Farmers stand on soil with green vegetation in foreground, as combines advance in the distance

AGRA is failing farmers, but helping foreign corporations

An analysis by AGRA Watch

In late February, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) released an external evaluation of its Partnership for Inclusive Agricultural Transformation in Africa (PIATA) program. Launched in 2017, PIATA aimed to transform agriculture into an engine of economic growth and claimed that it would increase incomes and improve food security for 30 million farmers across 11 countries by 2021. The recent evaluation of the program was commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (AGRA’s major funder) and conducted by the consulting firm Mathematica. It has found that PIATA has failed to meet most of its goals focused on farmer outcomes. This is no surprise—independent investigations by outside researchers have also found that AGRA has not reached nearly the numbers of farmers it promised, has not reduced hunger in target countries, and has not significantly increased yields. The significance of this internally-vetted report is that it confirms what AGRA Watch and other critics have been pointing out for many years: AGRA primarily functions to open up African markets to foreign corporations. It has also exacerbated class and gender inequalities. Let’s break it down.

AGRA has been more interested in opening up markets for the private sector, rather than examining what would help farmers build sustainable livelihoods. 

  • The evaluation demonstrates that most of AGRA’s focus has been on maize, despite AGRA’s claim that it works on a wide variety of crops (including “orphan crops” critical to local food security but not internationally traded). The evaluation states: “Maize was the most widely cultivated crop, with over half of targeted farmers across seven focus countries reporting having cultivated it in the most recent growing season. Other important crops included rice (28 percent), cowpea (13 percent), and soybean (9 percent).” Of these crops, most are globally-traded staples that present opportunities for the involvement of large agribusiness corporations and commodity traders. Moreover, these crops are often grown in monoculture, which exacerbates susceptibility to disease and pests, soil degradation, and limited nutritional diversity. This overwhelming focus on maize is the exact opposite of what we should expect from a program promising to boost household food security, nutrition, and self-sufficiency.
  • AGRA has not helped most farmers boost their crop yields and has not connected farmers to markets for their products. Of the six countries studied in the evaluation, maize yields only increased in three, and maize sales only increased in one. By only focusing on selling expensive inputs, rather than facilitating output linkages to help farmers sell their products, AGRA exposes farmers to debt and risk. 
  • In contrast to poor results related to farmer outcomes, the evaluation finds that AGRA has “succeeded” in convincing governments to make policy changes that open up their seed and fertilizer markets to foreign corporations. For example, the agrochemical company Bayer and the fertilizer company Yara are both named in the evaluation. As the evaluation states: “new private sector actors have crowded into input and output markets, attracted by potential profits.” The problem, from a corporate perspective, is that many farmers have been unwilling or unable to purchase these products. As the evaluation states: “even among targeted farmers, AGRA-promoted interventions were adopted by less than half of the farmers.” 

AGRA has also exacerbated class and gender inequalities, by primarily assisting male commercial farmers rather than Africa’s many millions of female farmers.

  • AGRA has consistently claimed to have learned from the problems of the first Green Revolution, which primarily benefited men and wealthier farmers, rather than smallholders. But the evaluation shows that AGRA has had the same effect. Its programs have mainly benefited young, male maize and rice farmers with larger landholdings and higher existing commercial potential. These farmers are the ones who have been able to access and experiment with agricultural inputs, experience higher yields, and therefore generate more sales. As the evaluation states: “a minority of relatively high- resource farmers are responsible for the majority of maize sales among targeted farmers” and “male farmers with larger dwellings, access to electricity, greater total landholdings, and lower rates of disability were more likely to adopt improved maize varieties and inorganic fertilizer, and engage with extension services.” Under 10 percent of targeted farmers live in female-headed households. 
  • This profile is in direct contradiction to the gender parity and women’s empowerment policies and priorities of donor organizations, including the Gates Foundation and USAID. 

