Africa and the end of hunger

In Food on July 17, 2009 at 8:53 am

by Eric Holt-Gimenez and Raj Patel, Pambazuka

Africa is central to any lasting solution to hunger on the planet. When poverty and hunger are eliminated in Africa, all of the world’s poor will be better off. Whatever happens in Africa—or doesn’t happen—will have a profound effect on the world’s food systems.

What is happening in Africa to address the food crisis is in many ways emblematic of global events. Successes or failures in Africa reflect the potential or the limitations of the global food systems to serve the interests of the world’s poor majorities. If the system doesn’t work in Africa, then it doesn’t work for the world. In this sense, ending hunger in Africa is not simply a “global challenge” for the world’s governments. Just as the persistence of poverty in Africa is a challenge for the global economic system, the food crisis is a challenge to the dysfunctional global food system. The stakes on the continent are high in human, environmental and geopolitical terms.

In many ways, of course, Africa’s recent history is one of conquest by and resistance to foreign economic and geopolitical interests. The carving up of the continent at the 1884 Berlin Conference sealed the first “Scramble for Africa.” Countries that missed the opportunity to profit from Africa in the 19th century had plenty of chances in the 20th and even more in the 21st century. Africa was the continent most consistently pushed towards extreme structural adjustment policies. As Walden Bello has observed, the continent was a net food exporter in the 1960s, “averaging 1.3 million tons a year between 1966–70. Today, the continent imports 25% of its food, with almost every country being a net food importer” (Bello 2008).

A corollary of this import dependence has been an opening up of the continent’s resources to the highest, and in some cases most unscrupulous, bidder. Thus US businessman Philippe Heilberg has claimed 4,000 square kilometers of fertile land by the Nile in a deal with a Sudanese warlord (Blas and Walls 2009), and the Korean Daewoo corporation attempted to lease 1.3 million hectares of land in Madagascar (Jung-a and Oliver 2008). While there are other high profile land grabs involving foreign powers, notably from Europe, North America, India and China, the inequities of land distribution in some parts of Africa have been merely exacerbated by neoliberal agricultural policy. Under the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ models of land reform promoted by the World Bank in South Africa, less than 5% of the land has been redistributed from white to black owners since the end of apartheid (Zigomo 2008). Yet social movements in Africa are vital and active, working on concrete solutions in the fields and concrete policy changes for governments—to bring about food sovereignty. Central to these efforts have been the work of women and women’s organizations—women grow the majority of the food on the continent, yet they shoulder the triple burden of needing to work for a wage, build community, and feed their family. It is no surprise, then, that at the 2008 Via Campesina 5th international conference in Maputo, Mozambique, one of the loudest calls was for the recognition of food sovereignty as an end to violence against women.

It is important to realize that just as there is a world-wide diversity of people-driven food systems struggling to emerge from under the weight of the agrifoods monopolies, there is also a continent-wide diversity of grassroots initiatives to end hunger in Africa. Collectively, these life-affirming initiatives cover more area and reach more people than official, more centralized efforts. Their organizational and technological approaches tend to be grounded in a people-first, noncorporate perspective. They employ more agroecological and democratic means for improving smallholder agriculture as a strategy to end hunger. These African alternatives were not given a seat at the table at the Comprehensive Framework for Action (CFA), nor were they considered in the planning of the new Green Revolution in Africa. However, because extreme hunger is so widespread, it is hard to imagine how any effort to end hunger in Africa could be successful without them. Whether or not official and grassroots efforts can work together to end hunger is the question facing not just Africa, but the entire world.


Because the majority of sub-Saharan Africa’s hungry people come from poor farming families cultivating two hectares or less—and because over 80% of the continent is still rural—the challenge of ending hunger and poverty on the continent is necessarily an agrarian question. Africa’s agrarian questions concern land, labor, markets, technology and politics at local, regional, national and international scales. These concerns are not just about feeding people, but also about changing the present conditions of production that keep the rural poor from feeding themselves. Africa’s agrarian questions are not adequately addressed by simply asking, “What is the role of African smallholders?” Because of the great diversity of smallholder agroecosystems on the African continent, we also need to ask what kinds of technologies, markets, resource use and ownership rights will suit Africa’s diverse agricultural transformations. And, we need to ask, who will lead these transformations? This last question is especially important because, as the result of decisions regarding the food, fuel, and economic crises, Africa’s smallholders are increasingly falling victim to new grabs for land, water, markets, and genetic resources. Will the food crisis usher in a new era of rural debt, contract farming, and agricultural exports for foreign food and energy needs? Or will the crisis provide an opportunity for new agrarian models of development and food sovereignty? In Africa, the struggle to eliminate hunger is the struggle for the future of agriculture.

There are many parallels between the continent’s historic movements for independence and today’s struggles for food sovereignty. Though sub-Saharan Africa is a region rich in minerals and natural resources, over 450 million live on less than $2 a day and over a third of the population suffers from malnutrition (Faurès and Santini 2008). Proposals to end poverty and hunger on the African continent must come to grips with the fact that since colonial times, Africa’s food systems and natural resources have been relentlessly appropriated by foreign capital, frequently in collusion with national elites. Even today, at the height of the food crisis, some African governments are negotiating the sale and long-term lease of agricultural land to foreign governments and corporations. Others are providing forests, brushland and pastureland to foreign agrofuel corporations.

