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Africa: Shades of Green, 1

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Sep 24, 2012 (120924)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"AGRA adopts a fairly good critique of prior approaches to support for African agriculture, including systematic under- investment, the historical focus on large-scale agriculture and standardised technologies, and efforts to transfer technologies developed elsewhere which were inappropriate to the context (both seed and manufactured fertilisers). ... [but there is a hidden agenda of privatization] behind the humanitarian façade." - African Centre for Biodiversity

This AfricaFocus Bulletin, one of a series of three released today, and available on the web at, contains a clear description of the main features of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), excerpts from a new report from the African Centre for Biodiversity.

Another Bulletin, sent out by e-mail as well as available on the web at, contains excerpts from the same report focusing on critical alternative approaches to the AGRA commercialization model of agricultural development.

And a third related Bulletin, available on the web at, focuses on the key issue of "gene grabbing," the privatization of intellectual p;operty in African seeds drawn from the common store of resources developed by African farmers of centuries. Included in this Bulletin are excerpts from a new overview article by Andrew Mushita and Carol Thompson and from a 2010 study from the African Centre for Biodiversity on "The Sorghum Gene Grab."

The official web site for AGRA is

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on food and agriculture issues, visit

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

Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA): Laying the Groundwork for the Commercialisation of African Agriculture

African Centre for Biosafety

September 15 2012

The African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) is a non-profi organisation, based in Johannesburg, South Africa. ... The ACB has a respected record of evidence based work and can play a vital role in the agro-ecological movement by striving towards seed sovereignty, built upon the values of equal access to and use of resources.

About this paper and why the focus on AGRA

This paper examines the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) with a focus on its work around seeds. AGRA's intervention in African agriculture ties together a number of otherwise disparate initiatives by public sector institutions, national and multinational government structures and private companies and investors. AGRA thus provides an organisational and technical nucleus for the expansion of profit-making ventures in African agriculture. It focuses on interventions in seed as one of the central technologies for the commercialisation of agriculture, and as a profit centre.

Appraisals of AGRA from sovereignty movements so far have tended to focus on generic critiques of Green Revolution approaches to agriculture, and on the links between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Gates Foundation) and multinational biotechnology and seed companies, in particular Monsanto. Most existing critiques emerged soon after AGRA's launch in 2006 before much had happened, based on the historical experience of the Green Revolution and the role of the Rockefeller and USAID programmes amongst others, based on the historical experience of the Green Revolution and the role of the Rockefeller and USAID programmes amongst others.

Enough time has passed now since AGRA's launch to begin interrogating the initiative on the basis of its practical experiences. What we have tried to do in this paper is to dig a bit deeper into AGRA's philosophy and practice to understand in more detail what they are proposing and interrogate this. ...


4. The Green Revolution in Africa and new frontiers of accumulation

In the second decade of the new century, a growing consensus has emerged that we have entered a period of structurally higher food prices (Timmer, 2008:32). These rising prices are driven inter alia, by limited arable land and rising urban populations and the expansion of biofuel production using maize, especially in the US (the historical generator of maize surpluses for food aid to Africa). The United Nations (UN) predicts that food prices as a whole will rise at least 40% in the next decade (Vidal, 2011). The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development/Food and Agriculture Organisation (OECD-FAO) predict that global wheat and grain prices will be 30-60% higher in the coming decade than they were during the period 2002-2007 (Headey, et al., 2009:17). There is also an expectation of growing volatility because demand for cereals is highly inelastic (there are no alternatives).

As a result, land and agricultural production have become more important as well as a site for potential profitable investment. Africa is seen as the 'new frontier' of accumulation (Goldman Sachs, 2012). Following decades of neglect, the past few years have thus witnessed growing external investment in African agriculture, including in Africa's seed systems. The possibilities for profitable investment are situated in the context of foreign direct investment (FDI) as the perceived answer to Africa's problems, both from within and outside Africa. The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) and its related agricultural programme, the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP), are explicit in their support of a strategy that attracts FDI on the basis of investor friendly policies and systems. The limits to Africa's development are identified essentially as lack of capital and expertise.

There are two sides to this new wave of investment: on the one hand is the production and export of raw or semi- processed materials for consumption outside Africa in a continuation of Africa's colonial role as an exporter of raw materials. On the other hand is an emphasis on building local and regional markets in Africa. That is, Africa is an emerging zone of consumption for the realisation of surplus value in its own right. Much of the consumption based on Western diets currently means imports from other countries, e.g. wheat from the US, and soya from Argentina and Brazil. However soya and other crops are targeted for development in Africa. The first side provides inputs into production and consumption elsewhere; the second side is the expansion of markets. Biofuels, maize, rice and cassava are key focus areas from an agricultural point of view.