The findings from this Gates Foundation-sponsored evaluation are consistent with the findings of numerous independent reports, scholarly studies, and previous evaluations of AGRA programs. As a result, we can conclude that over the past 15 years, governmental and non-governmental donors in the Global North have used AGRA as a vehicle for unduly influencing independent African governments to get products made by US and European agribusiness corporations into African markets. This is not an unfortunate side effect requiring further refinement of programs. AGRA has been doing exactly what we believe was always intended: creating opportunities for foreign corporations in Africa. Indeed, multinational corporations have played a significant role in AGRA from the very start of its programs. The evaluation illuminates that for these corporations, AGRA has been a success in opening up markets, but it has failed most African farmers.

In the interstices of the evaluation document, we can see indications of farmer resistance to AGRA. Farmers’ skepticism about chemical inputs or commercialized seed varieties is often viewed simply as stemming from poverty and an inability to afford inputs (cast as problems to be solved or overcome). But we can also read  this skepticism as stemming from farmers’ astute abilities to gauge market issues and weigh options. Farmers are acutely aware of market fluctuations and make decisions about inputs and other costs accordingly. They are also skilled at utilizing timing, currency differentials, and price fluctuations to determine when and to whom to sell. As the evaluation explains, some interviewees operating as part of output consortia set up by AGRA were frustrated when entering into structured buying agreements and contracts with farmers, about “instances of farmers not honoring their structured agreements with agribusinesses when output price fluctuations resulted in more competitive prices on the open market.” Scholars of agrarian history in Africa have long noted this process among farmers, particularly under colonial and postcolonial contract and marketing schemes. Farmers are agents making meaningful choices about their own lives, not victims or simple targets of interventions. 

Given the findings about limited farmer adoption of chemical and commercial inputs (and the barriers this poses to even greater corporate profits), we can expect that AGRA and related programs will double down on expanding access to such inputs. It is likely that AGRA’s management team will spin the findings of the evaluation into opportunities for growth and expansion. They will likely also ask donors for more financial support, in order to finally extend impacts to farmers. But the evaluation suggests a fundamentally flawed theory of change: after 15 years and over $1 billion in funding, “the evidence for AGRA’s farmer-facing interventions having driven agricultural transformation—whereby smallholder farmers transition from subsistence farming into commercial farming—is weak and inconsistent.” 

In the AGRA management team’s response to the evaluation, they claim that the poor results for farmer outcomes can be attributed to AGRA’s focus on more “remote geographies under this strategy, which we chose to include more small holders.” This response makes no sense. If AGRA had indeed been focusing on smallholder farmers, then why was so much effort devoted to creating policy conditions and abundant supplies of inputs that their supposed “target” farmers could not afford to purchase (and which AGRA has stated is not within its purview to help them purchase)? 

The path AGRA has been encouraging farmers to go down is dangerous and will expose them to further risks. AGRA’s model of industrializing agriculture and making farmers even more reliant on international markets creates a profoundly unsustainable system that jeopardizes farmers’ health, well-being, and income. Moreover, given the rising costs of fertilizer as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, those that do adopt AGRA’s package of industrial inputs will be exposed to further debt.

In light of this evaluation, the Gates Foundation, USAID, and other donors should immediately stop funding AGRA, and should begin a long process of consultation to rethink the flawed premises underpinning AGRA and programs like it. 

For additional reading about the AGRA evaluation, please see Tim Wise’s comprehensive analysis, Anne Maina’s recent op-ed, and Stacy Malkan’s reporting on the issue. The evaluation and AGRA’s response can be found here.

Posted in Agra Watch Blog Posts, Agra Watch News, News, Slider.

One Comment

  1. I’ve only skimmed the Mathematica report but was interested to see it suggests a future programme should support more climate friendly farming approaches including agroecology. It’s hard to see how these recommendations could be implemented without radical change. I’ve written to UK’s FCDO to request no more funding of AGRA.

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