news analysis advocacy
AfricaFocus Bookshop
New Gift CDs
China & Africa
tips on searching

Search AfricaFocus and 8 Partner Sites



Visit the AfricaFocus
Country Pages

Burkina Faso
Cape Verde
Central Afr. Rep.
Congo (Brazzaville)
Congo (Kinshasa)
Côte d'Ivoire
Equatorial Guinea
São Tomé
Sierra Leone
South Africa
South Sudan
Western Sahara

Get AfricaFocus Bulletin by e-mail!         More on politics & human rights | economy & development | peace & security | health

Print this page

Africa: Green Revolution?

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Oct 15, 2006 (061015)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

The Gates Foundation has joined with the Rockefeller Foundation in promoting a new "Green Revolution" in Africa. But will the new effort learn from the mistakes of earlier "Green Revolution" initiatives? Sceptics say that the new proposals still disregard the interests of small farmers and the environment.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a press release from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announcing the new initiative, and a critique from GRAIN, an NGO that promotes sustainable management of agricultural diversity. Another AfricaFocus Bulletin sent out today examines the case of African rice development in particular, which proponents say is one Green Revolution initiative that does incorporate participation of small farmers and promotes biodiversity.

For additional background on the "Green Revolution," see the website of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR - Two clearly written critical articles, particularly stressing the folly of relying only on yield measurements as a measure of success, without taking into account social, economic, and ecological factors, are "Public Research: Which Public is That?" by Aaron deGrassi and Peter Rosset (, and "Lessons from the Green Revolution," by Peter Rosset, Joseph Collins, and Frances Moore Lapp‚ (

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Bill & Melinda Gates, Rockefeller Foundations Form Alliance to Help Spur "Green Revolution" in Africa

Major Effort to Move Millions of People out of Poverty and Hunger Begins with a $150 Million Investment to Improve Africa's Seed Systems

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

September 12, 2006

Seattle, New York -- The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation announced today that they will form an alliance to contribute to a "Green Revolution" in Africa that will dramatically increase the productivity of small farms, moving tens of millions of people out of extreme poverty and significantly reducing hunger.

This joint effort builds on the work of the Rockefeller Foundation between the 1940s and 1960s to launch what is known as the "Green Revolution," an effort that pioneered the historic transformation of farming methods in Latin America and South and Southeast Asia, helping to double food production and stave off widespread famine. Among the pioneers in this effort was plant pathologist Norman Borlaug, a Rockefeller Foundation scientist for 39 years, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work developing improved crop varieties and farm management practices and promoting their widespread use around the world.

"The original Green Revolution was a huge success in many parts of the world," said Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation. "Unfortunately, in Africa, while there are many positive efforts, momentum is going the other way. Over the past 15 years, the number of Africans living on less than a dollar a day has increased by 50 percent. Working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and with African leaders, farmers and scientists, we're committed to launching an African Green Revolution that will help tens of millions of people who are living on the brink of starvation in sub-Saharan Africa."

Over the long term, the partnership, called Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), intends to improve agricultural development in Africa by addressing both farming and relevant economic issues, including soil fertility and irrigation, farmer management practices, and farmer access to markets and financing. Almost three-quarters of Africa's land area is being farmed without improved inputs such as fertilizer and advanced seeds.

"No major region around the world has been able to make sustained economic gains without first making significant improvements in agricultural productivity," said Bill Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation. "In Africa today, the great majority of poor people, many of them women with young children, depend on agriculture for food and income and remain impoverished and even go hungry. Yet, Melinda and I also have seen reason for hope - African plant scientists developing higher-yielding crops, African entrepreneurs starting seed companies to reach small farmers, and agrodealers reaching more and more small farmers with improved farm inputs and farm management practices. These strategies have the potential to transform the lives and health of millions of families. Working together with African leaders and the Rockefeller Foundation, we are embarking on a long-term effort focused on agricultural productivity, which will build on and extend this important work."

