Can AGRA correct course? New plan offers big budget, few changes to address African food crisis

Maiza farmers

Farmers weed maize in Uasin Gishu County in 2021. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

On September 8, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) unveiled the organisation’s new five-year strategy to a friendly crowd at its annual Green Revolution Forum.

The long-awaited plan promises to demonstrate AGRA’s “catalytic power” to “lay the foundation for a sustainable food systems-led inclusive agricultural transformation.”

A more skeptical group of African civil society and faith leaders are looking for more than lofty development jargon. A week earlier, they held a virtual press conference to reiterate long-standing demands that AGRA’s donors cease funding the 17-year-old initiative saying it has failed to catalyse a productivity revolution with its heavily subsidised package of commercial seeds and fertilisers.

Now, with famine looming in East Africa and climate change and high fertiliser prices wreaking havoc with farmers who bought into the Green Revolution’s promises, these community leaders argue it is time to change course with policies that decrease Africa’s dependence on synthetic fertilisers in favour of ecological farming.

Judging by the contents of the new strategy, dressed up in a new logo and branding, they will not get what they wished for. The plan, which maps out work from 2023 to 2027, is largely a continuation of the programs and initiatives they objected to.

“Faith leaders demand not a rebranding of AGRA, but an end to funding for harmful Green Revolution programmes,” warned Gabriel Manyangadze of the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute at the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa’s press conference.

“AGRA is just putting new labels on the failed policies of the past,” said Anne Maina, who in March urged US Congresspeople to cut US funding for AGRA. “They say ‘This is our time,’ but after 17 years and one billion dollars, we say: AGRA’s time is up! Donors should pull the plug on AGRA.”

I have followed the controversy over AGRA closely since I published my own academic assessment two years ago. I found that 14 years of data showed that despite $1 billion in funding AGRA had produced meagre productivity gains, and only for a few supported crops like maize and rice. Many traditional crops had seen declines, with millet production falling by nearly one-quarter. Incomes from crop sales had not materialised, and rural poverty remained endemic. Worst of all, the number of severely undernourished in AGRA’s 13 focus countries had not fallen by half as donors had promised, it had increased by 31 per cent.

Earlier this year a donor-commissioned evaluation confirmed many of these poor farmer outcomes. Evaluators also found poor monitoring systems to track progress, and they noted that the farmers who benefited were mostly wealthier men, not the smallholder women the programme was most intended to help.

AGRA delayed the release of its new strategy for a year, so there was some hope the shortcomings would be addressed. According to my analysis of the strategy, they were not, at least not in any way that will ensure better farmer outcomes.

Strengthening markets

With this new plan, AGRA may well be building on the strengths identified in the donor evaluation: strengthening markets, research, state capacity, and the private sector, especially seeds. But it accentuates the flaws, doing even less to ensure that such achievements translate into improvements for farmers.

The new plan largely fails even to set measurable goals for yields, incomes, or food security. Farmers seem to be an afterthought as if they should just trust that the main thrusts of the strategy – supporting an “enabling environment” for private sector seed, fertiliser, and other companies – will naturally lead to productivity and prosperity. They haven’t up to now, and they are not likely to under this strategy.

As the saying goes, what you don’t measure you don’t value. Judging by this plan, AGRA does not value agricultural productivity.

Where are the farmers?

Farmers get mentioned as beneficiaries of private Village Based Advisors dispensing training and planting advice in what AGRA strangely calls its “sustainable farming business line.” Those same advisors are selling them seeds and other inputs.

That is in sync with the “Seed Systems business line” but it creates conflicts of interest that seem obvious to all but AGRA and its donors. For example, the strategy says that “AGRA will promote increased crop diversification at the farm level,” but will those adviser/sales agents have an interest in providing good local seeds that farmers do not have to buy every year?

The strategy also claims to support farmer resilience to climate change, but it is unclear how that will be achieved. AGRA is certainly not adopting civil society’s strategy of increasing resilience through agroecology, with its reductions in the dependence on outside inputs such as fossil-fuel-based fertilizers. The term agroecology does not appear once.

Oddly, the word “fertiliser” appears only three times in the entire 27-page strategy, but this core Green Revolution component seems likely to remain central to AGRA’s strategy. After all, the African Development Bank just issued a $1.5 billion authority to increase the purchases of synthetic fertilisers.

One of the few new features of the new strategy is an emphasis on irrigation, far and away the most productive “input” and one that is woefully undeveloped in Africa.

Another promise is improved monitoring and evaluation, but it only took three sentences for AGRA to mislead us with data. They write that agricultural productivity has increased by 13 per cent a year between 2015 and 2020. That would be a revolution indeed, but it was only 13 per cent over the entire five years. And the productivity they counted wasn’t crop yield, but labour productivity.

The original data show cereal yields failing to grow at all. With this new plan, AGRA may well be building on its strengths. But as Kenyan civil society leader Anne Maina wrote recently, “Resilience cannot be achieved by doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

AGRA says its five-year plan will cost $550 million. Donors should heed activists’ calls, send this strategy back to the drawing board, and put their money toward some of the many proven agroecological initiatives operating on the continent.

Timothy A. Wise is a senior advisor at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and a Senior Research Fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute.