Africa: Successful Alternatives to Corporate 'Green Revolutions'


Outdated 20th century industrial agriculture for Africa benefits those with financial power, rather than small-holder farmers. This article examines the demand for agrofuels, market failures in agriculture and the biopiracy of African biodiversity, as well as alternatives on the ground. The “African Biodiversity Stewardship Recognition Award” promotes the inter-generational transfer of technologies and capacities required to innovatively manage Africa's genetic resources. This initiative recognizes people who make contributions towards the conservation and sustainable use of Africa’s biodiversity.

By Carol Thompson and Andrew Mushita

March 24, 2011

In the face of the Rockefeller and Gates foundations-funded AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) lobby 'to extend outdated 20th century industrial agriculture' to the continent, Carol Thompson and Andrew Mushita look at alternative African approaches for improving agriculture that focus instead on farmers' rights and build upon local knowledge.

'How can a green revolution be achieved in Africa?' After more than a year of study, the expert panel, commissioned by then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, replied as follows: 'no single technological bullet is available for radically improving African agriculture.' African agriculture will require numerous 'rainbow evolutions' across the diverse African farming systems, 'rather than a single Green Revolution.'[1]

By 2007, however, Annan agreed to be executive director of the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations. AGRA proposes exactly the kind of agriculture the panel of agricultural experts (from South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda, Morocco, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, China and more) rejected: Monoculture of one or two crops with the goal of increasing yields through the high use of fossil fuels, chemicals (fertilisers, pesticides) and biotechnology (patented genetically modified seeds). AGRA finances agricultural research and lobbies across the globe (e.g., January in Davos) to extend outdated 20th century industrial agriculture to the African continent.

Current crises in global agriculture affect the African continent the most, from agrofuels replacing food to market failures and privatisation of living organisms. Because of their place in the international division of labour (including South Africa) as primary commodity exporters, with little or no value-added processing, African economies remain vulnerable to the vagaries of both weather and markets.

Given these dire situations, how could Africa possibly offer alternatives to the dominant industrial agriculture of 'green revolutions'? After briefly summarising the various threats of the global agricultural crises to African food security, this article analyses African alternatives, focusing on their approach to farmers' rights and an initiative to award and disseminate African innovations.


As the demand for agrofuels seems to be insatiable, global corporations are noticing Africa for its extensive land masses, while not seeing the hungry. Calling Africa the 'green OPEC', they assert that 15 countries in Africa have a total combined land area greater than all of India 'available' for agrofuel production, not bothering to explain what 'available land' means in the context of a food deficit continent.[2]

Europe and the USA have set 'green' targets for agrofuel consumption that they cannot fulfill using their own land. The agrofuel 'craze' therefore very much depends on global corporations' taking command of land in South countries in order to grow agrofuel crops.

To further the problem, the amount of plant material needed is massive. Lester Brown offers the comparison that the amount of grain required to fill the 90-litre petrol tank of a 4 Ã- 4 vehicle once with maize ethanol could feed one person for a year. The grain it takes to fill the tank every two weeks over a year would feed 26 people.[3]

The extent of African land coveted by investors, therefore, expands to tens millions of hectares, involving 20 countries.[4] No matter how the land is allocated - from leasing to contract farming - its use will be overwhelmingly for foreign consumption. Such major tracts of land designated to meet foreigners' energy or food needs signals, once again, the expatriation of African lands.

Exporting crops for overseas consumption while Africans go hungry is a historical pattern all too familiar on the continent. It is certainly not the hope of 21st century African agriculture.


The dominance of the 'willing seller-willing buyer' market approach to land redistribution dates only from the 1980s. The serious problem of treating land simply as a commodity is best illustrated by the case of Namibia. At independence in 1990, only 4,000 white farmers owned about 50 per cent of all arable land. Abiding by the 'willing seller-willing buyer' principle, the rate of land transfers over the first 20 years indicates it will take 100 years to acquire just 25 per cent of the commercial land. And this market approach offers no land use plan nor agrarian reform policy.

By 2002, the Namibian government concluded that the market failed to address land inequities, poverty reduction or environmental conservation. Both Namibia and South Africa are moving towards expropriation of land as a necessary means to correct this economic apartheid. Southern Africa is learning from the negative experience of land grabs in Zimbabwe, yet the commodity market approach can be similarly inequitable and destructive of livelihoods.

Studies from Southern Africa offer data about the additional failure of markets to provide farm inputs and services for smallholder farmers. As one report from Malawi summarises, 'Ten years on, it is evident that the expected benefits of the liberalization of both input and outputs markets has failed to penetrate the remote rural markets.'[5] In spite of the World Bank,[6] the history of market failure in agriculture is now reviving African government regulation.

Agreeing with this African reversal, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, this month gave the decisive conclusion:

'Agroecology [sustainable mixed cropping] is a knowledge-intensive approach. It requires public policies supporting agricultural research and participative extension services. States and donors have a key role to play here. Private companies will not invest time and money in practices that cannot be rewarded by patents and which don't open markets for chemical products or improved seeds.'[7]


The agroecology of Africa is characterised by complex agricultural systems mainly dominated by smallholder farmers who grow a range of diverse crops in a single field. There are about 18 recognised farming systems in Africa that can be grouped as a maize-dominated system, a cereal/root crop system, a root crop system and an agro-pastoral millet/sorghum system, all within overall mixed cropping. Part of Africa's food heritage, this genetic wealth offers important contributions towards making Africa a well-nourished continent.

The unspoken but central goal of AGRA is to attain access to African genetic wealth by requisitioning the expertise of African scientists and tapping indigenous knowledge in order to select a few varieties from thousands available. From this African knowledge and wealth, the global corporations will develop new plant varieties. However, these plant materials, instead of being freely shared, will be patented. Such privatisation of genetic material, without recognition of all those who bred the species for centuries, is biopiracy.

Stories of stolen genetic treasures echo across the continent. Like traditional story tellers, when a botanist or agronomist ends his or her account of the latest theft, another joins in to give yet another account, often in voices of anguish and despair. Here we offer a few details of just one current case from Southern Africa.[8]

The State of the World's Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (FAO) warns that the world's livestock production has become increasingly based on a limited number of breeds. Since 2001, an average of one breed per month has become extinct.[9] Searching for a broader genetic base by which to save a livestock industry therefore becomes an impetus for biopiracy. Accessing the gene pool of other animals with favourable characteristics is more crucial than respecting indigenous knowledge or thousands of years of breeding. In addition, if the new breed becomes marketable, the profits are not shared.

Evolving 7,000 years ago from the wild ox, the humpless African cattle differ greatly from those brought to the continent from Asia about 3,000 years ago. Tolerating tropical diseases and surviving on much less water than other breeds, Tuli cattle thrive on low-nutrient grasses; their name derives from the Ndebele word utuli, meaning dust. Custodians of the breed, the communities developed local knowledge and technologies for improving the cattle within the prevailing environmental conditions and social needs (for food and draught power).

In 1987, frozen embryos of Tuli cattle were shipped to Australian cattle breeders. By the 1990s, the US Department of Agriculture found that Tuli proved their merit in withstanding harsh environmental conditions. Today, the North American Tuli Association promotes the breed as follows: 'NATA intends to expand their activities by spreading the benefits of the Tuli cattle to many countries within the Western hemisphere....the Tuli breed can provide the missing link to bridge the gap in cattle genetics, the gap being adaptation to heat and nutritional stress combined with carcass merit.'[10]

Neither the government of Zimbabwe nor the foreign cattle associations consulted with the local communities or recognised their contribution in any way. NATA has even usurped the name of 'tuli.'

The current race by industrialised countries to access, research and isolate traits required by the beef industry will soon lead to the patenting of all useful genes of the Tuli cattle, without the involvement of the local communities who nurtured the breed. While Tuli traits are hailed as second to none in countries that abrogated international agreements to access the genetic materials, the peoples who developed the breed in the first place are forgotten.

While research points out that the juicy and tender beef traits of Tuli cattle are transferable to other breeds, no one is willing to ensure the reverse: 'juicy and tender' benefits to the custodians and original breeders of Tuli cattle.