The key challenge facing investors in African agriculture is how to increase productivity so that sustainable profits can be made. It is logical that they will turn to the experiences of the Green Revolution in Asia and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s to see what lessons can be learned for application in Africa. Green Revolution seed work was spearheaded by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), with its roots in research institutes that pioneered technological innovations in plant breeding and seed systems since the 1940s. The first such institute, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) was sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, which continued its funding as the group of institutes expanded over the decades. Although the Green Revolution did lead to rapid and sustained increases in yields, this came at immense social and ecological cost (Box 1). These costs must be considered an integral part of the Green Revolution package.

Social and ecological costs of the Asian Green Revolution

  • Replacement of locally-used crops with cash crops for export, and associated replacement of polycultures (mixed farming) with monocultures;
  • Land degradation and soil nutrient depletion through overuse of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, led to destruction of soil life;
  • Negative health impacts for rural communities as a result of pesticide poisonings;
  • Water pollution and waste;
  • A focus on a few high-yielding varieties resulted in a narrowing of agricultural and wild biodiversity;
  • Sharp rises in input costs, resulting in greater indebtedness of small-scale farmers and consequent loss of farmland;
  • Concentration of land holdings, and rising social inequality.

In comparison with Asia and Latin America where the Green Revolution took hold, Africa has low grain yields, with stagnating per capita grain production (Minot et al., 2007:1). The dominant story until recently was that Africa's low agricultural productivity was caused by the failure of the first Green Revolution to take root. Initially lack of African capacity to adopt new technologies and lack of government will or support was blamed for this failure. More recently, however, the arguments have become more sophisticated, and there is greater recognition that the simple transfer of technology model that allowed for the rapid uptake of new technologies in Asia in particular is not appropriate for Africa's more diverse ecological and social context. The World Bank argues that the wide diversity of agroecological zones in Africa require adaptations in technology and "the 'technological distance' between growing conditions prevailing in Africa and those prevailing in developed countries is unusually large, so technologies travel even less well to Africa than they do to other developing regions" (World Bank, 2009:61). According to this argument, there was not enough emphasis on local adaptation in the first Green Revolution. Numerous other factors played a role in the inability of Green Revolution technologies to gain traction in Africa. For example, Minot et al. (2007:152) add that the higher costs of fertiliser, unreliable rainfall, lack of irrigation and low population density "which makes yield-increasing technology less appealing" were also contributing factors.

It is in this context that AGRA, an initiative of the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, was formed in 2006 as a private sector initiative with links to government institutions globally and in Africa. AGRA is registered as a non-profit institution in the US, but operates out of Nairobi in Kenya where it is registered as a branch of a foreign corporate entity. The Gates Foundation has made large investments in agriculture globally since 2003, to the value of US$2bn up to 2011. Recipients include CGIAR institutes, universities, public sector institutions and non-government organisations (NGOs), and AGRA offers a wide range of support from research into genetic modification (GM) to organic farming support. Up to 2011, AGRA was the recipient of 16% of global agriculture grants from the Foundation.

Funding for AGRA is primarily from the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations and the UK Department for Foreign International Development (DFID) ...

AGRA is only one programme the foundations are involved with in Africa. Others include the African Enterprise Challenge Fund (AECF) and the Coalition for African Rice Development (CARD)5. The AECF is a US$150m "private sector fund" sponsored by the governments of Sweden, Denmark,Netherlands, Australia and the UK, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and hosted by AGRA. The focus is on building markets to enable the expansion of agribusiness and, where it is potentially profitable, the commercialisation and incorporation of smallholder farmers into these formal markets. It is currently operating in 16 countries with regional hubs in South Africa, Ghana and Kenya.

CARD is an initiative between AGRA and the Japanese government to increase rice production in Africa using green revolution technologies based on hybrid rice. It builds on existing programmes such as the Africa Rice Centre (AfricaRice) and the African Union's (AU's) CAADP. Partners include the World Bank, African Development Bank (AfDB), the FAO and a number of CGIAR institutes. It currently operates in 23 countries.


5. AGRA's philosophy and structure

AGRA considers the fundamental problem in African agriculture to be low productivity. It identifies a few key areas that contribute to this problem: i) lack of scientific knowledge and capacity, caused by ii) lack of investment in African agriculture, iii) poor soils, iv) limited seed systems that inhibit the introduction of new varieties, and v) weak governance and regulatory systems.

Two key themes can be extracted from the body of work surrounding AGRA: first, local adaptation is critical to improvements in agricultural productivity in Africa; and second, technologies should be blended with one another without ideological hang-ups, so that techniques ranging from organic methods through to biotechnology are incorporated where appropriate.

