Gates Foundation’s African agriculture agenda gets some blowback

A man in the Nyanza province of Kenya chews on sugarcane, an indigenous crop that is less visible since the promotion of AGRA hybrid crops throughout Africa. (Photo by Anna Goren)
A man in the Nyanza province of Kenya chews on sugarcane, an indigenous crop that is less visible since the promotion of AGRA hybrid crops throughout Africa. (Photo by Bryan Kopp)

Daniel Maingi, who was born on a farm in eastern Kenya, knew he was going to study agriculture from a young age. He remembers a time when his family would grow and eat a diversity of crops — mung beans, green grams, pigeon peas, and a variety of fruits now considered ‘wild’.

Today, following the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP’s) of the 1980’s and 1990’s and a green revolution meant to boost agricultural efficiency, the foods of his childhood are replaced with maize, maize, and more maize.

“In the morning, you make porridge from maize, and send the kids to school. For lunch, boiled maize and a few green beans. In the evening, ugali, [a staple dough-like maize dish, served with meat]” he says. “It’s a monoculture diet, being driven by the food system — it’s an injustice.”

It is no secret that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation believes that the large-scale investment in agriculture, with its high yield seeds and fertilizers, is the surest path out of poverty and hunger.

Not everyone is so sure, though.

This past weekend, the global battleground of agrarian reform came to Seattle, as food and farming leaders from across the country gathered to hear a panel of African food and farming leaders at the US-Africa Food Sovereignty Strategy Summit. They were not only unconvinced by the Gates agenda and the related Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), but were energized by a food sovereignty movement that promotes Africans — the majority of whom are small holder farmers — defining and controlling their country’s food and farming systems.

Hosted by Community Alliance for Global Justice (CAGJ), a local advocacy organization with the mission of strengthening local economies around the globe, the event brought together leaders in the food sovereignty movement locally, nationally, and internationally.

In contrast to the behemoth Gates Foundation, which opened its shiny new headquarters at the Seattle Center almost two years ago, participating organizations were decidedly grassroots. CAGJ was born out of the WTO riots of the late 90’s, and Food First calls itself a ‘people’s think tank’. Representatives from local organizations like Community to Community Development of Bellingham and Seattle’s Solid Ground joined the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and Food and Water Watch, among others. All seemed joined in the idea splayed on the title of the well-loved CAGJ cookbook — “Our Food, Our Right.”

Daniel Maingi (right) sits on a panel at the US-Africa Food Sovereignty Strategy Summit last weekend. (Photo by Alex Garland)
Daniel Maingi (right) sits on a panel at the US-Africa Food Sovereignty Strategy Summit last weekend. (Photo by Alex Garland)

According to Maingi, who came representing Growth Partners Africa and the Kenya Food Alliance, food sovereignty in Africa means reverting back to a way of farming and eating that pre-dates major investment from the west.

Twenty-some odd years after SAPs were introduced and gave way for the capitalist foundations of AGRA to take root, the summit attempted to measure some of the harmful impacts of these changes. In addition to the loss of old diets and ways of life, panelists expressed concern and anger over increased reliance on expensive inputs and the dramatic drop in price of crops, both putting the small farmer right back where he or she ought not to be — in poverty. (Sound familiar? I’ve written in the past about the plight of American small farmers against the forces of agribusiness and monoculture).

In response to the lost diet lamented by Maingi, organizations like the Kenya Food Alliance are calling on Africans to return to using indigenous knowledge, yielding foods that are nutritionally diverse, drought and climate resistant, and promote important knowledge like seed-saving. Building on an oral tradition, the hope is for this knowledge to be passed down to future farmers.

“It’s out of sync with the natural process,” says Maingi, referring to the imported seeds used in AGRA, which are not adapted to the land and require excessive fertilizer and pesticides, and have nutrients artificially added.

Maingi calls it a drug addiction. That might sound dramatic — but it’s spot on. “You start by pumping a little,” he says “and the income feels good. But then he needs another loan to keep up, so in reality the farmer hasn’t made any money. He’s become addicted to capital investment.”

Drawing on other world movement leaders like Vandna Shiva, who came to a speak to a sold out crowd at Town Hall last fall, the food sovereignty movement focuses on biodiversity, nutrition, farmer income, and indigenous knowledge. The movement, too, shares ideas with locavores in the United States, focusing on self-sufficiency and divestment from ‘big agriculture’, here.

