Congress Should Pull the Plug on USAID’S Failing African Green Revolution

A major evaluation commissioned for donors to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and other international donors, has confirmed what many of us in Africa have claimed for years: The billion-dollar AGRA “did not meet its headline goal of increased incomes and food security for 9 million smallholders.”

Women farmers, who were supposed to be among the main beneficiaries, are in fact losing out. As the evaluators state, the few who benefited “were typically younger, male, and relatively wealthier…productivity and income gains were also concentrated among these relatively high-resource farmers.”

I was not surprised to read the evaluators’ conclusions that AGRA’s well-funded effort to promote commercial seeds and fertilizers was failing to consistently increase yields and often left farmers and their land worse off. At my organization, the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya, we have seen farmers suffer with these top-down development schemes for years.

I co-authored a report two years ago, False Promises: The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, that documented many of the poor farmer outcomes now recognized by the new donor evaluation. After 15 years and US$1 billion in donor funding, it is time for USAID and other donors to reconsider this failing effort.

Unfortunately, a USAID spokesperson was quick to say the agency would continue to support AGRA, stating, “We appreciate AGRA’s response to the report conclusions and concur with their proposed next steps to improve performance outcomes.”

That is why other African civil society and faith leaders and I are taking our messages to U.S. Congress to urge members to shift funding from AGRA to more promising ecological programs when it votes to re-authorize the Global Food Security Act this year.

In Kenya, AGRA’s failures are everywhere to see.

Farmers are ending up in debt as they pay high prices for seeds and fertilizers, which often fail to produce high yields. One group of women lost their pooled savings and some household possessions after they used them as collateral for loans, in the form of maize seeds and fertilizer. They lost the right to choose their seeds and had to pay the loan back in cash.

Such policies have led to an unhealthy reliance on maize and the decline in diversity from more nutritious and climate resilient crops like millet, sorghum, sweet potatoes, and many others.

Farmers who have grown dependent on commercial seeds and fertilizers saw supplies disrupted by COVID-19. They scrambled to restore their stocks of local seeds from neighboring farmers so they could get a crop in for their one growing season.

Now fertilizer prices have doubled, so only the wealthiest farmers will be able to afford them. It makes no sense to try to coerce farmers into using such expensive and unreliable inputs. Meanwhile, farmer organizations are producing good quality biofertilizers and biopesticides that are made from local materials. They not only build our soils but are safe and cost half the price.

The data do not lie. As our report documented, yields for maize, AGRA’s most supported and subsidized crop, have declined by 4 percent since AGRA started. So have yields for many other staple crops. So rural poverty remains high, and the number of severely undernourished Kenyans increased 4 percent, even before the pandemic. More than half of Kenyans suffer moderate or severe food insecurity, according to the United Nations.

My message to Congress is simple: The Green Revolution program has failed, and it is time to change course.

At the end of the day, it is the agrochemical dealers and multinational corporations selling synthetic fertilizers and seeds, not farmers, that reap high profits from AGRA’s interventions. Meanwhile, AGRA promotes fertilizer policies that call on governments to commit scarce resources to provide fertilizer subsidies.

USAID should reconsider its support for AGRA, and Congress should demand a more serious accounting for the program’s failures. U.S. taxpayers should not be impoverishing African farmers with programs that are supposed to help them. They should not be making wealthy, male farmers richer. They should not be making African farmers more vulnerable to climate change by making them dependent on fossil-fuel based inputs that deplete rather than restore fragile soils.

We need support for agriculture that works with nature, builds crop and diet diversity, is climate resilient, and empowers our farmers, particularly women, to improve their farms and feed their families.

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