Africa Farms Get Massive Pledge to Spur "Green Revolution"

Kelly Hearn
for National Geographic News
September 15, 2006
Two major U.S. philanthropic groups will spend $150 million (U.S.)
over the next five years to bring a "green revolution" to Africa's
small farms.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation last week announced that they will contribute $100 million and $50 million respectively to help Africa's rural farmers boost food production.

Working together as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the foundations are seeking to develop and secure access to higher-yield, drought-resistant seed varieties that will grow in Africa's nutritionally spent soil.

Officials say the cooperative effort is the first phase of a long-term commitment to boost food security on the continent, which has 16 of the 18 most undernourished countries in the world (map of Africa).

"Today no country of any size has been able to sustain a transition out of poverty without substantially raising productivity in the agricultural sector," Bill Gates, co-chairman of the Gates Foundation, said during a conference call with journalists last week.

Variety of Efforts

The aim of the new program is to give African farmers science and technology benefits that have largely flowed to rich countries.

Roy Steiner, a Gates foundation program director, says most of the $36 billion spent globally on agriculture research every year is geared toward large farmers and wealthy consumers.

For example, "one of the fast-growing research areas focuses on golf grass," he said.

The new initiative is modeled after the Rockefeller-funded Green Revolution, a massive philanthropic and governmental effort that brought high-yield grains, pesticides, and management techniques to developing countries in Asia and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s.

Though criticized by some experts for its ecological impacts, the revolution is widely seen as having significantly boosted cereal-grain production in those regions.

The alliance will support the Program for Africa's Seed Systems (PASS), which has earmarked $43 million to 40 national breeding programs. Efforts to get the new seed to farmers though community seed systems and seed companies will get $24 million.

About $37 million will go to developing a network of at least 10,000 small agriculture dealers to spread seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, and advice; $26 million and $20 million—the remainder—will go, respectively, to support an oversight organization and to educate graduate-level agricultural scientists.

Gates said the foundations will reassess after five years and "look at what level makes sense based on how well we've done during that time." But he stressed the commitment is long-term.

Banking on Success

The foundations are also working on programs separately. Both are funding research into improving grain storage techniques and expanding access to markets and financing, for example.

Steiner says the Gates Foundation, which recently received a $30 billion donation from investor Warren Buffett, is working to develop financing systems, because the vast majority of African farmers don't use banks.

"You wouldn't consider doing agriculture in the West without tremendous financial support such as preferential credit," he said.

The Rockefeller Foundation, which has spent $150 million in Africa over the last seven years in Africa, is striving to put small farmers in better touch with markets.

Gary Toenniessen, the group's director of food security, says the group has helped develop information systems at commodity exchanges in countries such as Kenya and Malawi. It has also helped start kiosks in rural areas where farmers can pay a small fee to use cell-phone-based computer systems to receive price information and bids on commodities

"The idea is to get market information to farmers so they know the prices of some 40 different commodities in 50 locations every day," Toenniessen said.

Keeping It Clean

The alliance says it is mindful of criticisms that the previous Green Revolution program caused water quality problems and pesticide overuse.

Toenniessen says the foundations consider pesticide overuse to be one of their biggest potential problems. The alliance is putting a high priority on designing insect-resistant seeds as insurance, he adds. (Related: "Stockpiled Pesticides Harming African People, Environment" [November 2005])

Other experts say the Green Revolution's large-scale irrigation systems caused fields to become waterlogged and heavily salinized.

The alliance says it will avoid large-scale irrigation systems in Africa, instead using small pumps if ground water is available or capturing rainwater.

The Gates Foundation has already begun work on small-scale irrigation systems costing around $50 that can irrigate a large garden to produce food for an entire family with spare yield for sale, Steiner says.

"What we are going for with these systems is radical affordability," he said.

Some researchers say the initiative could make a difference. But they warn that Africa's seemingly intractable political, scientific, and economic problems could derail efforts.

Peter Trimmer, a fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington D.C., points out, for example, that Africa—unlike Asia—has hundreds of microclimates to which seed varieties must be adapted.

Others point to broader economic problems.

"I guess not even Bill Gates can do much about the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's agricultural and trade policies, which systematically sabotage the efforts of African farmers to produce more and better food," said Gran Djurfeldt, an agriculture expert at Sweden's Lund University.

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