In Summary
  • A Nation study that found most of Kenya’s soils were too sick to sustain any meaningful agriculture and that increased fertiliser use had only raised acidity.
  • With money flowing in, politicians see patronage through the subsidy programme and are fixated on the hybrid seeds, which have to be purchased every year.

Hundreds of billions of dollars spent on fertiliser and hybrid seed subsidies by Kenya and other African countries over the past few years have gone down the drain, a new book argues.

In 2006, the Gates Foundation joined the Rockefeller Foundation to launch the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), an ambitious programme that saw multinationals get billions of dollars to subsidise synthetic fertiliser and hybrid seeds that were seen as a panacea for the region’s underproduction.

But US academic Tim Wise writes, in Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers and the Battle for the Future of Food, published this year by The New Press, New York, that the fertiliser subsidy is a classic high-input treadmill that keeps the people and their governments running without getting anywhere.

The scholar’s verdict that there is little evidence of any green revolution coming to Africa more than 10 years after Agra is likely to kick up a storm in agriculture and development circles.

“Even on its own flawed terms, Agra was failing in its 13 chosen countries. With the clearly stated goals of doubling productivity and incomes for 30 million African farm households by 2020, there was little sign the well-funded initiative would come close to meeting either of those objectives.”

CONTAMINATED SOILS

Wise writes that between 2006 and 2014, more than halfway into the Agra initiatives, yields had increased slowly — just 38 per cent for maize, 22 for rice, 23 per cent for wheat and nine per cent for cassava.

Overall, cereal production increased only 33 per cent over the eight-year period. This wasn’t enough to factor for inflation.

Production had also grown often not from productivity gains, but from bringing new land into crop production.

The book argues that the farm inputs subsidy programmes amounted to subsidising the multinational seed giants and that the high dependency on fertiliser subsidies was no different from dependency on food imports.

Wise says even where yields increased, they soon stagnated after soils were depleted and often rarely generated the prosperity to sustain commercial fertiliser purchases without subsidies.

“Nigeria and Kenya, two of Agra’s top five maize producers, saw declining yields, while a third, Tanzania, saw annual yield growth of just one per cent,” writes Wise, who did extensive research in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.

The book comes on the back of a Nation study that found most of Kenya’s soils were too sick to sustain any meaningful agriculture and that increased fertiliser use had only raised acidity.

POLICIES

Kenyan farmers produce a third of maize harvested by their Chinese counterparts and a fifth of US yields on comparable land.

He says by subsidising big multinationals such as Monsanto and Yara, the agribusiness giants had gained inordinate power to dictate the terms of trade, the high prices farmers must pay for their inputs and the low prices they can get for their crops.

In some of the countries covered by the ‘revolution’, such as Malawi, multinationals went as far as writing self-serving national policies that outlawed farmers’ savings and exchange of seeds to impose a regimen of high-cost purchased seeds on poor farmers.

Absurdly, some of these laws ‘limit’ farmer-saved seeds to grain and not seeds to grow.

With money flowing in, politicians see patronage through the subsidy programme and are fixated on the hybrid seeds, which have to be purchased every year.

With this, soil-friendly practices that would have produced richer, diversified foods are pushed to the back burner.

POVERTY

But the subsidy programme spawned even greater damage. In countries like Zambia, where Agra registered some success, production had grown, not from productivity gains, but from bringing new land into maize production.

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