AGRA adopts a fairly good critique of prior approaches to support for African agriculture, including systematic under- investment, the historical focus on large-scale agriculture and standardised technologies, and efforts to transfer technologies developed elsewhere which were inappropriate to the context (both seed and manufactured fertilisers).

The following discussion draws heavily from an influential book written in 2001 by Joe DeVries and Gary Toenniessen called Securing the Harvest. DeVries is the current director of AGRA's Programme for Africa's Seed Systems (PASS), which is at the core of AGRA's seed work. He has worked on agriculture in Africa since the 1980s, and was a director in World Vision International and the Rockefeller Foundation where his work on genetic improvement of African crops laid the foundations for AGRA. Toenniessen has worked with the Rockefeller Foundation since 1971, where he is now Managing Director, leading the Foundation's strategic direction on agricultural development. DeVries and Toenniessen were instrumental in AGRA's formation.

DeVries & Toennissen argue that the wholesale adoption of what they call the Asian Green Revolution cannot work in Africa (2001:7). In particular, in Asia it was possible to immediately target a layer of existing better-off farmers who were able to adopt the technological package and make it work in their interests. In contrast, in Africa rain-fed marginal farming conditions are the norm, not a secondary focus to be targeted once the more favourable areas have been tapped. This means the emphasis at the outset must be on resource-poor small-scale farmers in the context of the actual constraints they face.

AGRA draws from different sources of knowledge in its responses to the core problem of low agricultural productivity. These range from locally-sensitive agroecological practices through to biotechnology, with the idea that there is a right time and place for different types of technology. In the current context, AGRA argues, biotechnology is not appropriate in most places in Africa,although it explicitly views biotechnology (including GM) as part of the longer-term solution. Ittherefore suggests that conventional Green Revolution technologies can only be introduced over time as systems are put in place and the various components become readily available to farmers. AGRA says that without effective distribution systems, improved seed varieties will just sit on the shelf without being used. Another example it offers is that the effectiveness of fertilisers is reduced bythe absence of irrigation. In this regard, it argues that GM crops cannot be introduced without a proper institutional base and regulatory framework that ensure they can be properly developed and controlled in the field. Therefore, according to AGRA, certain key building blocks must be put in place first, before moving forward with these technologies.

AGRA's focus is on seed improvements and soil fertility. A background report written for AGRA(Minot, et al., 2007) in preparation for the launch of its seed work recognises some value in informal or farmer-owned seed systems. These systems produce inexpensive seed, farmers are familiar with the performance of the seed, the varietal heterogeneity that comes from these systems may reduce the risk of severe crop losses, and selection is for a range of criteria (Minot, et al., 2007:157). However,AGRA considers these systems to be insufficient by themselves to increase productivity in a sustained way. According to AGRA, there are limits to the local sharing of seed. Over time the quality degenerates because the genetic pool is not wide enough,and in particular that local sharing systems are weak at introducing new and 'improved' varieties. A related argument is advanced by AGRA that formal seed systems in most parts of Africa generally lack capacity and therefore little if any work is being done in developing new varieties based on locally-adapted germplasm. As a result, AGRA focuses its efforts on building formal seed systems.

AGRA identifies a number of areas where interventions are required to facilitate the expansion of formal seed systems. First, modern scientific methods must be introduced, built up and supported where they already exist, to enable African institutions to develop higher yielding varieties of crops.S econd, systems must be developed to multiply and distribute improved seed. In this context,there is very limited production of foundation seed as this is seen as a primary bottleneck in the expansion of new varieties (DeVries & Toenniessen, 2001:xiv). Local specificity is key to AGRA's approach, and DeVries and Toenniessen argue for country- level programmes where practitioners can operate in close proximity to the various agroecologies where they can develop "localised 'agro-ecology-based' breeding programmes" (2001:xiii). In their broad philosophy, AGRA's designers strongly promote farmer participation in agricultural research. On the face of it, it seems as if they recognise that farmers best understand the conditions they work in, and breeding programmes will be most effective if they operate in close proximity to farmers and involve farmers especially in variety selection (DeVries & Toenniessen, 2001:xv). Whether these ideas match the way the seed programmes actually materialise in practice is an important issue for further investigation.

Although systems are not currently in place for the effective use of biotechnology, this according to AGRA, can change. Part of AGRA's mission is to induce such change through 'modernisation' of seed systems and the associated R&D. The approach is to support biotechnology capacity where it exists (DeVries & Toennissen, 2001:xiv), starting with tissue culture of clonally propagated crops and marker assisted selection for traits. Once effective biosafety systems and regulations are in place, it will be possible to advance to GM, using the genetic base of already well-adapted varieties (DeVries & Toennissen, 2001:xiv).