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa's first investment of $150 million ($100 million from the Gates Foundation and $50 million from the Rockefeller Foundation) will support the Program for Africa's Seed Systems (PASS). PASS will mount an across-the-board effort to improve the availability and variety of seeds that can produce higher yields in the often harsh conditions of sub-Saharan Africa. Specifically, PASS will help:

Develop Improved Varieties of African Crops

African agricultural environments are highly diverse with significant differences in local pests, diseases, rainfall patterns, soil properties and the desired attributes demanded by local small farm communities. PASS will fund around 40 national breeding programs a year that will use local participatory crop breeding to address these barriers and provide more robust, higher-yielding crops for small farmers. PASS will invest $43 million with a five-year goal of developing 100 new and improved crop varieties suitable for the ecologically varied agricultural environments in Africa.

Train New Generation of African Crop Scientists

Accelerating a new Green Revolution for Africa is a multi-layered challenge. While it starts with improved crop varieties at the most fundamental level, it also requires the development of new generations of trained African agricultural scientists. That is why PASS will invest $20 million to provide graduate level training in African universities for the next generation of African crop breeders and agricultural scientists upon which the seed system depends for growth and productivity.

Ensure Improved Seeds Reach Smallholder Farmers

Africa has the lowest levels of improved seed utilization of any region in the world, mostly because such seeds are not physically or financially available to the majority of farmers. The poor state of rural transportation infrastructure, a lack of effective points of seed delivery to small farmers, and inadequate access to financial services all contribute to low utilization and inadequate agricultural productivity. PASS will invest $24 million to ensure that improved crop varieties are produced and distributed through private and public channels (including seed companies, public community seed systems and public extension) so farmers can adopt these varieties.

Develop a Network of African Agro-Dealers

Another challenge particular to Africa is the lack of a robust market for bringing new products to farmers. PASS hopes to address this by providing training, capital and credit to establish at least 10,000 small agro-dealers who can serve as conduits of seeds, fertilizers, chemicals and knowledge to smallholder farmers, and in doing so help increase their productivity and incomes. This will be a $37 million investment.

Monitor, Evaluate and Manage

A new organization, based in Nairobi, Kenya will be created to ensure learning takes place and projects are well managed. The organization will conduct monitoring and evaluation of PASS projects, oversee sub-granting and implementation of all PASS activities and carry out financial management activities. A total of $26 million will be allocated for these activities.

The Rockefeller Foundation has already spent more than $600 million (in current dollars) on Green Revolution work around the world, including nearly $150 million during the last seven years in Africa.

Another silver bullet for Africa?

Bill Gates to resurrect the Rockefeller Foundation's decaying Green Revolution


September 2006

"Now it's Africa's turn. This is only the beginning of the continent's Green Revolution. The end goal is that within 20 years, farmers will double or even triple their yields and sell the surplus at market. This is a vision of a new Africa, where farmers aren't doomed to a life of hunger and poverty, where people can look toward the future with promise."
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 12 September 2006

In a fanfare of publicity, the Bill & Melinda Gates and the Rockefeller Foundations announced on 12 September that they have teamed up in a new 'Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa'. A day later, probably in an orchestrated move, Jacques Diouf, Director General of UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), called for support for a second Green Revolution to feed the world's growing population. UN boss Kofi Annan also weighed in to support the initiative.

The core of this Gates/Rockefeller initiative is the breeding of new seeds and getting Africa's small farmers to use them. Gates will put up US$100 million, and Rockefeller will contribute another US$50 million plus its long experience in this field. The Gates Foundation, which had been focusing on health care since it was started, has only recently spotted agriculture as an issue to spend money on. At the press conference launching the initiative, Bill Gates stressed that this is just one of the first of many investments in the agricultural arena likely to come from his foundation, currently the world's richest charity with over $60 billion in funds.