But Maingi says it’s also changing how Africans see their food. Many of the older crops, he says, have become associated with poverty and are no longer in vogue. Grassroots organizations like Maingi’s are hoping to change that.

Though AGRA and the food sovereignty movement have different approaches, they do share some of the same goals. Both claim to have the small farmer in mind, and both want to reduce poverty and hunger in region where 48.5% of inhabitants live on less than $1.25 per day.

Kathleen Beegle, a Lead Economist with the World Bank, (a partner on AGRA projects), asserted that investment projects in Africa are more diversified than merely throwing loads of engineered seeds at African farmers.

“Everyone I know feels that giving small holders more access to fertilizer is a good thing,” she said. “But it is not the only thing, it can never be the only thing.”

At the same time, Beegle says, the World Bank is still learning lessons from SAP’s of the 80’s and 90’s, and tweaking programs to be sure to not leave out the poor.

A group of women from a small women's farming cooperative in rural Kenya Over two thirds of all women in Africa are employed by the agricultural sector. (Photo by Anna Goren)
A group of women from a small women’s farming cooperative in rural Kenya Over two thirds of all women in Africa are employed by the agricultural sector. (Photo by Anna Goren)

It’s not that the Gates Foundation and their partners are doing everything wrong, though. Maingi applauded their work with malaria and HIV in Africa. But judging by scornful remarks by the audience and cheers following a suggestion of mass protesting their Seattle Center offices, he was in good company at the Food Sovereignty Summit in his critiques of the Gates revolution in Africa.

Despite efforts to engage with Gates (CAGJ representatives attempted to arrange high-level meetings for the African guests), no one from the foundation was available to meet during the summit, nor comment on this article.

They did release the following statement, from Press Secretary Chris Williams, on the issue:

“Across Africa, smallholder farmers struggle to raise enough food to feed their families and have enough left over to send their kids to school.  At the foundation, we believe in investigating any solution that will make that easier. That includes using new approaches to old methods, and also using science and technology to develop the seeds that can combat the effects of a changing climate. We invest where we think we can make a difference for farmers.”

If Maingi had gotten those few minutes with Bill Gates that he had hoped for, he says he would have told him to take capitalism and business out of farming in Africa. Instead, he says, the West should invest in indigenous knowledge and agroecology, education and infrastructure, and stand in solidarity with the food sovereignty movement.

This weekend’s summit hammered home the irony of our broken food system, where 70% of the world’s food comes from peasant farmers, many of whom are hungry themselves. Irony also plagues the Gates Foundation, deified by Seattle-ites who see a selfless, philanthropic powerhouse, while African leaders and their allies cite gross injustices, smelling of neo-colonialism.

“What the World Bank has done, the International Monetary fund, what AGRA and Bill Gates are doing, it’s actually pretty wrong” says Maingi. “The farmer himself should not be starving”.


  1. “take capitalism and business out of farming in Africa.”

    Would be fine if the citizens of the fastest growiong African countries that have the largest economies (i.e. Ethiopia, Egypt, Nigeria) were not moving towards a much more urbanized society with more and more people moving to the city… In order for their farmers to feed the entire country, entrepreneurship is necessary, as are better govt policies and infrastructure. Crop diversification is all good, but let’s not hope for subsistence farmers all over Africa. The real problem now are not the Bill Gateses rather the large multinational (Saudi, Indian) ag companies leasing farmland for pennies on the dollar, causing environmental issues like erosion and deforestation and forcing pastoralists onto plantations that in the end feeds Asian mouths and the big companies’ pockets. You want to romanticize about African farmers? Go meet pastoralists.

  2. “… food sovereignty in Africa means reverting back to a way of farming and eating that pre-dates major investment from the west …” Not only that (after all, the Western agriculture was maybe adapted to other climates anyhow) but one of the main reasons African farming is always downtrodden time and again are the agricultural subsidies and customs tariffs of the European Union and the US. EU produce is pushed into Africa at sometimes prices below what an African subsistence farmer earning a dollar a day could match!

  3. After seeing the image of the young man chewing and carrying sugarcane, I would like to ask you permission to this photo for my book I am preparing for foo crop production in Southern Africa. The credit to this information will br fully acknowledged according to the citation that you will provide.

    I sincerely thank you very much in advance.

    Ambayeba Muimba-Kankolongo, PhD

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