Focus on Agribusiness Development Leaves African Farmers Behind

 Food shortages in sub-Saharan Africa could be worsened by the failure to provide farmers with the seeds and tools they need to begin planting this season, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

According to Pierre Vauthier, a representative of the FAO, “if farmers cannot plant seeds this season, they will have to move to find work or receive food aid. Delivering food aid is more expensive than providing tools and seeds.

An increased number of displaced people could fuel tension in certain communities as their populations swell.”

Aiding small farmers through public-farmer partnerships can be inexpensive compared to agribusiness development. However, international foundations and national governments have focused largely on the latter, at the expense of smallholder farmers and vulnerable landowners in Africa. 

Under pressure from the agribusiness lobby, President Obama committed to the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition at the G8 summit in 2012, pledging over US$2 billion of taxpayer money to agricultural development projects. “Africa is on the rise,” said U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Rajiv Shah. “Under the leadership of President Obama, we have pioneered a new model of development that is transforming agriculture and accelerating Africa's impressive growth and potential.

By harnessing the skills, resources and expertise of the private sector, we can build on our investments to power the markets of the future and lift millions of people out of extreme poverty."

However, the New Alliance has not only failed to improve livelihoods for small farmers, but has also created land seizures and rising debt, says ActionAid.

According to their recent report, “Take Action: Stop EcoEnergy’s Land Grab in Bagamoyo, Tanzania,” rural communities are being pushed off their land by a much-lauded sugar cane plantation project, which was funded by the New Alliance. Planned by EcoEnergy, a Swedish biofuel company, the project secured a lease of over 20,000 hectares of land for the next 99 years. 

Major foundations have also emphasized agribusiness in Africa. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID hosted a meeting in London on March 23, 2015 to discuss the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Formed in 2006, AGRA works in 17 African countries and receives significant financial support from international donors and national governments. The secret agenda of the meeting in London was criticized for failing to include representatives of smallholder farmers in Africa and for pushing corporate solutions to food security problems.

According to Mariam Mariet, Director of the African Centre for Biosafety in South Africa, an “equitable and sustainable solution to seed production and distribution can only come from direct engagement with farmers and their organizations.

Public-farmer partnerships that integrate farmer and scientific knowledge will generate a more accountable process, and produce longer-lasting and more meaningful solutions for African agricultural production, than these profit-driven, exclusive and narrow processes.”

Morten Thaysen of Global Justice Now agrees: “It seems strange that a supposedly charitable organization such as the Gates Foundation is involved in this agenda; it seems they have swallowed the idea that only the market can provide for our needs.”

While the Gates Foundation and USAID met in London, an open meeting of the World Social Forum occurred in Tunis, focusing on sustainable, democratic, local food production. The World Social Forum is an annual meeting of civil society members that seek to develop an alternative future through the “championing of counter-hegemonic globalization.” Farmers and advocates from around the world shared examples of the contributions of smallholder agriculture to sustainable livelihoods, food security, and women’s liberation.

Other organizations are working to scale agroecological approaches and impact policy globally. The Global Alliance for the Future of Food is a coalition of foundations working to get sustainable food and agriculture on the social, economic, and political agenda at a global scale. A working group of the project, led by Sarah Hobson of the New Field Foundation, aims to accelerate the transition to agroecology. The New Field Foundation advances rural women’s organizations in Africa, providing grants to build local communities and drive systemic change. 

The LIBERATION project aims to provide the evidence base for ecological intensification, with implications for food security and mitigation of harmful environment impacts from agriculture; research of the project seeks to understand how ecosystem services are related to farm income, whether tradeoffs between different ecosystem services exist, and how policy can influence ecosystem services. Valuing ecosystem services and sharing participatory research can help shift the focus of government policy in developing countries from agribusiness development to truly sustainable farming systems.

“In 2015 it shouldn’t be a radical notion to want to move beyond colonialism,” writes Thaysen. “So it is more important than ever that we stand with small farmers across the world to defend their right to control their own land and their own seeds and our right to healthy local food.”

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