Soil fertility is the second strand of AGRA's strategy. According to DeVries and Toenniessen (2001:xv),"in spite of its potential, genetic improvement of crops will always face limitations with regard to what it can offer to farmers in regards to their levels of productivity. No matter what efficiencies genetic enhancement is able to build into crop plants, they will always draw their nutrition from external sources, and this places enormous importance on the investments that can be made in the soils of Africa". The basic argument is that there is need to increase the organic content in soil, and AGRA will support work in this direction. But, as with existing farmer-based seed systems, AGRAargues that in and of itself this is not enough. According to AGRA, there is also need for the judicioususe of manufactured fertilisers, e.g. rock phosphate is necessary for plant growth, and this can be manufactured into a form that is easily taken up by plants. Like seed, AGRA says that fertilisers need to be adapted to local conditions. A one-size-fits-all, standardised technology will not work in Africa's diverse agroecological conditions. Again, the notion of blending different technological approaches, at least in the conceptual framework, can be seen here.

AGRA places a focus on small-scale farmers as the main producers of food in Africa, stating that upwards of 70% of the African population is involved in agriculture, but because of past policies these farmers are caught in a poverty trap. New technologies mean this is no longer necessary, but changes need to be made, in particular in the governance and funding environments. It is thus the view of AGRA that the focus should be on "the very poor, rural people who have been left behind by globalisation and the interests of the private sector" (DeVries & Toenniessen, 2001:xv). That is, AGRA's initial emphasis is on building new markets rather than on supplying export markets. To realise this goal AGRA promotes farmer organisation, noting the importance of organisation in facilitating communication and to provide a market for seed (Minot et al., 2007:158). In 2010 AGRA established the Farmer Organisation Support Centre in Africa (FOSCA), which identifies networks of organisations in AGRA's target countries, and links them to service providers to realise AGRA's goals(AGRA, 2010:13).

There is some acknowledgment of the limits of a profit- driven private sector in building African agriculture." In Africa, multinational seed companies may be motivated to popularise one or even several high-yielding maize varieties among better-off farmers in favourable areas, but it is less likely that they will find it profitable to devote significant resources to developing varieties with the very specific adaptation advantages required by small-scale, low input farmers" (DeVries & Toenniessen,2001:22). However, despite this recognition, there is an acceptance of the dominance of the private sector and thus the emphasis is placed on private investment of all kinds in the seed sector (DeVries & Toenniessen, 2001:xv). ...

AGRA also recognises the role of the state/public sector. It explicitly recognises that government interventions can legitimately be based on efficiency (market failure) or equity (redistributive) grounds. As a result, AGRA has public-private partnerships (PPPs) at the core of much of its work. This starts with the international agricultural research centres (IARCs) under the CGIAR umbrella, but also seeks to integrate national institutions wherever possible. Part of the reason for this is access to a large pool of free locally-adapted germplasm, infrastructure and expertise,which amounts to subsidisation of the private sector. The state is also necessary to create the 'enabling environment' for effective private sector functioning and to build markets. ...

AGRA is embedded in the G8's New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition initiative,announced in 2012. This is a partnership between G8 countries, the AU and multinational agri-food and input companies,including Monsanto, Syngenta, Du Pont,Cargill, Unilever, Yara International, United Phosphorous, Vodafone, SABMiller and others. ...

Many have been taken by what on the face of it, seems to be a good idea: combining resources and focusing them on a clearly defined set of technological challenges. However, some critics, with good reason, perceive a hidden agenda behind the humanitarian fa?ade. According to Thompson(2012:345-6) the core goal of AGRA is not included in its promotional materials: access to African genetic wealth without benefit sharing, based on free access to genetic materials, with the offspring privatised for corporate profit. The result is free inputs but outputs sold at monopoly prices via patenting, producing soaring corporate profits. Thompson defines this theft not as the sharing of the genetic base through free circulation of these resources, but rather the privatisation of new varieties without sharing with farmers who played a major part in developing the genetic base.

