification), synthetic fertilisers, irrigation, credit provision and general commercialisation of agricultural production as long-term goals to strive towards.

What AGRA has done is to set itself the immediate task of putting in place the building blocks to move towards the wider scale adoption of these Green Revolution technologies without trying to impose them all at once or immediately in a context where they will not be satisfactorily supported or taken up.

In this regard, an important focus of AGRA's project is to work on building both institutional and regulatory systems that can support the introduction of these technologies. Working with individuals and organisations with a long history of agricultural development work in Africa, such as USAID and the Citizen's Network for Foreign Affairs (CNFA) - organisations whose key focus historically has been on the expansion of US agribusiness, AGRA has identified specific countries and areas within countries where this work can proceed most effectively. ...

AGRA's emphasis on the profit motive as the driving force of economic development, and its long-term orientation towards the rolling out of Green Revolution technologies based on biotechnology,synthetic fertilisers and debt-driven commercialisation place it on a potential collision course with the agroecological approaches being endorsed by farmerbased sovereignty movements.


9. Responding to AGRA

9.1 Technological pathways

How can food and seed sovereignty movements respond to AGRA's initiatives? AGRA's interventions have technical as well as social dimensions, which are interlinked. AGRA tends to separate the technical and social aspects, or rather sees social benefit flowing from technological process in a one way stream. It advances a technical response to issues of agriculture and food production in Africa. According to Sam Moyo, AGRA seeks to contribute to the 'modernisation' of African agriculture,essentially through transfer of technology as the overarching solution to Africa's agrarian question(ActionAid, 2009:4). ...

Technically, AGRA presents what appears to be a contradictory process. Aspects of its interventions may find appeal to some, for example, the development of scientific capacity, building farmer participation in plant breeding and variety selection, local adaptation for specific agroecologies,enhancing soil fertility, and building distribution networks for inputs to reach more remote smallscale farmers. While it is our view that there is a role for science and for appropriate technologies,but if these are separated from direct producer control over their development and use, they are open to appropriation for sectional benefit. The ways technologies are developed and how they are channelled into societies can create a 'path dependence', reshaping society through technology in the interests of those who control the process. The technologies and distribution mechanisms being pursued by AGRA are undoubtedly open to capture by corporate interests to introduce GM and other technologies designed to ensure private profit; and to open the conduits to flood Africa with inappropriate technologies that can tie farmers into unsustainable high-input systems, while simultaneously destroying existing systems. ... Creating dependence on powerful, debt-driven external input providers is a very bad idea.

These are some of the important questions: can the introduction of technology designed to facilitate the appropriation of private profit also facilitate the introduction of useful new varieties? In the long run, would these displace existing varieties? Can improved access to manufactured fertilisers offer farmers greater choice without them necessarily having to buy into the hybrid seed paradigm?


9.2 Farmer organisation

A key struggle will be over ownership and control of technologies, and consequently the direction of their use. Issues of power loom large here. AGRA's work on building farmer associations will necessarily be a top-down process with farmer associations umbilically linked to AGRA programmes and products. These kinds of top-down, dependent civil society associations are structured to serve as conduits for corporate interest, and it is not always easy to work from inside such structures to create an independent voice and activity for producers. The clear counter to this is to engage on the basis of independent organisation, which ideally combines farmers with broader constituencies around food and seed sovereignty. Part of the struggle around technology is to bring scientists and academics into the sphere of influence of independent sovereignty movements, serving the interests of farmers and food consumers rather than corporations.

An associated question is the need for nascent food and seed sovereignty movements on the continent to more clearly define their constituencies. AGRA does emphasise smallholder producers, which is not such a big deal,given that the majority of farmers in Africa can be defined as smallholders. However, AGRA's focus is on adoption of Green Revolution technologies and commercialisation which will inevitably lead to concentration and centralisation. The majority of Africa's farmers will not fit into commercial agricultural production, including the integration into formal supply chains. There is need for a diverse production base, easy access to locally-adapted genetic resources, and maintenance of biodiversity; as well as to protect access to land and water for local and household production.

