Why African smallholder farmers reject AGRA’s Dar food forum

Small scale farming

Sharon Toroitich, a small-scale farmer at Kamok village in Keiyo North, Elgeyo-Marakwet County, weeds her farm on August 08, 2020.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

The growing of food in many parts of Africa is deeply intertwined with the culture of communities, allowing, for example, the sharing of seeds among neighbours that ensures they are readily available to more people in the next planting season. 

In Kenya, the Seeds and Plant Varieties Act, which came into force in 2016, bans these exchanges of seeds and ultimately undermines the country’s food security, advocates of Africa’s farmers argue. 

Seed exchanges can be formal or informal, as Oliver Kirui, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute who studies agricultural and economic transformation policies, told The Conversation in May 2022.

In formal exchanges, Kirui said, seed companies produce, process, package and sometimes distribute seeds. There are about 30 such companies in Kenya that produce and distribute seeds for sale and for domestic use, including the parastatal Kenya Seed Company, the most prominent of the local entities, and multinationals such as Syngenta and Monsanto.

More than 80 per cent of households in the Kenyan highlands were using hybrid seeds from formal sources by the late 2000s, a 2014 study in the journal Food Policy claimed.

Informal exchanges, on the other hand, involve smallholder farmers producing and distributing seeds among themselves. These exchanges fill a void where locals cannot afford hybrid seeds or cannot find the seeds when they need them. One of the advantages of informal exchanges, Kirui said, is that they allow farmers “to preserve some of the genetic traits they would like in a seed”.

There have been fears in Kenya that formal seed exchanges would lead to a monopoly dominated by the seed companies, with concerns that these firms would restrict how farmers use the seeds. These fears are based on the experiences of farmers in other parts of the world, including the United States. A 2013 report from the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the Save Our Seeds campaigning groups said Monsanto, which produces and sells genetically modified seeds, had sued hundreds of small farmers in the US as the company sought to protect its patent rights on GM seeds.

The groups accused the multinational of seeking to dominate the seeds industry in the US and stop farmers from replanting crops produced from Monsanto’s patented seeds. The study found that Monsanto had brought 142 patent infringement cases against 410 farmers and 56 small businesses in about 30 states. The multinational had won more than $23 million from its targets, according to the report.

The CFS report showed that large companies and the GM crops that they produced dominated the US and global markets. Just three firms – Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta – controlled 53 percent of the commercial seed market. GM foods were becoming more prevalent on US farms, with 93 percent of soybeans and 86 percent of maize coming from such seeds.

Supporters of Kenya’s legislation that bans informal seed exchanges claimed it would help make the country’s seed industry more competitive and allow farmers easier access to quality seeds, especially for staples like maize and legumes. They also argued that quality could not be guaranteed in informal exchanges.

It’s in this context that AGRA – the outfit formerly called the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which proclaims its vision as one “where Africa can feed itself and the world, transforming agriculture from a solitary struggle for survival into a thriving business” – is preparing to hold its annual summit in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, from September 5-8.

Champions of Africa’s farmers have dismissed the forum as an arena for “corporate interference”, saying AGRA has discounted the experiences of smallholder growers that they say are the centre of the continent’s agriculture. The event, officially called the Africa Food Systems Summit (AGRF), will bring together agribusiness leaders, experts, policymakers, and food industry representatives. The advocates say the monoculture (the cultivation of a single crop on agricultural land) promoted by AGRA makes seeds more expensive, increases malnutrition, undermines “food sovereignty” and pushes more women into the trap of being only labour providers.  

During a virtual press conference held on 30 August, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) and its allies representing small-scale food producer groups from across Africa proclaimed that there would be “No decision about us without us!” AFSA works to promote “just, inclusive, and environmentally sustainable” food systems. “Where are the farmers? 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,” lamented farmer leader Juma Shabani.

Gabriel Manyangadze, representing the faith-based environmental network Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute, expressed his community’s concerns: “The green revolution approach of AGRA through the Gates Foundation does not alleviate hunger and poverty in Africa. It supports the dominance of corporations over African food production and farmers.

“We are called to be custodians for all creation. Yet, AGRA’s approach grows corporate profits at the expense of all living beings. The Gates Foundation must prioritise solutions like agroecology that protect biodiversity and the needs of African farmers.”

From Mali, Mamadou Goïta, of the Institute for Research and Promotion of Alternatives in Development, said AGRA had failed, adding: “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.”

Representatives of African small-scale food producers say they challenge AGRA’s “legitimacy as an African-led organisation and its interventions in African food systems”, citing several reasons.

First is AGRA’s origin and accountability. They say the group is registered in the US and its funding comes mainly from outside Africa, and is not accountable to African constituencies or governments. “AGRA has responded to critics with cosmetic changes, removing the words ‘green revolution’ from its name rather than rethinking the wisdom of its failing policies,” AFSA says.

Another reason is that AGRA’s agenda of “market-led technology adoption” aims at the “industrialisation of African food systems. With over $500 million in grants, AGRA incentivises the adoption of Green Revolution technologies predominantly produced by global corporations”.

AFSA also argues that AGRA has not fulfilled its promises and has failed “in its commitment to significantly increase agricultural yields, incomes, and food security for small-scale producers”. AFSA cites independent assessments and a 2022 donor-commissioned evaluation that its says “demonstrate that AGRA’s initiatives led to increasing undernourishment, environmental consequences, and declining crop diversity”.

Another criticism is that AGRA has “inappropriate influence over policy, with AFSA saying that the outfit’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” thus squeezing out “alternative voices and approaches like agroecology”.

“A huge chunk of our hard-earned GDP in Kenya goes to subsidising synthetic fertiliser, destroying soil fertility and our environment”, said Anne Maina, of Kenya’s Biodiversity and Biosafety Association (BIBA Kenya).

Regarding the Dar forum’s message on putting women at the centre of agriculture, Maina said: “Women in Kenya have always cared for our food cultures and the health of communities. But AGRA’s work does not honour their role as leaders. It does not respect their agency. It puts the real power [in] the hands of corporations.”

AFSA proposes that investment in Africa’s agriculture be “democratic, grassroots-oriented, and led by the true stakeholders of agriculture – the farmers. Concentrated power and profit in the hands of a few corporations is not the way forward for a sustainable and inclusive African agricultural future”.