The struggles for food sovereignty in Africa are widespread, and are especially difficult because the continent not only continues to be a major source of natural resources for the industrial North, but, in a time of shrinking global markets, the food crisis actually makes Africa’s poor farmers a prime target for major seed, biotechnology and fertilizer companies desperate for new consumers. While each poor farmer may not have much money to spend, taken as a whole these farmers constitute a big and lucrative market, particularly if foreign aid and African governments provide conditions for market expansion with infrastructure, research, and investment incentives.

Of course, African governments must increase aid to agriculture. Encouragingly, in 2003 at the African Union summit in Maputo, Mozambique, African leaders endorsed the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Program (CAADP), in which they promised to increase government agricultural support to 10% by 2015.12 The private sector has an important role to play in ending hunger, and in these times of crisis has a social responsibility to serve the public good. However—especially in Africa—care must be taken to ensure that the benefits from improvements in agriculture accrue primarily to poor farmers, not state farms, agro-export farms, sovereign wealth funds or transnational corporations.

Who improves African agriculture, how, under what agreements and by what means, will determine whether the efforts to end hunger in Africa succeed or fail. Lack of attention to these issues runs the risk that the long-overdue support to African agriculture will be used as a prop for a flawed global food system when what is needed is a thorough transformation of agriculture.

Tensions between top–down and bottom–up approaches to solve the food crisis in Africa are being played out in a transnational “development arena” where official discourses of “partnerships” frequently accompany less altruistic political or commercial agendas, and often mask the real exclusion of farmers from participating in the substantive decisions that affect their lives. The future of Africa’s food systems and the fate of millions of smallholders and hungry people hinge on the outcomes emanating from this arena. Informed public debate, institutional transparency and accountability, and amplifying the diverse voices of farmers’ organizations and their proposals are essential for finding a sustainable and equitable path through the food crisis. The challenge is to diversify and democratize initiatives for agricultural development and at the same time respond quickly and effectively to the crisis on the ground.

The difficulty in doing all of this is especially evident in the rift between official calls for a new Green Revolution in Africa and the continent’s grassroots movements for African agroecological alternatives.


For two and a half decades the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) invested 40%–45% of their $350 million a year budget in an unsuccessful effort to spread the Green Revolution across Africa (World Bank 2004). Supporters of the Green Revolution offer multiple explanations for its failure to raise yields on the continent, among them Africa’s exhausted soils, inadequate infrastructure, poor governance and declining support for African agriculture (Evanson and Gollin 2003). They claim the Green Revolution “bypassed” Africa, and the CGIAR’s failure to eradicate hunger on the continent is due to lack of proper implementation of the Green Revolution model (Rockefeller Foundation 2007). Critics of the Green Revolution maintain that Africa can’t be blamed for its actual conditions, and that the failure is with the Green Revolution’s model itself (see Food First; ETC Group http://www.etcgroup org; and GRAIN

There is some basis for claims that Africa was bypassed by the Green Revolution. Prior to the oil shocks of the 1970s, many African governments moved decisively to increase food production by enacting land reform, implementing rural development projects, providing producer subsidies, establishing marketing boards and price guarantees, and increasing investments in rural infrastructure. National agricultural research systems were established to test and distribute packets of seeds and fertilizer. Under these conditions, the Green Revolution did begin to raise yields in basic grains in some places, leading many to believe that the “Asian miracle” could be replicated in Africa (Havnevik et al. 2007).

However, following the oil shocks and the debt crisis of the 1970s, and the World Bank/IMF structural adjustment programs of the 1980s, African governments were forced to reduce state services, dismantle marketing boards, close development projects and end subsidies and price guarantees. Government research and extension vanished. As market-led approaches to economic development replaced stateled approaches, agriculture fell off the development agenda and the Green Revolution ground to a halt (Havnevik et al. 2007). In the 1990s there were multiple high-profile unsuccessful attempts to score victories in Africa, notably by former US presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and philanthropist Ryoicho Sasakawa with the “father” of the Green Revolution, Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug. The repeated failures of the Green Revolution in Africa also coincided with the Green Revolution’s overall global slump. Notwithstanding, at the 2004 African Union summit, then secretary-general of the United Nations Kofi Annan called for a “uniquely African Green Revolution.”


In 1997 then newly appointed president of the Rockefeller Foundation Gordon Conway published The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the 21st Century, in which he called for a new, high-yielding Green Revolution based on equity and sustainability. Rockefeller’s attempt to re-launch the Green Revolution in Africa in 1999 made little headway until June 2006, when it cosponsored the African Fertilizer Summit with the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) in Abuja, Nigeria. Representatives from 40 African governments, African and multilateral development banks, the CGIAR, and agribusiness executives discussed strategies for modernizing African agriculture. A month later, the foundation rolled out its strategy in Africa’s Turn: The New Green Revolution for the 21st Century. It included:

– Promotion of hybrid and genetically engineered seeds and chemical fertilizers
– Training of African agricultural scientists for crop improvement
– Market development
– Local agrodealer distribution networks
– Infrastructure investments
– Agricultural policy reforms.

