Giving With One Hand and Taking With Two: A Critique of Agra’s African Agriculture Status Report 2013

African Centre for Biosafety

18 November 2013

The African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) has released a comprehensive critique of a report published by the African Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). The analysis of AGRA’s African Agriculture Status Report 2013 reveals that AGRA’s vision is premised on Public Private Partnerships in which African governments will shoulder the cost and burden of developing regulatory procedures and infrastructure to enable private agribusiness to profit from new African markets.

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The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa(AGRA) was established in 2006 with the aim of supporting the modernisation of African agriculture through assisting to build
commercial input (especially improved seed and synthetic fertiliser) and output markets. AGRA has produced a report providing an overview of key issues facing modernisers in
their efforts to build commercial agriculture in Africa. The organisation plans to produce annual reports of this nature.
In the 1980s, the World Bank also sought to modernise African agriculture. AGRA and the World Bank share an underlying ideology that views existing agricultural practices in Africa as backward. The solution proposed is for farmers to adopt a ‘high input – high output’ model based on the United States (US) and European style of agriculture. Their focus is on commercial farmers who will produce primarily for the market.
The World Bank was criticised for its ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution that did not take into account the irreducible ecological and social complexity of African farming systems. The logic that sales from increased yields would more than cover the cost of increased input costs proved to be incorrect. The World Bank plan focused on exports. However, the value of export crops declined and farmers were unable to cover input costs. As a result, fertiliser use in most of sub-Saharan Africa remains low compared to other parts of the world. There was some adoption of hybrid seed, especially maize, but seed research and development (R&D) focused on crops with perceived commercial potential at the expense of the wide variety of plants being grown for food in Africa.
In the 1990s, support for agriculture in Africa declined severely as countries diverted resources to pay off debts. However, as commodity prices rose in the early 2000s, there was renewed interest in African agriculture as a potential commercial activity. Domestic markets had grown since the 1980s and constituted a potential outlet for increased production.
Nevertheless, there has not been a flood of investment in African agriculture. AGRA’s report shows that less than 0.1% of investment in agriculture was from foreign direct investment (FDI) between 2005 and 2007. Farmers’ own investments in infrastructure and production are dominant. AGRA should be understood as a political project, a ‘proof of concept’ to show private owners of capital that there are profitable opportunities for investment in African agriculture. This requires major institutional and infrastructural interventions. AGRA’s aim is to identify and facilitate priority interventions, drawing on philanthropic, state and private sector resources. Its fundamental approach is the public-private partnership (PPP) where the state and private sector contribute to realising common objectives (private profit through increasing productivity). AGRA works closely with the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP), the framework for agricultural investment located in the African Union and its member states.
Like earlier modernisation efforts, AGRA’s basic scheme is to increase ‘modern’ inputs to produce increased yields, and to create functioning market structures to enable farmers to earn money to pay for the inputs. These two pieces are essential parts of the plan. Without the markets, the scheme fails. AGRA’s Africa Agriculture Status Report in 2013 includes sections on productivity, growth and competitiveness; soil health; seed systems; financing; output markets; policy environment; farmer organisation; capacity development; women; and extension and advisory services. The report focuses on staple crops.
The section on land provides a broad overview of the various tenure issues in Africa. The report recognises the importance of customary tenure systems but in many places indicates that for commercial production, private ownership of land is the best model. AGRA surveyed a number of East and Southern African countries and found that average landholdings were less than three hectares in most countries. AGRA therefore orients its support towards small-scale agriculture, but to a commercial layer who will have larger than average land sizes. AGRA anticipates that higher investments in land will “induce land holdings to adjust” (p.37), meaning greater concentration amongst commercial producers.
The section on soil health reiterates AGRA’s commitment to the Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM) approach. ISFM calls for a combination of organic and inorganic fertiliser, “not either or none”. However, AGRA’s emphasis is on supporting the introduction of inorganic fertiliser produced elsewhere, rather than building up the quality of farm-produced organic fertilisers. According to AGRA, the main reason for farmers’ failure to use more fertiliser is the high cost, which is not covered by higher yields. AGRA calls for (state) subsidies to increase demand, which will ‘incentivise’ supply through “private sector led fertiliser markets” (pp.45-46). AGRA suggests that initial doses of inorganic fertilisers can be reduced over time as increased yields produce increased biomass that can then be fed into on-farm fertiliser production processes (including better quality livestock feed). AGRA supports mixed farming systems rather than monocropping (p.49) and conservation farming (p.48).
The section on seed is highly problematic and of the greatest concern in the whole report. Although there is recognition of diversity and plurality in seed systems on the continent,