While the head of the Microsoft empire puts up most of the money, the real mover behind this initiative (and its primary beneficiary) is the Rockefeller Foundation. The new money provides a tremendous boost for its programme and strategy in Africa. Rockefeller was the lead agency behind the push for the Green Revolution when it started in the 1950s. Launched at the height of the cold war to counter the threat of red revolution sweeping the countryside in large parts of Asia and Latin America, the Green Revolution is often described as an agricultural development project based on the breeding of new crop varieties that respond better to fertilizer, agrochemicals and irrigation. Its impact on farming and food production has provoked bitter controversy: its proponents claim that it has saved millions of lives by increasing agricultural productivity, while its critics point to the devastating impact it has had on small farmers and the environment. Nobody denies that it generated a massive global market for seed, pesticide and fertilizer corporations.

Talk has been going on for decades now about giving Africa its own Green Revolution. Everybody - proponents and detractors alike - agree that in Africa the first Green Revolution wasn't a great success. So how come? Why didn't the Green Revolution work in Africa? More importantly, are those pushing new agricultural technologies learning the lessons of the past?

Learning from the past?

The people at the Rockefeller Foundation, who are the real masterminds behind this "new" initiative, point to the complexity of Africa's agriculture and its lack of infrastructure to explain that the Green Revolution largely 'bypassed' this continent. But Green Revolution technology didn't 'bypass' Africa: it failed. It was unpopular and ineffective. Fertiliser use, for example, increased substantially from the 1970s onwards in sub-Saharan Africa, while per capita agricultural production fell. In Malawi, despite the widespread release of hybrid maize, the average maize yield remains roughly what it was in 1961. Yield increases were also low or stagnant across Africa in other important crops such as cassava, yams, rice, wheat, sorghum, and millet. Even the Rockefeller Foundation admits that Africa's experience raises serious questions about the Green Revolution approach: "Lingering low yields among African farmers for crops such as maize and rice, where adoption of improved varieties has been appreciable, call into question the overall value of the improved germplasm to local farmers."

With this evidence on the table, and Rockefeller's own senior officials questioning the Green Revolution's single focus on improved seeds, one would expect the new Gates/Rockefeller initiative to take a different approach. Instead, we get more of the same. In the background document that the people at Rockefeller drew up to explain the initiative they conclude: "A main reason for the inefficiency [of Africa's agriculture] is that the crops on the great majority of small farms are not the high-yielding varieties in common use on the other continents". They point to the need for more fertilizer use, more irrigation, better infrastructure and more trained scientists.

From this rather simplistic analysis (essentially saying that the problem is Africa, not the technology), we then get a straightforward action plan repeating Rockefeller's approaches in the past:

  • Breed new crop varieties: at least 200 new varieties for Africa to be churned out in the next 5 years.
  • Train African scientists to work with them, spearheading the new revolution.
  • Get the new seeds to the farmers through seed companies and by providing training, capital and credit to establish a network of small agro-dealers "who can serve as conduits of seeds, fertilizers, chemicals and knowledge to smallholder farmers".

In addition to getting new seeds to farmers, getting more chemical fertilizers to them is stressed as an important part of the new Green Revolution in Africa. Bad transportation and overpricing because of government taxes and other tariffs are identified as the main bottlenecks. So in essence, and despite some lip service to the shortcomings of earlier efforts, this initiative replicates exactly the approach of its ill-fated predecessor: the main problem is that farmers don't have access to new technology, so we are going to produce it and ensure that it gets into their hands.

The broader picture

It is incredible that this simplistic line of thinking is still being followed after so many years of Green Revolution debate. The whole question of the tremendous environmental damage caused by the Green Revolution model of agricultural development relying on the lavish use of water, fertilizer and pesticides is completely ignored and pushed aside. The soil erosion and degradation caused by the use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides, and the resulting destruction of agricultural productivity in Africa are not even mentioned. Instead, the old mantra of new seeds and more fertilizer is repeated. The explosive question of genetically engineered crops is cleverly avoided in the propaganda which doesn't mean that it's not there: both the Gates and Rockefeller foundations are amongst the most active supporters of genetic engineering in Africa.

Also totally ignored is the central role of local communities, their traditional seed systems and rich indigenous knowledge, despite increased international recognition of their crucial importance. Rather than building on these foundations and on the tremendous treasure of biological diversity that is available in the villages, Rockefeller has decided to replace it with "improved varieties".

