For Freedom of Movement & Fair Development!

Africa's market-led development: Pro-corporation, anti-farmer

Richard Jonasse (07/2010)

As evidenced by USAID administrator Rajiv Shah's recent speech to the US Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC), the US and the Green Revolution's 'solutions' for African agriculture remain more of the same, rooted in a corporate-funded, GMO-oriented and market-based system designed entirely in the interests of Western business. While US development aid fasts becomes simply 'an investment subsidised by US taxpayers with high returns for US corporations', African farmers' groups such as COPAGEN, LEISA and PELUM continue to organise in defence of self-determination and genetic biodiversity.

USAID administrator Rajiv Shah recently gave a speech to the US Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC) in Washington DC entitled 'Achieving high impact development: a vision for USAID'. Shah's idea of high-impact development was a 'distinctly American' contribution: the 'culture of risk-taking and entrepreneurship'. In a speech heavy with platitudes about American diversity, dedication and empowerment, what was his revolutionary idea for changes at USAID? More of the same:

'We will … focus intently on private enterprise and the power of markets. The resources at our command are a blessing, but they are dwarfed by the enormous power of markets to reach people with products, services, and opportunities.'

This mixture of quasi-religious faith in free markets, and their conflation with democracy, perfectly encapsulates current US (World Bank, IMF, USAID …) development philosophy. USAID no longer provides aid through local governments as it did during the Cold War era. In the post-1980 neoliberal era, its primary activity has been farming out aid via contracts to private corporations. Whether cynical or merely naive, Shaw's speech was designed to reassure the USGLC's members that USAID would continue to serve US interests. Working alongside USAID, the Gates Foundation is also devoted to market-led solutions: providing seed capital for biotechnology development and access to African markets for agribusiness corporations like Monsanto and DuPont, among others.

The current mantra of the Gates Foundation and USAID is that we need 'all solutions' to end Africa's hunger. But their billions in development dollars are in fact funding a very narrow vision, one that directly undercuts a whole host of proven, low input, farmer-led solutions. The mixing of corporate profits with aid and philanthropy has skewed the field towards development that is technology-heavy, resource intensive, expensive for farmers and potentially profitable for agribusiness. With the aid regime's entrepreneurial aid, African farmers get micro-loans linked to the purchase patented hybrid and biotech seeds, chemical inputs and a hearty pat on the back. These farmers need all the luck they can get because these turnkey ‘solutions' prevent them from saving, breeding and sharing locally adapted seeds as they have done for generations.

Entrepreneurial aid promotes a structural transformation for small farmers that systematically pushes sustainable solutions to the margins. The aid regime's solutions are handed down by fiat, backed by billions of dollars, and promote short-sighted solutions. These ‘solutions' leave farmers free to compete only with expensive seeds and fertilizers, and wholly on the terms set up my micro-financiers, leaving all the financial risks of farming to African peasants while the rewards go to profiteers. In Shah's words, it's 'about how we can work better, cheaper, and faster in the pursuit of high impact development.' But the purpose of US aid has been to help US companies ‘penetrate' foreign markets. Development aid is thus an investment subsidised by US taxpayers with high returns for US corporations. The profit-driven version of ‘high-impact, better, cheaper, and faster' agriculture means large industrial agriculture plantations, it means synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, it means biotechnology, it means producing food for global markets and ultimately it means land grabs, water grabs and ecological destruction. This spells potential disaster for the 70 per cent of Africans who make part or all of their income from agriculture.


USAID and the Gates Foundation take the poor state of African agriculture as a sign that smallholder farming is an anachronism that needs to be modernised. But this simplistic assumption ignores the fact that modern Western agriculture has been heavily subsidised, both through price supports and import tariffs, which have allowed the US to become the dominant force in global agricultural markets. But the US model created their agricultural surpluses by following a chemically intensive model that entailed 'farming without farmers'. This model is utterly undesirable in countries where most people still rely on farming for their livelihoods.

As practiced by Gates and USAID, the 'all solutions' approach is an assault on traditional farming that includes, on one end, producing more food through intensive agriculture, and on the other raising the GDP (gross domestic product) of African countries through increased global trade. This is problematic for a number of reasons. First, vertically integrated supply chains (including processors, transport, importers/exporters, supermarket retailers) ensure that middlemen capture most of the value. Second, only large, well-capitalised farms are equipped to produce the quantity and quality demanded by fastidious Northern consumers. Smaller farmers may be absorbed into contract farming schemes controlled by large corporations, but they will lose complete control over what they grow, how and for whom. Finally, while exports may return a portion of the profits, it is increasingly unclear how much food these profits will purchase on the global market. A new report (PDF) by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) shows that food and fuel crises such as the one experienced in 2008 are likely to be recurring phenomena.

