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Another False Start in Africa

Sold with Green Revolution Myths*

by Timothy A. Wise** and Jomo Kwame Sundaram***

Since the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was launched in 2006, yields have barely risen, while rural poverty remains endemic, and would have increased more if not for out-migration.

AGRA was started, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, to double yields and incomes for 30 million smallholder farm households while halving food insecurity by 2020.

There are no signs of significant productivity and income boosts from promoted commercial seeds and agrochemicals in AGRA’s 13 focus countries. Meanwhile, the number of undernourished in these nations increased by 30%! When will we ever learn?

What went wrong? The continuing Indian farmer protests, despite the COVID-19 resurgence, highlight the problematic legacy of its Green Revolution (GR) in frustrating progress to sustainable food security.

Many studies have already punctured some myths of India’s GR. Looking back, its flaws and their dire consequences should have warned policymakers of the likely disappointing results of the GR in Africa.

Hagiographic accounts of the GR cite ‘high‐yielding’ and ‘fast-growing’ dwarf wheat and rice spreading through Asia, particularly India, saving lives, modernising agriculture, and ‘freeing’ labour for better off-farm employment.

Many recent historical studies challenge key claims of this supposed success, including allegedly widespread yield improvements and even the number of lives actually saved by increased food production.

Environmental degradation and other public health threats due to the toxic chemicals used are now widely recognized. Meanwhile, water management has become increasingly challenging and unreliable due to global warming and other factors.

Ersatz GR2.0 for Africa

Half a century later, the technology fetishizing, even deifying AGRA initiative seemed oblivious of Asian lessons as if there is nothing to learn from actual experiences, research and analyses.

Worse, AGRA has ignored many crucial features of India’s GR. Importantly, the post-colonial Indian government had quickly developed capacities to promote economic development.

Few African countries have such ‘developmental’ capacities, let alone comparable capabilities. Their already modest government capacities were decimated from the 1980s by structural adjustment programmes demanded by international financial institutions and bilateral ‘donors’.

Ignoring lessons of history

India’s ten-point Intensive agriculture development programme.pdf was more than just about seed, fertilizer and pesticide inputs. Its GR also provided credit, assured prices, improved marketing, extension services, village-level planning, analysis and evaluation.

These and other crucial elements are missing or not developed appropriately in recent AGRA initiatives. Sponsors of the ersatz GR in Africa have largely ignored such requirements.

Instead, the technophile AGRA initiative has been enamoured with novel technical innovations while not sufficiently appreciating indigenous and other ‘old’ knowledge, science and technology, or even basic infrastructure.

From tragedy to farce

Unsurprisingly, Africa’s GR has reproduced many of India’s problems:

    1. As in India, overall staple crop productivity has not grown significantly faster despite costly investments in GR technologies. These poor productivity growth rates have remained well below population growth rates.

    1. Moderate success in one priority crop (e.g., wheat in Punjab, India, or maize in Africa) has typically been at the expense of sustained productivity growth for other crops.

    1. Crop and dietary diversity has been reduced, adversely affecting cultivation sustainability, nutrition, health and wellbeing.

    1. Subsidies and other incentives have meant more land devoted to priority crops, not just intensification, with adverse land use and nutrition impacts.

    1. Soil health and fertility have suffered from ‘nutrient-mining’ due to priority crop monocropping, requiring more inorganic fertilizer purchases.

    1. Higher input costs often exceed additional earnings from modest yield increases using new seeds and agrochemicals, increasing farmer debt.

Paths not taken

AGRA and other African GR proponents have had 14 years, plus billions of dollars, to show that input-intensive agriculture can raise productivity, net incomes and food security. They have clearly failed.

Africans — farmers, consumers and governments — have many good reasons to be wary, especially considering AGRA’s track record after a decade and a half. India’s experience and the ongoing farmer protests there should make them more so.

Selling Africa’s GR as innovation requiring unavoidable ‘creative destruction’ is grossly misleading. Alternatively, many agroecology initiatives, which technophiles decry as backward, are bringing cutting-edge science and technology to farmers, with impressive results.

A 2006 University of Essex survey, of nearly 300 large ecological agriculture projects in more than fifty poor countries, documented an average 79% productivity increase, with declining costs and rising incomes.

Published when AGRA was launched, these results far surpass those of GRs thus far. Sadly, they remind us of the high opportunity costs of paths not taken due to well-financed technophile dogma.


*    First published on Interpress Service, on 20 April 2021 on http://www.ipsnews.net/2021/04/another-false-start-africa-sold-green-revolution-myths/ and on https://www.ksjomo.org/post/another-false-start-in-africa-sold-with-green-revolution-myths.

**   Timothy A. Wise is senior advisor at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and author of Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food.

***  Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, Assistant Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought in 2007.


Further readings:

  1. -A. R. Mkindi et al, False Promises: The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), INKOTA-netzwerk and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 2020.

  2. -T.A. Wise, Failing Africa’s Farmers: An Impact Assessment of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University, 2020.

  3. -G.D. Stone, Commentary: New histories of the Indian Green Revolution, The Geographical Journal 2019.

  4. -J.N. Pretty et al., Resource-Conserving Agriculture Increases Yields in Developing Countries, Environmental Science & Technology 2006, 40, 4, 1114–1119, 2005.

  5. -R. Dumont, L'Afrique noire est mal partie, Seuil, 1962 (in French).

Selection of articles on hungerexplained.org related to this topic:

  1. Opinion: Rethinking Food and Agriculture – New Ways Forward a review by Andrew MacMillan, 2021.

  2. Farmer demonstrations in India: poor farmers against pro-liberalisation champion? 2021.

  3. Sustainable food systems: 2021 may be a turning point for food, … or it may not, 2020.

  4. Opinion: Green Counter-Revolution in Africa? by Jomo K. Sundaram, 2020.

  5. The World Economic Forum’s “New Vision for Agriculture” is moving ahead on the ground… 2017.

  6. The European Union investigates on the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, 2016.

  7. Africa: can the continent end hunger and become food self-sufficient by 2025? 2016.

  8. Seven principles for ending hunger sustainably, 2013.

and many others articles under our “Africa” category.


Last update:    April 2021

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