A Tale of Two Pigeon Peas: Bill Gates’ failing Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa

Eric Holt-Giménez and Lauren Tate Baeza | 07.25.2016

For a decade, Bill Gates—the quintessential technocrat—has been trying to end hunger in Africa by re-launching (yet again) the Green Revolution. One could forgive his mistakes as a development neophyte if the stakes were not so high and the mistakes were not so predictable. His brainchild is AGRA—the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. AGRA’s main goal is to increase farmers’ grain yields with credit, chemical fertilizers and hybrid seeds. Aware that fertilizer application alone ultimately destroys soils in the tropics, AGRA also promotes soil-building with nitrogen-fixing legumes. Independent analyses of AGRA’s work are rare, so the recent release of a report on two of AGRA’s projects in Malawi by the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) quickly spread over the internet. Entitled “Green Revolution Dead End in Malawi,” the report is highly critical of AGRA’s approach to agricultural development.

One AGRA project reviewed in the report sought to introduce pigeon pea varieties to smallholder farms through the Soil Health Program. The other project strengthened “agro-dealer” networks to sell micro doses of chemical fertilizers and commercial hybrid seeds to farmers. Ideally, if farmers carefully maintain the organic matter in their soil by rotating and intercropping legumes, micro doses of fertilizer will ensure profitable yields in grains.

But ACB’s independent assessment of pigeon peas in the Kasungu and Lilongwe districts found that three years after their introduction, less than a quarter of the farmers given pigeon pea seeds were still growing them. Those that did, cultivated it on smaller plots of land than they did at the beginning of the project. Farmers claimed pigeon peas—not typically consumed in these districts—did poorly in local markets. Though the project purchased some of the harvest for export, this outlet was inconsistent and paid low prices. Because legume-based soil improvement techniques can require several seasons before benefits to the soil are observed, farmers didn’t see any advantage of pigeon peas over the groundnuts they traditionally planted with their maize and tobacco. They stopped planting pigeon peas when the project subsidies ended.

The other project was the Malawi Agro-dealer Strengthening Program in the Balaka and Machinga districts. Managed under AGRA’s Program for Africa’s Seed Systems, the Agro-dealer Development Program sells fertilizers and certified seeds to smallholder farmers at subsidized prices. Agro-dealers connect farmers to markets to sell their crops (but only if they purchase certified seeds and chemical fertilizers). These agro-dealers used an array of well-worn tactics to promote their products, such as cheap credit, demonstration plots and farmer field days. Agro-dealers are the critical link between international seed and chemical companies like Monsanto and Pioneer and their target clients: smallholder farmers.

But this project too appears to have failed. Agro-dealers were dependent on expensive credit to buy the inputs they sold, and unreliable markets to sell the products they received from farmers. The African Center for Biosafety’s research indicates that profits were low, leaving both farmers and agro-dealers in debt. When the project ended, the demonstrations and field days stopped, as did the credit. Because AGRA has concentrated on bringing in the private sector rather than rebuilding government agricultural extension, there was no way to continue offering services when markets and credit schemes failed.

Is soil building and yield improvement just too complicated in Malawi? Or is the problem the top-down, Green Revolution approach pushed by AGRA? The ACB report seems to conclude the latter. However, it is worth looking at some successful experiences in soil and legume introduction in Africa (including pigeon peas) to understand where AGRA and the Gates Foundation get agricultural development wrong.

In “Green Manure Crops in Africa: A report from the Field,” Roland Bunch details the successful farmer-to-farmer introduction of a wide range of soil-building crops in ten African nations, including Malawi. The crops include 6-meter tall mother of cacao trees (Gliricidia sepium) for shade, fodder and compost, introduced by women’s savings groups in 100 villages in Mali; the native Tephrosia bush (Tephrosia vogelii) in Cameroon to reduce fallows from 7 to 4 years; Velvet beans and Lab-lab beans in banana fields for organic matter, weed suppression and moisture retention in Rwanda; Cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata) intercropped with maize and pigeon peas in Mozambique; and an extensive tree-regeneration system called FMNR (farmer-managed natural resource conservation) in Niger, Mali, Ethiopia and, yes, Malawi. And the pigeon peas? Farmers in Tanzania use them as perennials in their maize field, cut them off at ground level after harvest (“ratooning”). The plants grow back with deeper and deeper roots every year, allowing them to withstand drought. This simple technique—using local seeds—has increased maize yields by 400%;

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Why can peasant farmers successfully introduce fertility, water conservation and soil building crops and techniques where the most powerful philanthropy in the world has failed?

One answer is the Green Revolution itself. The corporate project to convert African agriculture to high external input systems has been failing for decades. Claiming Africa had been “bypassed” by the Green Revolution, Bill Gates wanted to succeed where all others had failed by launching AGRA. At that time, in a Policy Brief entitled Ten Reasons Why the Green Revolution will not solve Poverty or Hunger in Africa, warned:

“The AGRA plan is remarkable given that, according to a World Bank evaluation, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)—which brings together the key Green Revolution research institutions—has invested 40-45% of their $350 million/year budget in Africa over the last twenty-five years. If these public funds were not invested in a Green Revolution for Africa, then where were they spent? If they were spent on the Green Revolution, then why does Africa need another one? Either the Green Revolution’s institutions don’t work, or the Green Revolution itself doesn’t work—or both. The Green Revolution did not “bypass” Africa. It failed.”

Ten years later, key conclusions of the African Center for Biosafety’s independent report on AGRA in Malawi confirm these predictions and point to a way forward. Top-down approaches based on external inputs and dependent on unreliable or volatile global markets are often abandoned by farmers after subsidies disappear because they are too economically risky. Technologies and seeds that are controlled by companies and introduced without farmer input can suffer the same fate, writes the ACB,

“Introducing pigeon pea without first having discussed with farmers and consumers which legumes they favoured (in at least some of these areas, pigeon pea was not consumed historically) has resulted in an inappropriate intervention. A better starting point would have been to look at what diversity—in this case legumes—already existed, or not, in a given area. Based on farmer priorities support could have been oriented towards re-establishing or strengthening the presence of these legumes.”

One of the biggest problems in the development of agriculture in Africa is the loss of public services—the legacy of two decades of structural adjustment—and the assumption that the private sector will fill in for the state:

“Agro-dealers are primarily a conduit for Green Revolution technology and associated advice, and are sponsored by government or private companies who wish to support their own technologies. Agro-dealers cannot replace the role of public sector extension services, which engage with farmers in the fields, are ideally responsive to context-specific priorities, and should tailor their responses to these priorities… Agro-dealers have no backward links to R&D that facilitate direct farmer engagement with the R&D system. Agro-dealers do not play a facilitative role, but rather offer narrow advice for specific, mostly corporate products.”

When profits are not forthcoming for commercial products, companies lose interest in agricultural development, soil conservation, agrobiodiversity, and in peasant farmers as consumers of seeds and fertilizers and producers of commodities. Among other things, the ACB report recommends participatory R&D on seed needs for local markets and longer-term processes of multi-stakeholder cooperation, to promote and support seed systems (rather than just markets) with the active involvement of farmers. Prioritizing farmer-to-farmer approaches and agroecology for agricultural development and resource conservation to reduce (rather than increase) farmer’s dependence on synthetic fertilizers and commercial seeds is another focus of the recommendations. All of these echo decades of successful farmer-to-farmer experiences around the world, and as Roland Bunch has documented, in the very countries were AGRA is trying to introduce the Green Revolution.

Perhaps it’s time for AGRA and the Gates Foundation to stop insisting on failed technologies and outdated extension methods, and start listening to the farmers who are actually developing African agriculture.