Economic partnership agreements (EPAs), land grabs and the cross-border harmonisation of biotechnology regulations support this 'green revolution' and work against traditional farmers. Genetically modified crops contaminate traditional crops through genetic pollution and do not allow saving and replanting seeds. Subsidised fertilizers deplete soils, choke waterways and discourage careful tending of the soil. Deregulated markets and privatisation destroy state institutions, which are often the only support poor farmers have in the face of unstable commodities markets. The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties (UPOV), which was originally established to promote the development of traditional seeds, has been modified in such a way that it can take away farmers' rights to save their own seeds and control their traditional crops.

What these policies do not do is directly end African hunger by strengthening Africa's farmers where they stand. This point was underscored recently when, after the Gates Foundation donated US$270m (with a promise of US$1 billion over the next few years) to CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research), Gates's representatives nixed CGIAR's agricultural biodiversity mega-programme, saying it was unfocused. This logic represents precisely what is wrong with the Gates/USAID approach. Only an 'unfocused' low-tech approach that honours biological and cultural diversity is likely to be successful.


USAID and Gates's philosophy is quite simplistic. Where there is hunger grow more food, where there is drought let them grow 'drought tolerant' maize. The motive behind Monsanto's Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) seems to be to cut a faster, better, cheaper path to profitability by genetically engineering a ‘turnkey' solution to hunger in Africa. This is a recipe for reduced agro-biodiversity and the end of traditional farming methods, along with most farmers.

There is no logical reason for the development of biotech agriculture other than the economic pursuit of monopoly control. Biotech crops lack the latitude that evolution and seed-saving provide: the genetic diversity to function across numerous conditions. 'Roundup-ready' crops (immune to the herbicide) lead to roundup-resistant weeds. Bt crops (which produce their own pesticides) lead to Bt-resistant pests, forcing corporations in the West to breed non-resistant ones to prevent the evolution of super-pests (which is unlikely to be done in Africa). The push–pull system of pest control, on the other hand, is cheaper and more effective than bioengineered solutions, and it is something that farmers can do on their own, making it less profitable to seed and chemical producers but more likely to be picked up by farmers. Bt corn has shown, at best, modest yield gains compared with traditionally bred varieties that can be created at a fraction of the cost of biotechnology.

While the introduction of Bt cotton in India has been highly successful for Monsanto, covering nine million hectares in 2009, it has led to health problems and livestock deaths in rural areas and has actually led to increased pesticide usage. Locally adapted, free cotton seeds have all but disappeared over the past few years, leaving genetically modified seeds as the only choice and Monsanto with virtual monopoly control. The former managing director of Monsanto South Asia, T.V. Jagadisan, has stated that foreign investment and multinational corporations are the only forces left that are pushing agricultural biotechnology research in India.


The WEMA project began two years ago with a US$47 million grant from the Gates Foundation. The project is coordinated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) which is funded by Gates, the Rockefeller Foundation and USAID. The AATF negotiates between the technology side and partner countries' agricultural institutions. Having completed field trials in South Africa, the AATF and Monsanto are currently testing WEMA with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), which has been pushing for biotech capacity-building and harmonisation. As the third-largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya remains 'strategically important' for the biotech industry. While KARI supports GMO (genetically modified organisms) adoption, the country has not approved them and there is a widespread mistrust of biotechnology there that recently led to the rejection of a shipment of GM corn from South Africa.

In January of this year, KARI hosted a biotechnology training session on 'Strengthening capacity for safe biotechnology management in sub-Saharan Africa' (SABIMA). The session included Water Efficient Maize, BioCassava Plus, Virus Resistant Cassava, Biofortified Sorghum and GM Cotton. In February, KARI, USAID, CIMMYT and the Gates Foundation broke ground on a four-year, US$40 million biotech Improved Maize for African Soils (IMAS) project, involving DuPont and Pioneer Hybrid.

With all of this interest and money going into biotechnology as a development tool, one needs to question whether these billions might not be better spent elsewhere. A good deal of human energy and political capital is being spent to push these crops on farmers who do not want them. Doug Gurian-Sherman at the Union of Concerned Scientists points out that a single GM crop can cost as much as US$100 million to produce – not including all of the ancillary costs for regulation and biosafety testing – while low-tech solutions can be produced at 1 per cent of the cost.

A study on maize diversity in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi by the International Maize and Wheat Centre – which developed WEMA – found tremendous variation in varieties that came from different environments. In the sub-Saharan region, planting diverse varieties and intercropping helps maintain agro-biodiversity, which acts as a hedge against unpredictable weather, pests, weeds, viruses, moulds, fungi and even market variability. This legacy is being threatened by the influx of GMOs that spread genetic pollution to nearby crops.