AGRA’s orientation is towards commercial production. It therefore calls for the introduction of commercial seed systems, with the ‘ideal’ presented as a concentrated system where a few large companies control seed R&D, production and distribution (p.56). Seed system diversity in Africa is seen as a weakness and as an obstacle to be overcome (p.56).
According to the report, weak seed production and distribution throughout the continent hinders the uptake of varieties developed through the formal R&D system (p.54). The catch, as AGRA recognises, is that in order for commercial seed companies to invest in R&D, they first want to protect their ‘intellectual property’. This requires fundamental restructuring of seed laws to allow for certification systems that not only protect certified varieties, but also actually criminalise all non-certified seed. This is a serious threat to African seed systems and the agro-biodiversity, as the African Centre for Biosafety and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa have indicated in recent publications and releases. AGRA is working with governments and other international and private entities to ‘harmonise’ seed laws across the continent, to put in place the institutional systems and structures that will allow private seed companies to control seed.
AGRA is aggressively supporting the transformation of African seed systems toward a commercially viable business model, which restricts farmers from recycling protected seed or using it to improve their local varieties. This is being done through proactive support for the seed harmonisation process in sub-Saharan Africa, which is pushing African governments to join the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) 1991. The report deals with genetic modification (GM) only in passing. The report defends GM as rigorously tested, citing industry and government bodies that share the modernisation paradigm as evidence. It reduces public opposition to GM to “fear of the unknown” (p.64-65). Although AGRA currently is not directly involved in sponsoring GM activities, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of AGRA’s founders and primary sponsors, invests heavily in GM R&D on the continent and owns shares in Monsanto.
The section on financing shows that most investment in African agriculture comes from farmers themselves. Despite their own declarations, national governments generally
continue to invest less than the 10% of gross domestic product (GDP) called for in the Maputo Declaration of 2003. AGRA’s solution is for the state to guarantee loans made to
farmers; i.e. the public sector would carry private sector risk.
On output markets, AGRA reviews the experience with warehouse receipt systems (WRS) and agricultural commodity exchanges as two key commercial market mechanisms. WRS operate by allowing farmers to store their grain in warehouses for a fee, but be paid upfront for a portion of the value of the crop. Commodity exchanges allow for hedging that can stabilise prices and reduce risk (although they can also be conduits for speculation and increased volatility if institutional investors trading in derivatives dominate the market). The experience so far is not of great success. AGRA provides a number of reasons for this, most of which relate to regulation and sequencing of interventions. AGRA assigns a major role to the state in regulating and underwriting these systems.
On farmer organisation, AGRA recognises the fundamental importance of farmer organisation, but tends to focus on organisational activities to support commercialisation of production: providing members with services, enhancing collective bargaining power through aggregation and economies of scale, and enhancing farmer participation in processes affecting them (p.114). While these are important issues for farmer organisations to deal with, there may be other issues facing those members not oriented primarily to commercial production.
There are small sections in the report on capacity development, extension services and women. These tend to give an overview of the state of affairs (limited reach and limited support that is not always appropriate to context), and they make very broad recommendations about the need to increase capacity and numbers, and for women to have more access.
Section II of the report provides a number of macro-level statistics that need to be treated with caution. Collection of statistics has always been weak in African agriculture and AGRA recognises that this continues today.
It is not surprising that AGRA ignores agro-ecology given its devotion to capitalist modernisation based on Green Revolution technologies and commoditised output markets as the only answer to the question of farm productivity.
Concluding comments
AGRA is carving out its niche in African agriculture, targeting commercial or potentially commercial farmers; i.e. those who produce primarily for the market, with their agricultural operations structured as a business. There can be no argument that commercial African farmers should be supported to sell into markets. However, there are many other producers critical to food security in Africa who will not receive support from the AGRA/modernisation project. Other forms of support must be provided for these farmers. In addition, some of AGRA’s interventions (e.g. seed harmonisation) have a directly negative effect on the ability of these marginalised farmers to improve their conditions of existence, by placing regulatory and legal obstacles in the way of farmer innovation and knowledge and resource sharing.
AGRA’s project relies heavily on the state to secure the basic institutional and infrastructural frame for commercialisation. The state provides resources to secure the conditions for private extraction of wealth. This orients public resources away from other potential uses, including resources explicitly directed towards ecological agriculture, and building up and enhancing farmers’ existing practices.
The alternative ecological agriculture/food sovereignty perspective emerges very clearly from this analysis. First, start from where farmers are, building up existing practices that do not rely so heavily on external capital-intensive production processes. Seed and soil fertility systems may not be ideal, but there is a strong base to work from to improve them,
together with farmers. Second, public resources should be channelled into supporting this agenda, rather than on securing the conditions for private extraction of the value created by African farmers.
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