In July, the United Nations sounded the alarm with its hunger report for 2020, which documented a 25% increase from 2019 to 2020 in the number of critically undernourished people around the world. Sub-Saharan Africa experienced a similar peak with an estimated 44 million more people suffering from severe hunger. Covid-19 and climate change were the immediate causes, but the lag in agricultural productivity growth has also contributed.
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was founded 15 years ago to address this productivity problem. With generous funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, the alliance was founded as an international NGO dedicated to fighting chronic hunger and poverty. It would do this by increasing the yields of major food crops through the increased use of seeds and commercial fertilizers. This is the “tech package” attributed to increasing agricultural productivity in what became the first green revolution in India and other parts of Asia and Latin America in the 1970s.
The alliance set two ambitious goals to be achieved by 2020. The first was to double the yields and incomes of 30 million smallholder farming households. The second was to halve food insecurity. With funding from private foundations and a few Western bilateral donors, the organization has focused on 13 African countries for most of its 15 years, spending around $ 1 billion.
At Tufts University, we set out in 2020 to assess how well the organization is meeting its own stated goals. The organization refused to share data on its beneficiaries, without giving a reason. So we looked at data from its 13 priority countries – including Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania – to see if there were any indications that a productivity revolution was underway, generating incomes in increase and improved food security. We used data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Bank, which at the time had data until 2018.
We found little evidence of significant improvements in productivity. For a basket of staple crops, productivity has increased by only 18% in 12 years, practically at the same rate as before the interventions of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. It is far from its goal of doubling productivity, a 100% increase.
Improvements in income were more difficult to assess due to the limited amount of data. But poverty levels remained high, especially in rural areas. Even more alarming, UN estimates of the number of severely “undernourished” people in these 13 countries have increased by 31% since 2006, far from halving food insecurity. More recent UN figures show that the number of hungry people across sub-Saharan Africa has increased by 50% since the alliance was formed in 2006.
No evidence of impact
The organization’s defense is, strangely, that its budget represents only 1% of development funding in Africa. He therefore argues that it is unreasonable to expect the impacts of his work to be reflected in statistics at the national level. I offer two answers.
First, the organization has set its own ambitious goals. Regardless of the estimate, 30 million smallholder farming households represent a significant majority of farmers in the 13 target countries. If the alliance had doubled yields and incomes and halved food insecurity for so many farming households, it would have been shown in the data.
Second, our research did not focus on narrow organizational impacts. Instead, we gave it the benefit of the doubt and assumed that its real purpose was to catalyze a productivity revolution, in conjunction with the many other Green Revolution initiatives on the continent, not least of which is direct subsidies to smallholders to purchase seeds and fertilizers. These provide up to US $ 1 billion per year in support, a much more direct and meaningful contribution to the Green Revolution project.
Our research assessed the progress of the Green Revolution project as a whole. This should indeed have produced measurable results in 15 years given the billions of dollars invested in the project. He does not have.
Since the publication of our research, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa has not been able to provide evidence of its positive impacts on productivity, income and food security. Its recently released 2020 annual report claims to do so, but I think it only presents short-term changes for small samples of cultures and countries.
An imperfect “theory of change”
Our research brief challenges the very premises of the Green Revolution’s “theory of change”. The theory is that if seeds and fertilizers are put into the hands of small farmers, their yields will double, as will their income from the sale of surplus crops. And they will enjoy food security from the crops they grow and the food they can now afford to buy.
We found that:
The adoption rates of high-yielding seeds and synthetic fertilizers are low, in part because the inputs are expensive and do not produce sufficiently high yields. Even with subsidized inputs, yields have not increased dramatically.
With relatively small increases in yield, there is not much to sell. For many farmers, the additional income from sales does not cover input costs. Incentives to move away from more diverse cropping systems can actually undermine food security by decreasing dietary diversity and reducing climate resilience. Severe hunger in the 13 target countries has increased by 30%.
Temporary increases in Green Revolution input yields tend to fade over time. Soil fertility decreases under monocultures fed with synthetic fertilizers. Farmers become dependent on subsidies and risk getting into debt.
The failures described here involve a series of initiatives, not just the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Yet this year’s Africa Green Revolution Forum seeks to celebrate these entities ahead of the upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit on September 24.
The alliance says its forum this year speaks with a “singular coordinated African voice”. Outside the forum, representatives of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, a vast network representing some 200 million food producers, demanded an end to AGRA funding. In the words of Alliance leader Million Belay:
We welcome investments in agriculture on our continent. But we are looking for it in a democratic form and listening to the people at the heart of agriculture.
It is important that this diversity of voices be heard and respected.
Timothy A Wise, Principal Investigator, Global Development and Environment, Tufts University
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