The international principle of farmers' rights dates from the mid-1980s, propelled by increasing demands for exclusive plant breeders' rights (PBRs) by corporate agriculture. Farmers' rights enable farmers to develop and utilise crop genetic diversity, and thereby, recognises their contributions to the global pool of genetic resources.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) promotes intellectual property rights claimed by plant breeders in laboratories, while minimising provisions for farmers. In contrast, The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) is an international law that binds contracting parties to recognize the contribution made by indigenous communities and farmers for the development of plant genetic resources. Article 9.2 of the ITPGRFA affirms that farmers have the right to:

- protect traditional knowledge relevant to plant genetic resources

- participate in sharing benefits arising from the utilization of plant resources

- participate in making decisions related to the sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.

Predating the ITPGRFA, the African Union Model Law for the Protection of the Rights of Local Communities, Farmers and Breeders, and for the Regulation of Access to Biological Resources offers a legislative framework for implementing farmers' rights. The AU Model Law can be used as a sui-generis alternative within the WTO or the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

A major discussion in the process of domesticating farmers' rights will be determining the relationship between individual rights of private property and social rights of farmers. The WTO gives no recognition to social rights, only to private property rights, while the CBD, the ITPGRFA and the AU Model Legislation all recognise the rights of groups (farmers and communities) as equal to those of individuals (persons and corporations). Those promoting GM seeds under the guise of a 'green revolution for Africa' would not countenance farmers' rights, and therefore, they violate the priority of the very farmers they insist they are aiding.

The AU model legislation also directly addresses the issue of biopiracy, such as the Tuli cattle case, by adopting the CBD principle of prior informed consent (PIC). The AU implementation of PIC requires that both the national government and the local community give consent before genetic material can be taken. For the Tuli cattle, the local communities were not consulted. Further, the AU implementation would require that benefit-sharing of any profits be returned to the community, a reciprocity not honoured by the Australian or North American cattle industry.

Africans are showing the way to turning international principles into practical policies that benefit smallholder farmers. The unity parliament of Zimbabwe was the first one to pass legislation (2010) implementing the AU model by outlawing biopiracy and honouring community rights over genetic resources.


The promise and power of Africa's biodiversity wealth are the keys to unlocking African food security and food sovereignty. There are ample indications that little-known local plants of Africa may have outstanding genetic compositions that would help in solving Africa's food challenges, as well as global agricultural problems.

One incentive for enhancing the efforts of promoting indigenous knowledge is to recognise those who have already contributed, and to prepare space for those who will play their role in the future. Such an approach will facilitate the inter-generational transfer of technologies and capacities required to innovatively manage Africa's genetic resource base.

Because the wealth of the existing biodiversity is the basis for the future of agricultural Africa, it is essential that those who care about this wealth, and work toward improving its potential for use, are acknowledged. The 'African Biodiversity Stewardship Recognition Award' (ABSRA) proposes to fulfill this goal, as an African initiative for recognizing those who make contributions towards the conservation and sustainable use of African biodiversity wealth.

A component of the award will finance the sharing, across the continent, of the knowledge and processes for which the award was granted. Other African communities learning about appropriate responses to particular agricultural threats will stimulate replication and mainstreaming such practices and systems - successful alternatives to the ravages of industrial monoculture.

ABSRA is a continental response to yet another outsider intervention bringing inappropriate high-cost technology under the auspices of AGRA. The logic, goals, and economic and legal premises of the two could not be more different.

AGRA's approach focuses on increasing yields above any other agronomic characteristic, while ABSRA promotes the idea that food biodiversity can provide more nutrition than monoculture. AGRA works to privatise knowledge as quickly as possible through the patenting of processes as well as end products. Its 'green revolution' mentality refuses to honour farmers as plant breeders or scientists, while ABSRA encourages smallholder farmers, recognising both their farmers' rights to exchange and propagate seeds and their scientific innovations for sustaining biodiversity.

Outdated and disproven ways from 20th century agriculture continue, for they profit those with scientific and financial power. African smallholder farmers, however, are already demonstrating what a recent international assessment of agriculture stated in rejecting green revolutions: 'Business as usual is no longer an option.'[11] African agronomists and scientists have answers for how to feed growing numbers of people nutritious food, rather than feeding cars or corporate profits. What industrialized countries need is 'aid' from Africa, in the form of shared knowledge and technology to preserve global food biodiversity for future generations.