There is good reason for suspicion. Although AGRA's public face is linked to 'neutral' UN and government missions, it has less visible links to multinational biotech and seed corporations. For example, AGRA retains two main consultants, David Westphal and Aline Funk. Westphal hasworked his 41 year long career for Cargill and Monsanto,8 including as Monsanto's Area Co-Director for Sub-Saharan Africa, Vice Chairman of Sensako Seeds, and Managing Director of Carnia Seeds.9 Westphal works on start-up seed businesses with AGRA. Aline Funk was the CEO of Channel Bio Corp. registered in the US in Kentland, Indiana. The company is now named Channel Seed, owned by American Seeds Inc, a Monsanto holding company. It trades in corn, soybean, alfalfa and sorghum - 'row crops' amenable to industrialisation, and also has a focus on GM crops. Funk stepped down as CEO to take up work with AGRA. She has a background in financial markets11 and risk analysis.Between them the consultants have been paid US$584,000 in three AGRA grants until early 2012.The Gates Foundation has US$23m in stock in Monsanto (Haeder, 2012), thus giving it a material interest in boosting the company's value. Many of the organisations funded by AGRA also receive separate funds from Monsanto (English, 2010).

5.1 What does AGRA do?

AGRA consists of four focal areas: seed, soil health, market access, and policy and partnership programmes, with a cross- cutting theme on "innovative financing".

The first focal area is the breeding, production and distribution of improved seeds through PASS,which has offices in Accra and Nairobi, and was allotted US$100m in AGRA funding from 2006-2011.This programme is the focus of this paper and more detail is provided below.

The second focal area is the extension of locally appropriate soil nutrients, and integrated soil and water management through the SHP, which was allocated US$164.6m in funding from 2007-2013.There is more detail on this programme below. More recently AGRA is considering ways to integrate livestock into their work (AGRA, 2010), which is related to soil fertility.

The third area is improved market access through trade and value chain development. This area has received US$43m for the period 2008-2014. The basic argument is that in some areas surpluses are produced but access to markets is non- existent, leading to local gluts and collapse in local prices in season, which acts against farmers adopting yield- improving technologies (AGRA, 2010:20). The aim is to expand market access for surpluses, built around a commercial orientation of smallholder farmers, farm storage technologies and intermediate processing technologies. One strategyis to adopt and expand warehouse receipt systems (WRS) to enable farmers to store products until the end of the peak harvest season, and borrow against the stored harvest if they require (AGRA, 2010:21). This will operate privately and be at a cost to the farmer of storage and collateral management fees.

AGRA's approach to wholesaling and processing technologies is based on building greater coordination and predictability in government actions in favour of the private sector, and greater investm ent in 'public goods' (production and marketing infrastructure, including transportnetworks). An important part of this, which connects closely to the broader agenda of building commodity markets in Africa, is opening regional trade networks through lower barriers (Minot etal., 2007:160). A regional initiative is co- ordinated by the Alliance for Commodity Trade in Eastern and Southern Africa (ACTESA), which was launched in 2008 by the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). ACTESA acts as an agency to integrate smallholder farmers in local, regional and international markets. The alliance is funded by the US, UK, EU and Australian governments together with AGRA.

AGRA's fourth focus is financing for agriculture. It states that only 2-3% of commercial bank loans and investments in Africa go to agriculture, even though agriculture's contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is much higher than this almost everywhere in Africa. This indicates under- investment in African agriculture. Banks see agriculture as a risky investment, especially smallholder farmers. AGRA's Innovative Finance Program aims to provide loans for smallholder farmers and agribusinesses, using loan guarantee funds to leverage larger loans from commercial banks (10times the guarantee amount) (PWC, 2010:9-11). The banks' risks are lowered through a syndicated risk-sharing pooled facility (PWC, 2010:14) where risks are shared by a number of participants. The guarantees allow the banks to reduce requirements for their own funds. A core objective of the scheme is financial returns for investors, i.e. profit- bearing loans (PWC, 2010:22). Stanbic (Standard Bank) is leading a consortium of banks and funds, including African-owned banks and funds in Mozambique, Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda to implement AGRA's financial support strategy. Equity Bank in Kenya and Microfinance Bank in Tanzania are participating in micro- financing at reduced interest rates (AGRA, 2010:23). AGRA's loan guarantee facility allows the banks to leverage additional funding.

AGRA has identified a number of geographical focus areas for its work, and has developed an approach based on agricultural corridors with 'bankable projects'. Its core 'breadbasket strategy' focuses on regions with good soil, adequate rainfall, basic infrastructure and large numbers of smallholder farmers (Figure 1). These areas are considered ripe for rapid improvements in agricultural production. Such breadbasket areas have been identified in Mozambique, Tanzania,Ghana and Mali, and AGRA is also working in other countries to "prepare the ground" for expansion:Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Niger in West Africa; Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda in East Africa;and Zambia and South Africa in southern Africa (AGRA, 2010:11&14).

6. AGRA's Programme for Africa's Seed Systems (PASS)

7. Seed policy interventions

8. Soil Health Progamme (SHP)

[more detailed description in these three sections - available in full-text online]

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.

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