Not all those who distribute seeds can, or will want to, form a company in order to make private profits from these activities. By far the majority of farmers will need to continue saving and exchanging seed outside of formal markets as the basis of robust seed systems. How can this base be supported, deepened and extended without 'cherry picking' a small layer and condemning the rest to become passive consumers of seed, other inputs and, ultimately, food? AGRA does not refer to or recognise traditional ecological knowledge (Thompson, 2012:348), including seed saving and exchange, which forms the foundation of Africa's seed systems.

Are the two agendas of integration of smallholders into commercial value chains and localised production primarily for local use compatible? If we look at Africa's main Green Revolution 'success' (South Africa) we can see that a condition of the expansion of commercial agriculture,and the adoption of Green Revolution technologies, was the concentration of land holdings and the marginalisation or complete exclusion of smallholder farmers, and a concentration and centralisation of agricultural marketing systems. We cannot detach the technological basis of South African commercial agriculture from the accompanying processes of dispossession. They emerged hand-in-hand with one another.

AGRA and associated corporate initiatives in African agriculture threaten to split nascent food and seed sovereignty movements and farmer associations, dividing farmers between those who can participate in initiatives for commercialisation (not only by AGRA, but also by a range of other state and private sector actors from CAADP to hedge funds) and those who cannot. ...

So how might smallholder farmers and their organisations respond to AGRA's initiatives? Let us take these one by one, in the order of improved seed varieties, input distribution, soil fertility, and financing.

9.3 Improved seed

AGRA is proposing sustained investment in R&D to develop improved seed varieties, in close collaboration with farmers to breed and select varieties, and with privately contracted small-scale farmers to bulk up the seed for sale. It proposes to use the freely available genetic base residing inthe IARCs and NARS, but to privatise the results.

This privatisation must be the first point of contention. If public resources are being used as the genetic base, the products must also remain freely available to the public. AGRA argues that private ownership of the resulting improved varieties is the only way of 'crowding in' private sector investment. According to AGRA, states do not have enough resources or expertise to do this themselves, there is no other option. This logic needs to be pushed back. Movements need to think about ways to bring scientists and public sector R&D institutions closer to independent farmer associations and movements to work on R&D in the public rather than private interest. Public sector institutions may be under pressure to engage in PPPs where the benefits ultimately flow to private companies. However, there are units and individuals within these institutions that can be worked with to develop a counter strategy for the retention of improved genetic resources in the public sphere. The immediate task is to explore these possibilities and build practical links, however small,between public sector R&D and independent farmer movements and associations.

The second point of contention in the arena of improved seed is to demand greater R&D work on crops outside the core 'commercial' crops (maize, cassava) in conjunction with producers. There are thousands of other crops and varieties that are locally important, even if they do not reach an economic threshold that is interesting to multinational corporations. These crops have a consumer base, and a market, even if it is small. This base cannot be reached using centralised methods of production and distribution. By drawing on the "distributed intelligence" of millions of farmers through decentralising and democratising the tools of production and distribution, and connecting supply and demand (rather than imposing standardised products) these markets can be built(Anderson, 2009). ...

Food sovereignty movements should decide whether biotechnology (excluding GM) in the broad sense, has a possible role to play in improving genetic resources and increasing farmer choice. If so, then this must be accompanied by a clear orientation towards agroecological production and opposition to GM technologies, which threaten to obliterate alternatives on introduction. The key point, as above, is control over the technology and its development. A good rule of thumb is whether any development process increases the direct control and understanding of producers over a wider array of technologies, or whether the process results in greater passivity of producers in the face of technological change. ...

9.4 Seed markets/distribution

For seed distribution, AGRA focuses on agro-dealer networks based on private enterprises where farmers can buy inputs including seed and fertiliser, and where the owners can inform the farmers of the best choices for their conditions. ...
In theory, an 'agro-dealer' network can bring new varieties closer to farmers, but such a distribution system is reliant on cash and some travel is also usually involved. An additional limitation of agro-dealer networks is their dependence on the sale of the 'hit' seeds for them to remain profitable as enterprises. The result is a reduction in the range of varieties made available and an inevitable narrowing of seed diversity. The role of seed laws in preventing the sale or distribution of non-registered varieties, the cost of registration, and outlawing of the use of germplasm already developed by rights holders works against locally-developed varieties generated by local farmers.

