Agriculture experts have criticised a programme seeking to restore soil fertility in Kenya and other African countries, saying that similar programmes implemented in India and elsewhere aggravated farmer's problems instead of providing solutions.
At stake is the future of the continent's agricultural practices -what is grown, how it is grown, who gets to grow it, who processes it, who sells it and where and how much the African consumer will pay.
The programme is an initiative of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), which recently announced that it was committing $180 million to the five-year project in 13 African countries. Agra's soil health programme is targeted at small scale farmers and aims to increase farm yields and incomes by giving farmers seeds and inputs such as fertilizers through licensed agro-dealers.
The Sh12.6 billion grant has been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Sh11.55 billion) and the Rockefeller Foundation (Sh1.05 billion).
Kenya's pilot project started last year and farmers have been receiving a Sh6,000 voucher from the Government enabling them to acquire various farm inputs like seeds, fertilisers, stock borer dust and post-harvest pesticides. Agro-dealers in major towns are being trained on how to handle farmers and supported financially to have enough stocks to ensure farmers have adequate supply. 8,000 farmers in 10 districts across the country, mainly in Western Kenya are currently signed up.
In Chuka and Runyenjes, the programme is being made sustainable by compelling farmers to give to the village programme coordinator about five bags of the harvest, which is collectively sold and used to buy inputs for the next planting season.
In western Kenya, farmers who meet every day or the last day of the week to discuss farming issues also deposit about Sh10 per day each. The money is deposited with an agro-dealer and used to purchase inputs when the planting season arrives.
Critics, however say that Agra's programmes are a Trojan horse for genetically modified seeds which in Africa have only been fully embraced by South Africa. Although popular in many regions of the world GMO use in Africa has been hindered by safety concerns and regulatory issues even though the continent is in dire need of boosting its food production.
Agra has also been accused of fronting for seed and fertilizer companies in the West such as Syngenta and Monsanto that are hungry to take a slice of the African seed market.
'Although Agra does not on the face of it promote the use of GM technologies, 70 organisations from 12 African countries see Agra as shifting African agriculture to a system dependent on expensive, harmful chemicals, monocultures of hybrid seeds, and ultimately GMOs,' says the African Centre for Biosafety in a paper authored by Mariam Mayet.
'These groups argue that the Green Revolution under the guise of solving hunger in Africa is nothing more than a push for a parasitic corporate-controlled chemical system of agriculture that will feed on Africa's rich biodiversity,' she says.
These concerns were also echoed by participants from 25 countries representing farmers, agricultural and pastoralist organisations at a forum held in Mali from November 25 to December 2 last year to discuss the pitfalls of Green Revolution in Africa.
'Once the mask of philanthropy is removed, we find profit-hungry corporations vying to control the seed market in African countries, create a path for genetically modified seeds and foods and to pry open a market for chemical fertilizers-which in turn will have an adverse effect on African indigenous seed populations and destroy bio-diversity, not to mention the devastation of the environment and the salination of the soil,' said Mukoma wa Ngugi, co-editor of Pambazuka News in a recent commentary in Business Daily.
Agra's programme has been likened to Monsato's 'Seeds of Hope Campaign' in South Africa. The company which has a strong foothold in South Africa's seed industry introduced 'Combi-Packs' containing hybrid maize seed, some fertilizer, and some herbicide.
The company also promotes 'no or low till farming' meant to meant to be a minimally invasive conservation farming technique, in that farmers do not plough or till the land.
Instead, they cut small furrows for the seeds. This farming practice entails negligible soil disturbance, maintenance of a permanent vegetative soil cover, direct sowing, and sound crop rotation and is particularly beneficial for smallholder farmers, because there is no need to use a tractor, a major cost saving.
However, using this technique requires the increased use of herbicides, since weeds are not removed by tilling the land, and Monsanto is therefore a fervent supporter of this technique says Ms Mayet.
'Several studies have shown that Monsanto's Roundup herbicide is a threat to human health; not only a hormone-disruptor, but is also associated with birth defects in humans,' she says. In most areas these packs are sold through private agents. They are substantially more expensive than conventional seed and usually subsidized meaning that withdrawal of state support will leave poor farmers out in the cold, in a replica of the first Green Revolution in India in the 1960s.
Dr. Namanga Ngongi, Agra's president, says comparing Agra's programmes with those of Monsanto in South Africa is a mistaken view of Agra. 'Agra's seed programme is firmly rooted in conventional breeding and the use of Africa's rich agro-biodiversity. We will use indigenous crop varieties that are adapted to the various agro-ecological zones of the continent,' he says.
'Green revolution' was first coined in 1968 to describe the success in increasing yields in wheat, maize and rice in India and Southeast Asia.
The essential features of that model comprised of a technology package involving the use of external inputs such as inorganic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, laboratory developed hybrid seeds, mechanisation and extensive irrigation projects.
The Rockerfeller Foundation which is also financing Agra played a crucial role in promoting this technology package that also formed the basis of agriculture development aid and assistance at that time.
'These varieties only produced the desired 'high yielding' results if there was irrigation, mechanisation, and plenty of chemical fertilisers (the real key) and pesticides,' says Grain, an international non-governmental organisation which promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity based on people's control over genetic resources and local knowledge.
Under the programme, India increased its wheat production ten-fold and its rice production three-fold. But the country paid a heavy price. 'The use of large amounts of water, fertilisers and chemical pesticides impoverished soils, leaving them less fertile and highly polluted,' says Grain in a paper titled 'A new Green Revolution for Africa?'
Local biodiversity was drastically reduced, bringing farmers under the dependence of pesticide manufacturers and outside seed suppliers.
'The profound cultural and economic changes wrought by the Green Revolution produced a massive rural exodus, and, with it, a profound loss of traditional knowledge and skills. For most farmers, any early profits were soon converted into debts, with many farmers, unable to repay their debts, taking their own lives,' says the NGO.
Dr. Ngongi disagrees with this assessment of Asia's green revolution.
'Asia's green revolution saved many millions of lives and contributed immensely to the dynamic economic performance of Asian countries. Yes, it also had some negative impact on small-scale farmers and on the environment. However, the positives greatly outweighed the negatives,' he says adding that an African green revolution has the advantage of learning from the errors that were committed when Asia was launching its green revolution.
Dr Ngongi says that misuse of fertilizers, improper and uncontrolled use of water, the construction of huge dams, and the concentration on breeding a few miracle varieties of a few crops are now well understood and will not be repeated.
'Agra's approach is to work with national institutions, in both public and private sector in close partnership with farmers, especially small-scale farmers, most of whom are women, to resolve problems that have a negative impact on farmers' productivity and incomes,' he says.