But perhaps the starkest omission is the project's failure to consider the socio-economic consequences of its techno-fix model. The thinking is: improved varieties give more production, which yields more income. But, as more than 600 NGOs put it in an open letter to the Director General of the FAO in 2004: "if we have learned anything from the failures of the Green Revolution, it is that technological 'advances' in crop genetics for seeds that respond to external inputs go hand in hand with increased socio-economic polarization, rural and urban impoverishment, and greater food insecurity. The tragedy of the Green Revolution lies precisely in its narrow technological focus that ignored the far more important social and structural underpinnings of hunger." It is indeed hard to believe that this reality has not yet sunk into the minds of US "development" planners like those at the Rockefeller Foundation.

This reality has only been growing more dramatic. Under pressure from international and bilateral trade instruments, especially under the World Trade Organization and the impending Economic Partnership Agreements with the European Union, African governments are increasingly opening up their markets to let their farmers "compete" with the heavily subsidised food and other agricultural produce dumped into their economies by the US and the EU. Earlier, structural adjustment programmes imposed by the world's financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, forced African governments to dismantle public agricultural research and extension programmes and drop whatever protection and incentive mechanisms existed for their small farmers. To rub salt in the wound, the same African governments are then forced by the same agencies to devote their most fertile land to the growing of export commodities for markets in the North, thus pushing small farmers off their land and food production out of rural economies.

The bitter irony is that many of these measures that are now destroying African farming are being supported, if not instigated, by the very corporations whose charity foundations are now coming to Africa's "rescue" with technology programmes.

The seeds of privatisation

If there is anything new in the Gates/Rockefeller push for a Green Revolution in Africa, it is its reliance on the private sector as the main vehicle to deliver the goods and control the process. A substantial part of the funding is earmarked for seed companies and 'agro-dealers' to get the seeds and the chemicals to the farmer. This approach fits very well with Rockefeller's agricultural programmes in Africa, a major element of which is the development of private seed companies. Not surprisingly, Bill Gates' vision for Africa follows the same lines. After talking about the problems of Africa, he says: "But Melinda and I also have seen reason for hope - African plant scientists developing higher-yielding crops, African entrepreneurs starting seed companies to reach small farmers, and agrodealers reaching more and more small farmers with improved farm inputs and farm management practices." The farmers are the final object to reach, not the first point from which to start.

Also new is the growing trend for corporate charities to take over the role of publicly funded development programmes. Development aid is shrinking, while private fortunes, and the need to give money away through corporate philanthropy, are blooming. This initiative is just one of the latest in a series of large private charities turning their eye - and their money - on Africa's farmers. In the same week that Gates and Rockefeller announced their initiative, the foundation headed by George Soros pledged US$50 million for the Millennium Villages Project, oriented to help rural villages in Africa out of poverty. A few months earlier, Bill Clinton's foundation had pledged fertilizers and irrigation systems support to Rwandan farmers. Much earlier, another US ex-president, Jimmy Carter, teamed up with a Japanese tycoon to launch the "Sasakawa 2000" project to bring seeds and fertilizers to Africa. Charity foundations of companies such as Dupont, Syngenta and Monsanto have been penetrating the international agriculture research system this way for a while - and are set to do so increasingly. In the mindset of such corporate foundations, progress is guided by the vision and interests of transnational corporations, not by the collective wisdom of its rural communities.

The problem is not that the Green Revolution has "bypassed" Africa. It is that several decades of experience, lessons and new insights have bypassed the Green Revolution sponsors - now backed by corporate foundations - who insist on an outdated technology model that benefits corporations, not farmers.

Sources & further reading

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

AfricaFocus Bulletin can be reached at Please write to this address to subscribe or unsubscribe to the bulletin, or to suggest material for inclusion. For more information about reposted material, please contact directly the original source mentioned. For a full archive and other resources, see

Read more on |Africa Economy & Development||Africa Agriculture|

URL for this file: