15 October 2009

Africa: Gates Foundation Announces Agriculture Grants to Promote New Green Revolution

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
Children in Guinea-Bissau eating food donated by the World Food Programme.

In advance of World Food Day, marked on 16 October every year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will announce a total of $120 million in grants for agricultural projects. African initiatives will be the major beneficiaries.

Foundation co-chair Bill Gates is scheduled to make the announcement today while speaking at the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa in the United States. A common thrust of the funding is to increase the capacity of African farmers to feed their families and to produce an excess to boost incomes. Investing in better seeds and in soil fertility to increase yields is seen as fundamental, as is increasing the nutrition content of staple crops. Supportive services, such as training and improving access to markets, will also be expanded.

The Foundation has committed some U.S.$ 1.4 billion to agriculture development efforts, making it one of the largest donors in a sector that was seriously eroded during the structural adjustment policies imposed by donor nations and international financial institutions during the 1980s and '90s. African countries subject to those externally driven policies diverted significant resources away from agriculture.

"We cannot abandon our farmers and be surprised that Africa is in a food crisis," says Dr. Akin Adesina, Vice President of Policy and Partnerships for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). AGRA is one of the recipients of the grants to be announced today.

The organization describes its purpose as "working to transform subsistence agriculture practiced by millions of smallholders into a highly productive and sustainable commercial activity, and to end hunger and poverty for millions of Africans." The U.S.$15 million in new funding will be used to build systems of policy support for farming in Africa, focusing on seeds, soil health, markets, land tenure and climate change. To implement its ambitious programme, AGRA will work with governments and other stakeholders - such as policy analysts, scholars, the private sector and farmer groups – to establish "policy hubs" to define priorities and establish action plans.

Cautioning that the intention is not to set policies for countries but to help them define and implement their own policies, Dr. Namanga Ngongi, AGRA 's president, said the project "will give voice to African farmers." In a press release, AGRA said "there is no single policy solution for promoting smallholder agriculture."

The Gates Foundation wants to set a similar tone of facilitating rather than dictating. Bill Gates is expected to warn in his speech that while policymakers and implementers try to replicate the successes of the green revolution elsewhere, they should be careful not to repeat its mistakes, such as the overuse of fertilizer and irrigation.

"The next Green Revolution has to be greener than the first," Gates will say. "It must be guided by small-holder farmers, adapted to local circumstances, and sustainable for the economy and the environment."

He also plans to express the hope that controversies over uses of agricultural technologies can give way to a unity of purpose. He sees the "ideological wedge" between those who champion new technologies without regard to environmental and sustainability concerns and those who oppose any technologically driven advances in productivity as a false choice. He will make the case that productivity and sustainability are both needed and can co-exist.

"Melinda and I believe that helping the poorest smallholder farmers grow more and get it to market is the world's single most powerful lever for reducing hunger and poverty," Bill Gates says. Among the other grants to be announced are to groups that use radio and cell phones to get information to farmers, that pursue research into dry-land farming - a growing need as climate change contributes to more sustained droughts - and that provide training, education and technical support.

"Unlike farmers everywhere else in the world, African farmers, most of whom are women, receive little or no support from their governments," said Kofi A. Annan, the former United Nations Secretary-General of the United Nations who chairs AGRA 's board of directors. "We must change this. The new support to AGRA from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is coming at the right time for Africa, where strong national policy action is essential to end poverty and attain African food security."

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