Rich Philanthropists Don’t Have the Solutions to Africa’s Hunger Crisis

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is pushing an agribusiness model on Africa that has failed. Rather than relieving the ongoing hunger crisis, it has undercut Africans' ability to solve their own problems, free of do-gooder philanthropists.

Bill and Melinda Gates attend the Robin Hood Foundation's 2018 benefit at Jacob Javitz Center in New York. (Kevin Mazur / Getty Images)

The persistence of hunger and food crises across the world has spawned some false solutions. One of the most notable of these is the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), launched in 2006 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation together with the Rockefeller Foundation, and supported by numerous international organizations and governments in the Global North, along with some African governments.

AGRA, registered in the United States, was founded to give new impetus to the fight against hunger in Africa with a corporate-driven “Green Revolution” approach. It promised to double the agricultural yields and incomes of thirty million small-scale food producer households by 2020, thus halving both hunger and poverty in the focus countries. The promises have been grand, but civil society organizations in Africa and beyond, as well as large numbers of African farmers, are raising critical concerns about the program, arguing that it has failed completely to fulfill its own agenda.

In July 2020, five African and five German organizations jointly published the study “False Promises: The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).” It was the first study to scientifically assess the program’s impacts and to ask whether AGRA had met its goals. It found that AGRA had failed to do so. Instead of halving hunger, the situation in the thirteen priority countries the organization focuses on has in fact worsened since AGRA was launched. The number of people going hungry has increased by a staggering 30 percent during the AGRA years.

Further evidence of AGRA’s shortcomings emerged from the ranks of the alliance itself. Complying with a request under the US Freedom of Information Act, AGRA was compelled to publish an overall midterm evaluation as well as eleven country-specific assessments of its activities on its website. An alliance of sixteen African and German organizations analyzed the AGRA evaluation and the country reports. Their findings are quite devastating for the champions of a Green Revolution in Africa.

Chains of Dependency

The Green Revolution is a developmental approach that has been propagated since the 1960s. Across Asia, Latin America, and Africa, new cultivation methods, with the aid of global agribusiness, are combined with the use of technology, synthetic fertilizer, and high-yielding seed in an effort to increase food production.

AGRA’s narrative is that by using more agricultural inputs, small-scale food producers will double their crop yields — which in turn will effectively double incomes, supposedly. According to AGRA’s evaluations, however, revenues from the sale of its main crop, maize, are very low. In Tanzania, for example, the average sales revenue from maize sales is US$77 per household per year, yet AGRA shows no evidence that its programs contributed to that total.

The official Tanzanian poverty line is $250 per person per year, or about $500 for a household of two adults. By selling its AGRA-maize, an average small-scale food producer earns approximately 15 percent of the income needed to even meet the Tanzanian poverty line. An average Tanzanian household comprises five members, including children, which illustrates how low the income generated through AGRA is. Additional expenses for costly AGRA seed, fertilizer, and pesticides were not included when determining net income.

Fertilizer costs have been climbing for several years, and prices in Africa are often higher than the average world price. This is partly due to the increased cost of transport in Africa. The average world urea price in May 2022 was $549 per ton; in Kenya it was $1,233; and in Ghana it was $1,216. This puts states and farmers under massive pressure to buy the required agro-industrial inputs they were made to rely on through AGRA and other Green Revolution initiatives.

Although AGRA and other actors, such as the German government, have publicly stated that they are unaware of any cases of indebtedness of farmers participating in AGRA projects, the Ghana evaluation cites this problem very specifically. Farmers consider the AGRA approach extremely risky. There is substantial evidence showing that when harvests are poor, farmers regularly fall into debt. Farmers from Ghana said that even with good yields, they have to spend over 80 percent of their harvest income paying suppliers for seed and fertilizer. Others even question whether this model is worthwhile at all.

A key element of AGRA’s approach is to build networks and extend access to credit so that small-scale food producers can be rapidly supplied with the basic external inputs required for the Green Revolution, especially artificial fertilizer, commercial seed, and pesticides. To this end, many AGRA projects include the training of village-based advisors (VBAs) at a local level, capable of dispensing advice to small-scale food producers on how to apply the industrial inputs of the Green Revolution.

When its projects come to an end, however, this system of access to and distribution of external industrial inputs is, reports show, prone to collapse. Moreover, AGRA’s deployment of VBAs stimulates systematic dependencies, beginning with the fact that VBAs rely on external industrial inputs. AGRA projects thereby facilitate farmers’ reliance not only on the inputs recommended by its projects, but also on the companies that produce and distribute them.

As soon as AGRA and its funders can no longer guarantee supplies, it is highly likely that farmers will no longer be able to access the very inputs on which they previously relied. This demonstrates AGRA’s tenuous approach, while its system also exposes farmers to supply chain bottlenecks and price fluctuations, with potentially devastating effects on agricultural production and household income. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine, prices for industrial inputs have increased drastically, further showing the economic unsustainability of this approach.

Hazardous Pesticides

A 2022 analysis by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, “Bread for the World,” revealed that AGRA projects in Ghana use pesticides containing active ingredients that are either banned under EU law or at least highly controversial. Use of these pesticides also contravenes the German government guidelines. According to the aforementioned organizations, the use of the ingredients propanil and permethrin, which are not approved for use in the EU, violates the Reference Framework for Development Partnerships in the Agriculture and Food Sector established by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the Environmental and Social Standards of the World Bank.