Strengthening seed distribution infrastructure has a place in improving Africa's seed systems,although a key issue is how open the network is, and whether it enables the distribution of any seed or only that seed produced through AGRA's programmes. ...

The priority here must therefore be on strengthening of public sector extension services, based on farmer-to-farmer participatory approaches with extension officers playing a supportive and process facilitation role.

Almekinders and Louwaars' (2002) discussion of seed systems suggests the most appropriate seed distribution systems would be rooted in a combination of on-farm seed saving; with exchange between neighbours, friends and family both within and outside communities. Rather than building an entirely separate private agro-dealer network, the question is how existing distribution systems may be strengthened. This might include the promotion of seed fairs and other organised forms of seed exchange for variety, local saving and exchange for access to locally-adapted planting material;and on-farm and community seed banks. Distribution systems of this sort are built on farmer organisation rather than as separate, profit-driven distribution systems.

9.5 Soil fertility

AGRA recognises that organic and agroecological techniques (e.g. use of legumes for nitrogen fixing,increasing organic content of soil, mulching, conservation agriculture/minimum or no-till) are an important component of increasing soil fertility. But AGRA argues this is not enough and judicious supplementary application of synthetic fertilisers is necessary to increase yields sustainably.

We need to consider what the use of synthetic fertilisers entails.

  • First, synthetic fertilisers emphasise macro-nutrients (N,P, K) and may underestimate micro-nutrients, with negative ecological effects. The overuse of nitrogen throws off the chemical balance of the soil and causes overacidification. Phosphates lead to the accumulation of poisonous heavy metals in the soil such as uranium and cadmium, resulting over time in the sterilisation of the soil. Farmers thus become dependent on feeding nutrients into the soil from season to season and the soil becomes a dead, inert carrier of these external nutrients rather than a living system that is able to support plants through its natural fertility.
  • Second, synthetic fertilisers require cash. AGRA's expectation is that increased yields will generate sufficient cash to allow producers to buy these inputs. Whether this is borne out in fact must be investigated, but we know that the results are uneven in other parts of the world where Green Revolution technologies have been adopted. The result over time is increasing concentration of resources and an associated widening of the wealth gap. ...
  • Third, synthetic fertilisers necessitate imports because not all raw materials are found in Africa. This approach increases farmer dependency on external agents who have concentrated resources and power.

A priority focus might rather be on improving organic soil fertility practices, including supporting integrated farming systems (livestock and cropping) to generate on-farm resources to improve fertility. This agroecological practice ultimately requires support and farmer-to-farmer sharing. If external mineral inputs are required, the first step might be to look for local ways of producing the necessary inputs, rather than immediately building dependency on manufactured imports. This might be done by building domestic, organic fertiliser production units and making investments in integrated pest and disease management systems, limiting imported materials. This in turn may require tariff protection, which runs counter to AGRA's philosophy of lowering tariff barriers and opening African markets.

Pretty et al. (2006), coming from the food sovereignty angle, have reviewed case studies of agroecological practice in Africa that show an increase in yields compared with previous practices. These increases are on a scale that matches Green Revolution technologies, but with longer-term beneficial social and ecological effects. ...

9.6 Holistic approach to agricultural production

Agricultural production might better be conceptualised in terms of cycles instead of chains. A chain is a linear approach where there is a complete disconnection between input supply and outputs. In contrast, a cycle is a closed system approach where outputs feed back into inputs. Rhetorically speaking, AGRA recognises aspects of such ecologically sustainable closed cycles in the form of increasing organic content in the soil using crop residues and legumes for nitrogen fixing. This links inputs and outputs. But AGRA combines this with aspects of a linear, chain mentality in the supplementary use of synthetic fertilisers, which it recognises will continue being imported because of a lack of raw materials in Africa. Such a system is not a closed cycle because inputs constantly flow from elsewhere and their negative imprints remain behind after outputs have left the production system.

