Farmers examine disease-resistant varieties of wheat during an agricultural exhibit at Eldoret University in Kenya. How can African farmers enhance their productivity and increase their resilience to climate change without compromising the health of their land? Photo by: Greg Webb / International Atomic Energy Agency / CC BY-SA

The sixth of 10 children, Florence Wambugu knew at an early age there must be a better way to ward off pests than mixing ashes and soot. Her mother sold the one cow from their family farm to send her daughter to school and test the theory.

Wambugu would go on to receive a scholarship from the United States Department of Agriculture to spend time at Monsanto, the biotechnology powerhouse in St. Louis, Missouri, where she studied genetic engineering for the sweet potato.

Since returning to Kenya, where she is CEO of Africa Harvest Biotech International, she has extended technologies such as tissue culture for bananas to rural smallholder farmers.

While she says her work is increasing yields and incomes, Wambugu added that the path to commercialization has many challenges. As Kenya considers whether to lift its ban on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, representatives on both sides of the debate are working to make their positions known. Some, like Wambugu, say GMO bans block African farmers from the technological advances available in the developed world. Others say that the indebtedness that can result from the use of external inputs such as hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers is not only harmful but criminal.

The debate in Kenya reflects a discussion happening across the African continent about the best ways to feed 9 billion people by 2050 while also preserving the planet for future generations. How might African farmers enhance their productivity and increase their resilience to climate change without compromising the health of their land? How might American companies play a role without short-term gains standing in the way of long-term sustainability?

Such questions are central to discussions taking place from conference rooms at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, to banana farms in East Africa. And whether they favor indigenous approaches, scientific technologies, or some combination of the two, global development professionals are trying to build on what they think is working while also navigating government policies, donor positions and farmer preferences.

Short-term gains

Advocates of biotechnology say African farmers cannot increase their yields without embracing the technologies that have helped boost productivity elsewhere.

“Most of these farmers don't use inputs, so it's by definition organic,” Luc Christiaensen, a senior economist at the World Bank focused on rural development and food security, told Devex. “So the question is can you increase production enough just by organics? I don't think so.”

Companies such as Monsanto see their work as vital for the future of African agriculture. One example comes from the company’s participation in Water Efficient Maize for Africa, or WEMA, a partnership led by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation in Kenya, and funded by the Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Monsanto has developed drought tolerant maize, or corn, providing the genetic traits royalty free to African seed companies through a partnership with the five National Agricultural Research Systems in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa.

These countries “fundamentally embrace the idea that technology and innovation needs to be part of the solution for smallholder farmers,” said Monsanto’s Mark Edge, who is also the director of partnerships for WEMA. “We have to demonstrate the value and build the regulatory capacity to vouch for the fact that this technology is safe and will benefit farmers in these countries.”

Smallholder farmers in Kenya had access to the first conventional hybrid developed through the WEMA partnership, under the brand DroughtTEGO. And GM approaches could be introduced “pending research and development results and regulatory approvals in each of the WEMA countries,” such as the potential lift of the GMO ban in Kenya.

Another WEMA partner is the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, which launched in Mexico in 1943 to develop varieties of wheat and maize and help drive the original Green Revolution, a set of initiatives that increased agricultural production in Latin America and Asia.

African countries that have incorporated the signature technologies of the green revolution report promising results. Between 2000 and 2014, Rwanda, which has a mandatory modernization plan, produced three times more grain, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Long-term impacts

Agribusinesses such as Monsanto have a financial incentive to participate in African agriculture, and that is precisely what worries critics of biotechnology. The company is donating technology for its WEMA partnership, but since it takes up to 13 years and $136 million dollars to introduce a single biotechnology trait, the long-term plan is to present other technologies for a price.

This is analogous to the pharmaceuticals industry where drug companies spend millions developing new drugs then implement patent protections to get a return on their investment. The challenge in agriculture in comparison to health care is the lack of an insurance system equivalent to help beneficiaries of these technologies to defray the costs.

As a result of partnerships such as the Southern Agriculture Growth Corridor of Tanzania, it’s not uncommon to find Monsanto selling herbicide, or Yara, a chemical company based in Norway, selling fertilizer to rural farmers. Many farmers characterize this as companies with special interests introducing new inputs without consulting them, requiring them to buy fertilizers and pesticides for those hybrid seeds, and then preventing them from replanting seeds from one harvest to the next.

While Monsanto cannot sell GM seeds in most African countries, there are concerns that if restrictions continue to relax, Monsanto will prevent African farmers from replanting seeds from one season to the next, as they have done in the U.S.

“Many organizations that think they do development work want African farmers to be like American farmers,” Janet Maro, the founder and director of Sustainable Agriculture Tanzania, told Devex. “I would tell them to support local technologies in the communities where they work, and not bring in foreign concepts where, when they are finished, the technology goes back with the people who brought it.”

“Applying one ideology and saying you can only do organic or you can only benefit from advanced genetic techniques fails to address the complexity of agriculture.”

— Brantley Browning, a policy and advocacy officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Maro grew up as a member of the banana-growing Chaga tribe in Old Moshi Village, near the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. She acknowledged the value of tissue culture technology, but pointed to research the Gates Foundation has funded on GM bananas as an example of the disconnect between what farmers want and need and what others think is best for them. Part of the justification for vitamin A fortification is to improve vision, she said, even though her parents and grandparents who grew up on these bananas had perfect vision their whole lives.