Propanil and permethrin are classified as class II active ingredients by the World Health Organization (WHO) and are therefore “moderately hazardous.” Special safety precautions must be taken when using active ingredients in this category, according to further standards mentioned in the reference framework of the German BMZ. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that fields sprayed with propanil-based pesticides must be out of bounds during the application process and for twenty-four hours thereafter. Protective equipment recommended for farmers includes chemical-resistant gloves made of waterproof material and chemical-resistant footwear and socks.

Permethrin must be stored safely in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area, free from combustible materials and heat sources. The empty containers must not be reused. These are all exclusion criteria for the application of these pesticides by small-scale food producers, as documented in numerous scientific publications on the use of pesticides in smallholder contexts in Africa.

Moreover, AGRA projects in Ghana use pesticides containing the active ingredients glyphosate and oxyfluorfen. Although glyphosate can still be used in the EU, it remains highly controversial. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of WHO, glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic” to humans. Oxyfluorfen, like permethrin, is classified by the EPA as “probably carcinogenic.”

In general, many pesticides pose a threat to human health or the environment. According to a study in 2020, 385 million people worldwide suffer from acute pesticide poisoning every year, compared to an estimated 25 million cases in 1990. This means that approximately 44 percent of the 860 million farmers and farmworkers worldwide suffer from poisoning every year. These pesticides are not good enough for Europe or the United States; these harmful substances however flood the African market thanks to organizations such as AGRA and others and pose a threat to African farmers.

AGRA’s evaluations reveal how it systematically exerts political influence on fertilizer and seed legislation in partner countries by often deploying staff or providing direct financial support to ministries or advisory bodies of African governments. In this way, AGRA promotes an institutional framework in several focus countries that legitimizes its Green Revolution approaches through laws, subsidies, and frameworks in an attempt to make them binding.

The evaluation report for Nigeria, for example, clearly illustrates how AGRA’s push to introduce seed laws is primarily aligned with industry interests. In Tanzania, the private sector can now access seeds generated by public breeding. AGRA directly financed government agencies that worked on seven of the eight policy reforms in Ghana alone — four in the area of seed and artificial fertilizer. It also developed legislative proposals furthering the interests of the private sector rather than those of small-scale food producers.

In Uganda, AGRA supported the national fertilizer platform, chaired by the Ministry of Agriculture, which paved the way for the private sector to control the quality of fertilizer. Exerting industry-friendly influence on political frameworks increases sales opportunities for Green Revolution products and international corporations such as the fertilizer company Yara, an AGRA project partner. AGRA’s unrelenting influence on the seed and fertilizer legislation of the African focus countries has contributed to the deep entrenchment of its agro-industrial Green Revolution model.

The Failed Revolution

In autumn 2022, at its annual Green Revolution Forum, AGRA announced a “rebranding.” It turns out that AGRA dropped the words “green revolution” from its name and went on to unveil its new five-year strategy. Dressed up with a new logo and branding, the 2023–2027 plan is largely a continuation of the programs and initiatives it devised in 2006. The Alliance for Food Sovereignty (AFSA) issued a statement calling the changes “cosmetic,” “an admission of failure” by the Green Revolution project, and “a cynical distraction” from the urgent need to change course.

AFSA is the largest civil society movement on the continent, bringing together farmers, pastoralists, fishers, indigenous people, and others. It is a network of networks operating in fifty African countries, representing two hundred million people. The rebranding is likely an attempt to distance AGRA from the growing evidence that Africa’s Green Revolution is dead in the water.

On the occasion of AGRA’s Green Revolution Forum, African civil society organizations and leaders in the farming sector held a press conference calling for an end to what they called the failed Green Revolution. Speakers highlighted how AGRA pushed a development model that reinforces dependency on foreign inputs and undermines the resilience of African food systems. They demanded a decisive shift away from imported fossil fuel–based fertilizers and chemicals and toward self-sufficient, ecological farming that revitalizes soil and protects ecosystems. “We have the expertise. The best people to solve problems in Africa are people from the continent itself,” as Leonida Odongo, cofounder of Haki Nawiri Afrika said.

What’s required is for donor governments in the Global North to cease all political and financial support for AGRA. The Green Revolution has failed, especially for poor small-scale food producers. Many governments, however, continue to cling to the outdated principles of the Green Revolution, for example, by supporting the Feed Africa: Food Sovereignty and Resilience initiative run by the African Development Bank (AfDB), the One Acre Fund, or the Global Alliance for Food Security (GAFS).

What’s needed globally is a policy focus on agroecology and the right to food. Agroecology is not merely an agricultural approach that reduces the need for pesticides and fertilizers, recycles plant remains, and harnesses biological processes to grow food. Rather, agroecology emphasizes a particular perspective vis-à-vis our relationship to nature. Around this perspective, a social movement is growing, which encourages peer-to-peer exchanges of information between farmers. The chief goal is to develop locally adapted solutions for peasant farmers that work with the available resources.

Agroecology favors a gradual transition away from the fossil energy–based farming. The approach seeks to preserve soil health and to reduce soil erosion. Another advantage of an agroecological approach is that it is based on locally produced inputs. Many African soils are nutrient-poor and heavily degraded. However, to increase soil nutrients, farmers do not have to rely on mineral fertilizers; they can also apply livestock manure or grow green manure. Farmers can establish “a fertilizer factory in the fields” by planting trees that take nitrogen out of the air and “fix” it in their leaves, which are subsequently incorporated into the soil.

The fundamental question is whether the effects of the war in Ukraine, the negative impacts of climate change, the rising numbers of people going hungry, especially in Africa, and many other crises will drive the necessary agricultural turnaround worldwide or whether the world will remain tethered to the failed Green Revolution.