AGRA entirely fails to recognise cycles in the circulation of seed. In AGRA's view, seed is a once-off input that must be purchased anew each season. Its emphasis on private ownership of new varieties via patents ignores centuries of collective improvements of genetic resources by farmers on the land. It also breaks the natural cycle of on-farm saving and exchange that connects seed outputs with inputs. Thus on the one end of the chain, seed companies provide inputs, and on the other end agricultural products emerge with no further connection to agricultural production.

Technology is important, but must be developed in conjunction with secure access to natural resources, water, production infrastructure and appropriate technical support. This requires a "holistic supply response strategy" (ActionAid, 2009:18). AGRA does not touch on these broader issues of imbalances in access to natural and other resources, preferring to treat agriculture as a stand-alone technical system. In contrast, the connection between land access and agricultural production is very tight in the understanding of most independent farmer associations and movements on the continent.

Current thinking in AGRA does seem to be shifting in the direction of integrated cropping and livestock systems. This is a key component of agroecological production, pointing to mixed farming rather than specialised monocropping. Integrated farming systems, with agroecological techniques,increase the availability of sources for on-farm fertiliser production (manure, cover crops, crop rotation etc) that can result in increased yields without reliance on synthetic fertilisers. ...The possibility of AGRA embracing mixed cropping may produce contradictions in its own logic, since GM based agriculture is suited for large-scale monocropped farms.

9.7 Finance and credit

Access to finance is important for farmers to increase production, especially if they are producing commercially. Different types of financing are required: working capital to cover the gap between production costs and receipt of income; production credit for expansion; and reserves to hedge against adverse weather and economic conditions. However, it should be recognised that the provision of financing can result in rapid indebtedness of farmers, especially where not all elements of a high-output system are in place to ensure adequate income to pay off debts. It is a risky strategy for most farmers to enter into debt unless they are going to engage in sustained commercial production with clearly identified markets, and even preexisting contracts for their products. Despite AGRA's claims to be targeting the poorest of Africa's farmers, a commercial financing strategy will always only target a small elite.

AGRA is offering financing in the form of grants, loans and equity. Grants for production and capital expansion at least do not tie farmers into debt. Loans are far riskier for farmers. Loans are extractive,with financiers taking a portion of the surplus for themselves. Africa's experience with World Bank loans and subsequent structural adjustment, and continuing repayment of loans more than 30 years after they were originally made should give great pause for thought about accepting loans at the individual farmer level. Equity does provide an injection of capital but at the cost of loss of ownership to external agents. ...

10. Conclusion

AGRA is undoubtedly laying the groundwork for the commercialisation of African agriculture and its selective integration into global circuits of accumulation. Benefits will be unevenly spread and we should expect accelerated divergences in farmer interests. This will lead to greater class differentiation and a deepening commodification of African agriculture (subordinating agricultural products to the imperatives of exchange for the realisation of surplus value, rather than as use values in their own right).

The shadow of Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and other seed and agrichemical multinationals,and equity funds lie just behind the scenes of AGRA's show. Building new markets and market infrastructure for commercial seed in Africa opens the door for future occupation by multinationals,as they have done with all the major seed companies in South Africa over the past decade and a half (Sensako, Carnia and now Pannar). The focus on private company development (seed companies,agrodealers) for the production and dissemination of proprietary (and even public sector) seed is a precursor to potential acquisition at a later stage. Dupont-Pioneer has been in a decades-long relationship with Pannar to the benefit of both, until Dupont decided it was strategically the right time to take over. Small enterprises are a breeding ground for the potential extension of circuits of accumulation. Capitalism is known for ongoing absorption of 'organically' developed innovation,initiative and profitability by larger entities. AGRA and other capitalist interests have identified a profitable ('bankable') investment opportunity in smallholder agriculture in Africa, linked to Green Revolution technologies. They are now acting on that.

Food and seed sovereignty movements and small-scale farmer associations need not, however, be passive bystanders or recipients of the results of these strategies. There is room to contest and even engage, and in doing so to strengthen their own principles and clarity of purpose; possibly to look beyond a profit-driven, competitive economic system towards an economic and social system based on co-operation and mutuality.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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