Feeding big agribusiness, starving Africans

Industrial agriculture has failed to eliminate food insecurity in Africa. It is time for a radically different approach.

Sasini employees unload bags of fertilizer from a truck at Kipkebe Tea Estate at Kipkebe Tea Estate in Musereita on October 21, 2022. - The agricultural drone market is expected to grow in the coming years, with some reports suggesting it could reach 10.5 billion USD by 2028. Kenya, a country vulnerable to drought and food insecurity in some areas, is investing in agricultural technology in the hope to reduce costs and increasing crop yields. (Photo by Patrick Meinhardt / AFP) / “The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by Patrick Meinhardt has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [fertilizer] instead of [pesticide]. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require.”
Workers unload bags of fertiliser at a farm in Musereita, Kenya on October 21, 2022 [AFP/Patrick Meinhardt]

On September 5, the annual Africa Food Systems Forum, organised by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), will launch in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Government officials, experts, policymakers and business leaders will come together to discuss – in their words – “building back better food systems and food sovereignty”.

Sponsored by international philanthropic and bilateral donors and agrochemical and biotech companies such as Yara, Corteva and Bayer, the forum promotes hybrid and genetically modified seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides used in the type of industrial-scale agriculture that has failed to deliver “better food systems” or “food sovereignty”.

This approach to growing food, involving problematic practices that harm soils, pollute the environment, and favour large landowners and big agribusiness, has been pushed on Africa in the past few decades. But it has not helped the continent overcome food insecurity.

AGRA’s work is a case in point. It has failed to deliver on its own promises to increase productivity and incomes for 20 million farm households while halving food insecurity by 2020. Of the 13 countries it has primarily worked with, three have reduced the number of malnourished people over the past 15 years: Zambia by 2 percent, Ethiopia by 8 percent and Ghana by 36 percent, still short of the 50 percent target.

In countries like Kenya and Nigeria, both of which have embraced industrial agriculture policies, the number of undernourished people has grown by 44 percent and 247 percent, respectively. Taken together, the population of undernourished people in the 13 states AGRA has primarily worked with has actually risen by 50 percent over the past 15 years.

A donor-commissioned evaluation released in 2022 also confirmed that AGRA “did not meet its headline goal of increased incomes and food security for 9 million smallholders” in the previous five years.

That is because the industrial agriculture practices AGRA and others promote degrade soils over time and decrease productivity – as our research has shown.

Still, under pressure from foreign donors and big agribusiness, countries across Africa have been adopting policies that reflect this harmful approach to agriculture.

Zambia is one of them. Despite having one of the highest adoption rates for commercial seeds and fertilisers, the country has poor development outcomes. It has decreased malnourishment by 2 percent, but three-quarters of rural Zambians continue living in extreme poverty.

To address these failures, a new National Agricultural Investment Plan was being developed by the Zambian government in open consultation with farmers, experts and civil society. Among other practices, it was going to promote a wider diversity of crops and not just maize, which has been favoured by industrial agriculture proponents.

Surprisingly, the government introduced instead a “Comprehensive Agriculture Transformation Support Programme” (CATSP) as its new development strategy, which favours larger agricultural businesses and which is backed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

CATSP focuses on supporting farmers growing maize and soybeans, along with other export crops, at the expense of the more diverse food crops grown by Zambian farmers, such as millet and sorghum. Worse still, it will extend a farm blocks programme that allots vast tracts of land for farming.

Smallholder farmers figure almost nowhere in the CATSP scheme, except as occasional beneficiaries of the controversial Farmer Input Support Programme, which is rife with corruption and waste.

The programme’s input subsidies keep farmers locked in the production of maize and soybeans and dependent on chemical fertilisers, pesticides and hybrid seeds. All are expensive and have failed to turn a profit for most farmers. They have also been shown to weaken crop and diet diversity while damaging the environment.

Such schemes benefit multinational seed and fertiliser companies, which make windfall profits from countries like Zambia, which become hooked on their products. This type of agriculture development reflects the growing perception of farming and food production in Africa as a new money-making opportunity.

Back in 2014, Nigeria’s agriculture minister, Akinwumi Adesina, who is now the head of the African Development Bank, made that clear when he quipped: “Agriculture should be our next oil.”

But African farmers and community leaders are not ready to see their lands and cultures destroyed in another wave of neocolonial plunder. There is growing pushback against the promotion of industrial farming in Africa.

Ahead of AGRA’s forum, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), which represents millions of small-scale African farmers, held a press conference denouncing the exclusion of their voices.

“Where are the farmers?” asked Tanzanian farmer leader Juma Shabani at the press event. “They are clearly excluded in the coming 2023 AGRF meeting in Tanzania, a country with more than 70 percent of its population engaged in agriculture.”

AFSA and other grassroots organisations on the continent call for agroecology – low-input farming that builds on traditional peasant practices but innovates with the help of scientists. This is a much more sustainable, efficient and healthy way to grow food.

Farmers working with agroecologists are getting far better results than industrial agriculture programmes, improving food productivity while restoring degraded soils with climate-resilient practices such as intercropping, manure applications, and organic fertilisers produced using local materials.

The simple and low-cost innovation of creating “green manure cover crops”, for example, has scientists working with small-scale maize farmers across Africa to plant local varieties of trees and nitrogen-fixing food crops in their maize fields, increasing maize harvests at no cost to the farmer.

“Food security and nutrition can no longer be measured in yields or high productivity based on fertiliser, hybridised and GMO seed,” said Juliet Nangamba of the Zambian Alliance for Agroecology and Biodiversity at the August 30 press conference. “We need to transition to agroecology.”

It is time donors listen to such voices. It is time to drop stubborn adherence to a failing agricultural dogma. It is time to protect the lands and livelihoods of small-scale farmers and end the sort of corporate-driven, top-down development that has failed so miserably.

It is time to give African farmers a seat at the table, rather than excluding them from gatherings like the Africa Food Systems Forum.

Food sovereignty means allowing people to choose how they grow their food, respecting local cultures, and supporting practices that restore soils, promote biodiversity and make farming more resilient to climate change. It is the right to choose what you eat and how you produce it – free of foreign control.

The estimated 784 million food-insecure Africans need to eat. And African farmers know how to feed them.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.