The push for sustainable solutions to Africa's hunger is a human rights issue, and farmers need to be allowed a voice in that future. As anthropologist Jan Douwe van der Ploeg writes, '“Freedom from” and “freedom to” are indispensable ingredients of a prosperous farming sector.' But USAID, the Gates Foundation and CGIAR are not asking farmers what they want. This amounts to a well-financed takeover of African agricultural systems, a situation which recently led UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter to write:

'[H]ow much is invested in agriculture matters less than the type of agriculture that we support. By supporting further consolidation of large-scale monocultures in the hands of the most powerful economic actors, we risk widening further the gap with small-scale, family farming, while pushing a model of industrial farming that is already responsible for one-third of man-made greenhouse-gas emissions today.'

The hubris behind the mindset that modern technologies, methods and trickle-down capitalism can be parachuted into a complicated ecological and cultural mosaic like Africa seems wilfully obtuse. To get a sense of the poverty of the ‘faster, better, cheaper' approach we need only look to successful solutions that strengthen and sustain African rural communities.


The Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA) network has been working in West Africa for over 25 years, and more recently in East Africa, in support of small farmers. LEISA promoted rural poverty alleviation by disseminating information on agro-ecological alternatives to high-tech agriculture. One way they do this is through the publication of a quarterly magazine that deals specifically with practical issues that challenge peasant farmers in their daily lives. The most recent issue, for example, dealt with finance problems that small farmers have to deal with, including financial institutions' tying of credit to the purchase of specific inputs, creative ways for communities to share the economic burden of getting through the growing season, and solutions to the problem of safe places for saving money. The previous issue, for example, highlighted livestock practices, promoting their economic importance to peasant farmers all over the world while at the same time pointing out that poorly kept animals produce more methane (a greenhouse gas), while many African systems of husbandry are actually carbon-negative and result in a better recycling of products within the agricultural system. These are practical farmer-centred ideas, not transformative schemes that were cooked up to press peasants into the service of the global economy.


A well-known, highly successful example of low-input agriculture is the Tigray Project, which began in 1996 on parched, highly degraded land in Ethiopia. The local Bureau of Agriculture and Development (BoARD) got together with local farmers in four communities and they came up with the following set of solutions, taught through training and follow-up, from which the farmers are free to choose:

• Composting to fertilise fields
• Restricting grazing
• Trench bunds for catching water and preventing erosion
• Planting trees and local grasses
• Rehabilitating gullies
• Creating ponds.

Tigray uses a sustainable growth model that aims to yield benefits over decades. The project promotes the establishment of local rules for resource usage to minimise conflicts over resources. Particular attention and support are given to the needs of woman-headed households. Rather than viewing agriculture as something to move people away from, the Tigray Project considers it the basis of all economic activity. People must feed themselves first, and then turn their attention to activities that will earn money. The main crops for local consumption are cereals, roots, pulses, oil crops and vegetables, but farmers also grow a long list of cash crops that includes bananas, avocados, oil seeds, coffee and a dozen others. Under the programme – which encourages farmers to save seeds rather than purchase them from seed companies – 90 per cent of seeds used by smallholders are the result of seed-saving and sharing, and there is very little use of pesticides. The benefits have been increased harvests, soils and water conservation, healthier crops, rehabilitated fields, increased farmer profits and local autonomy.


Even if turning African countries into industrial consumer societies were a rational goal (a dubious notion on many fronts), the Green Revolution/globalisation approach would not work. Western capitalism did not arise through mortgaging its resources and/or purchasing technologies from other countries, nor did it arise on a fast-track five-year plan. It arose through strong government support for the economy and through accessing the resources in the global South (which they continue to do today). The aid regime is offering weakened government institutions and neocolonialism. In Africa, it is offering rural land grabs that force peasant farmers into urban ghettos in cities where employment is scarce.

Farmers groups in Africa are pushing to keep their seeds and rejecting the market-driven Green Revolution because it takes away their power of self-determination. Industrial plantations, infrastructures, laws, economic agreements and technologies meant to promote industrial-export agriculture make successful small farming for local food markets more difficult. Why did the farmers in the Tigray Project choose low-tech solutions when the experts have fertilizer and hybrid seeds to offer? Why did Malian farmers reject hybrid seeds in favour of local village-level crop breeding? It is because they know that the 'faster, better and cheaper' approach is like the mythological fox or wolf or crocodile who tells the passenger he will ferry them across the river only for the passenger to find that they are suddenly at the mercy of the 'saviour' only too late. Faster, better and cheaper development will only benefit crocodiles, wolves, and foxes, while farmers will be threatened by the loss of land, communities, seeds and livelihoods.

Agro-ecological methods alone may not turn Africa into a cornucopia. Climate change and episodic drought, disease and famine will continue to be part of the picture. But sustainable farming, and collective organisations – such as COPAGEN, LEISA and PELUM among others – can provide peasant farmers with information on best practices, they can act collectively to ensure farmers' incomes, they can help keep farmers on their land and they can provide them with 'freedom from' poverty and exploitation and 'freedom to' decide which crops they grow and how.


  • Richard Jonasse works for Food First, focusing on international financial institutions.
  • This article was originally published by Food First.
  • Please send comments to or comment online at Pambazuka News.