Two months later, the Rockefeller Foundation partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to launch the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA)—the non-governmental organization designed to implement the ideas of the Doubly Green Revolution and the strategies in Africa’s Turn. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s $38.7 billion philanthropy put up $100 million of AGRA’s initial $150 million budget.

The alliance quickly formed the Program for a Green Revolution in Africa (ProAGRA) to implement AGRA. Most of the board members of both AGRA and ProAGRA were employees of the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations (Daño 2007).


While AGRA adopted the Green Revolution’s technological paradigm— prioritizing genetic crop improvement and fertilizer applications as the central pillar of their strategy for agricultural improvement— it also added variations that reflect new developments within the CGIAR, the seed and chemical industries, and the global finance sector. This time a broader array of traditional African food crops will be included in the technological mix. Microfinance, and loan guarantees to state and commercial banks will provide credit. The project is establishing a powerful advocacy arm to influence the policies of African governments. AGRA is making a special effort to reach women—both as farmers and as researchers. Its “integrated soil fertility program” will use “smart subsidies” to increase the application of chemical fertilizers of four million farmers by 400% to 30 kilogram per hectare per year (Gates Foundation 2008). This is to be accompanied by instruction on how to build up and conserve soil organic matter. While AGRA’s Program for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS) is not now distributing genetically engineered seeds, AGRA has made it known that it will consider introducing GMOs in the future when regulations are in place. Meanwhile, AGRA’s training programs are steadily preparing African crop scientists in biotechnology (Agra-Alliance 2008). Further, AGRA’s main benefactor, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with the Yara, Monsanto, and Syngenta Foundations, support African biotechnology institutions such as the African Harvest Biotech Foundation, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), and the International Service for Acquisition of Agricultural Biotechnology Applications, in a concerted push for GMO research and promotion (Daño 2007). This work focuses on genetically engineering crops for high vitamin content, pest resistance, drought, and weed tolerance. Within the larger Green Revolution scheme, these projects and AGRA are mutually reinforcing: as one prepares the scientists, the other prepares the biotechnology; as one establishes seed distribution networks, the other releases GMOs.

Strategically, AGRA signifies a substantive shift for the Green Revolution. In the absence of the 1960s’ African “development state” that provided funding for credit, research, infrastructure and marketing services, supporters of the new Green Revolution are hoping that this time public–private philanthropy partnerships will step in to take up the slack. While there may not be large profits to be made at first, “recognition is a proxy” until profits can be obtained (Gates 2008). Given the reluctance of the private sector to invest in infrastructure and services for the poor, this is clearly a big gamble. Africa needs some $15 billion a year in agricultural investment. If Northern governments are backtracking on their promises for increasing aid, how can we be sure the private sector will make up the difference? The Green Revolution requires major social investment in order to be successful (even on its own terms).

Structurally, however, AGRA appears to reproduce the same commercial bias of former Green Revolutions and reinforces the World Bank’s antagonistic position against smallholder agriculture. For all its claims to independence, AGRA is considered by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to be the “African face and voice for our work.” AGRA’s benefactor clearly spells out its function in the Gates Foundation’s theory of change:

In order to transition agriculture from the current situation of low investment, low productivity and low returns to a market-oriented, highly-productive system, it is essential that supply (productivity) and demand (market access) expand together and that production systems use natural resources efficiently and help farmers manage their risks… [this] involves market-oriented farmers operating profitable farms that generate enough income to sustain their rise out of poverty. Over time, this will require some degree of land mobility and a lower percentage of total employment involved in direct agricultural production… We are uniquely focused… on 150 [million] smallholder households in Sub-Saharan Africa… that have the potential to transform agriculture at scale. We consider these farmers, most of whom are women, our customers and their needs and realities guide our work. (Gates Foundation 2008)

AGRA will follow the market-driven development strategies of the World Bank designed to open Africa’s smallholder sector to the volatile world market and push the “least efficient” African farmers out of agriculture. When combined with the same social and technological paradigm that has driven the Green Revolution for four decades, and given the present economic and political limitations of many weakened African states, potential for a renewed structural violence against poor rural communities is great.

* Food Rebellions! Crisis and the Hunger for Justice is available to order from the Pambazuka Press website. Pambazuka News readers can get 20% off the recommended retail price of £16.95 by entering 56784813 as the discount code when ordering online, an offer which also includes a free ebook copy. The Food Rebellions! ebook is also available individually for only £5.
* Eric Holt-Giménez is the executive director of Food First. Raj Patel is an honorary research fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and works with the South African Shackdwellers’
movement Abahlali baseMjondolo.
* This article is an extract from chapter 8 of Food Rebellions! entitled ‘Africa and the End of Hunger’.
* Please send comments to or comment online at

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