Chris Macoloo, regional director for Africa at World Neighbors, said he is concerned that if Kenya lifts its ban on GMOs, the decision will benefit large corporations rather than the smallholder farmers who produce 80 percent of the food in Africa. In Rwanda, for example, farmers who cannot afford to comply with the enforced modernization plan risk losing their land. In South Africa, meanwhile, cross-pollination has all but eliminated non-GMO maize.

The unfortunate reality of the emphasis on food security being defined as increasing staple yields for all smallholders is that some farmers who do not adopt innovations will be left behind, said Simon Winter, senior vice president of development at TechnoServe, which is working in Africa to link farmers to new markets.

The global development community plays a key role in strengthening market systems, educating farmers about practices or technologies that will benefit them, and making sure there are adequate safety nets and support systems for those who do not do as well as their neighbors, he said.

Regenerative agriculture, which leverages organic methods to link farming with soil health, can put power back in the hands of farmers, Kate Schecter, World Neighbors CEO, told Devex.

“Funders can be slow to adopt this ‘new way’ of doing agriculture, which is in fact the old way of doing agriculture,” she added.

Practically speaking, American nongovernmental organizations that favor strategies (integrating crops and livestock) over promoting inputs (hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers) should apply for grants or agreements that fund the work they are doing, rather than going after consulting contracts, which might specify how the job of improving agriculture should be done, she said.

The hybrid approach

While global development organizations diverge on the question of GMOs, they must converge around the ultimate goal of sustainable agriculture, said Angela Hansen, who leads agriculture and food security work at Dalberg, with clients including the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

“If we can’t find something that is competitive in terms of productivity, we’re actually systematically disenfranchising these producers and leaving them in this state of exceptionally low yields, which is a poverty trap,” she said. “How can Africa become competitive in agricultural value chains and close the yield gaps? That is going to require technology and focused investment and more scale.”

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa  is thinking in these terms, with its goal of starting “a uniquely African Green Revolution.”

“We know there were tremendous gains in food production and millions of lives were saved from famine during the green revolution, but there were also unintended consequences,” said Brantley Browning, a policy and advocacy officer at the Gates Foundation, a co-founder of AGRA. “There is a real chance to learn from history and see sustainable productivity gains happen in Africa that are inclusive and beneficial to smallholder farmers.”

With 54 countries and extreme heterogeneity of crops and diets across the continent, Africa may need a range of revolutions to meet local needs and global goals. AGRA is collaborating with more than 100 seed companies, which represent a third of the market, to produce hybrid seeds. Organizations such as One Acre Fund, a nonprofit social enterprise, are providing farmers with seeds, fertilizer, training and financing for these inputs.

Major donors, such as the U.S. government in its Feed the Future initiative, identify biotechnology as an important tool to overcome the production challenges traditional breeding “has been unable to address.”

“While biotechnology is part of a package of new tools and technologies that can increase agricultural production and reduce poverty, it’s just one of many options available to Feed the Future countries as they work to improve food security,” a spokesperson for USAID told Devex. “The choice about whether or not to use biotechnology is up to each partner country.”

Farmers plough a field in Ethiopia. Photo by: Rod Waddington / CC BY-SA

In the field

Acknowledging that farmers suffer most from the lack of constructive engagement between the two sides of the GMOs debate, development professionals are doing more to merge the best of technology and tradition.

Mercy Corps, the humanitarian agency based in Portland, Oregon, has experienced constraints not from donors, but from government policies, in its work in agricultural development in Africa. The organization has found that evidence is the best way to change  — and open — minds.

“As long as we can produce evidence that the approaches we are using work and have positive impact on productivity without negatively impacting the environment, we are generally free to promote what we think is best,” Sandrine Chetail, the director of Mercy Corps’ agriculture technical support unit, told Devex.

“When governments subsidize inputs and promote certain crops and technologies to be used through their extension agents, investments and policies, it becomes difficult for development organizations to promote alternative crops and technologies,” she said.

The FAO, meanwhile, has proposed a combination of methods through its “Save and Grow” model for more sustainable intensification of smallholder crop production. The plan calls for regenerative agriculture practices that strengthen the livelihoods of farmers and reduce the pressures on the environment.

The private sector is also emerging as a key player in a hybrid approach. Beyond developing and distributing seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, public-private partnerships are modernizing and mechanizing approaches from harvest to storage to transport.

African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina has pointed to his work in Nigeria as a success story for public-private partnerships. During his term as minister of agriculture, he helped cut the number of people suffering from hunger in half. Adesina has argued for the need to accelerate investment in research and extension systems to scale these success stories and spur agricultural transformation across the continent.

“Only by rapidly transforming agriculture can Africa lift hundreds of million of people out of poverty into wealth,” he said. “A bold plan to transform agriculture will boost local food production, reduce food import bills, conserve foreign exchange, increase domestic savings and assure strong macroeconomic and fiscal stability.”

The Gates Foundation’s Browning said he does not believe in a one-size-fits-all model. “We believe smallholder farmers in Africa, just like farmers elsewhere in the world, should have a range of choices,” he said. “Applying one ideology and saying you can only do organic or you can only benefit from advanced genetic techniques fails to address the complexity of agriculture.” 

Whether they promote practices such as permaculture, where the main input is knowledge, or believe that better seeds lead to better lives, American NGOs in Africa need to demonstrate the impact of those approaches, identify an economic benefit to encourage adoption, and work with farmers who are already vulnerable and being asked to take risks to find the way forward, said Chetail of Mercy Corps.

“Using a participatory approach here is key,” she said. “We come with our knowledge, farmers come with theirs, and together we can take steps to improve what is being done by testing learning, adapting and testing again.”

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About the author

  • Cheney catherine%2520%25281%2529

    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.