The following article was originally published by Food Tank on October 26, 2022.
In September 2022, leaders of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) surprised thousands of in-person and virtual delegates to its annual African Green Revolution Forum with the announcement that both the organization and its signature event were “rebranding.” It turns out, they dropped “green revolution” from their names. But you wouldn’t have known it from the launch event at the Forum.
Presented at a press conference that also announced AGRA’s new five-year strategy, the news was delivered via video after an hour of short reflections from AGRA’s donors and leaders. Over a highly produced montage of photos, an unnamed narrator intoned glowing descriptions of AGRA’s 16-year effort to “catalyze a productivity revolution” in African agriculture. It concluded with a flourish: the unveiling of AGRA’s new logo — a small change in the design around the acronym — and tagline — “Sustainably Growing Africa’s Food Systems.”
Going forward, AGRA will be known only by its acronym and the Green Revolution Forum would become the African Food Systems Forum.
That latter change got some explanation. It was time to build on last year’s United Nations Food Systems Summit — which AGRA President Agnes Kalibata led as the UN’s special envoy — by establishing AGRA’s forum as Africa’s venue to advance the summit’s goals.
The change to AGRA’s name was left not only unexplained but unacknowledged. Neither the video nor the subsequent AGRA press release mentioned that the organization was removing the words green revolution from its name. It only came out later, in a front-page article in Bill Gates’ hometown newspaper, the Seattle Times: “Gates-funded ‘green revolution’ in Africa has failed.” President Kalibata acknowledged the change, saying only, “We have been many times misunderstood.”
As Kenyan farmer Ferdinand Wafula explained, “We urge policymakers, governments, and donors to provide more funding to agroecology, which offers clear solutions to nutrition challenges, the climate crisis and escalating prices.”
Gabriel Manyangadze of the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute, which last year sent a letter to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation signed by 500 African faith leaders, certainly understood a cosmetic change when he saw one. “We demand not a rebranding of AGRA, but an end to funding for harmful green revolution programs,” he told Politico.
Manyangadze was certainly right that the changes in AGRA’s new strategy are superficial. As I explained in an analysis of the strategy, the organization doubles down on its supposed strengths—developing and delivering new commercial seed varieties and influencing policy changes to promote their adoption. By design, the strategy avoids talking about the promotion of synthetic fertilizer, the real driver of its Green Revolution effort. But Kalibata acknowledged to Politico that in addition to seeds fertilizers and other inputs “are also needed.”
That leaves AGRA with the same Green Revolution technology package that has failed to produce its promised productivity revolution in the 16 years since AGRA was founded by the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations in 2006.
Unfortunately — and revealingly — AGRA’s new strategy fails to take steps to better ensure that small-scale farmers see benefits from its proposed $550 million five-year plan. Even after a donor-funded evaluation criticized the organization for failing to deliver significant crop yields, incomes, or food security to farmers, the new plan sets no measurable goals for farmer productivity or welfare gains.
Refreshing AGRA’s brand has not given AGRA a fresh new approach.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has provided two-thirds of AGRA’s billion-dollar budget up to now, ignored its own evaluation and the lackluster new strategy and pledged another $200 million for the five-year effort.
Other key donors have yet to formally declare their support, but Gates’ co-founders at The Rockefeller Foundation are set to announce a small grant — $4 million over three years — restricted to “good food” programs that move decisively away from Green Revolution initiatives. The donation is down considerably from the foundation’s previous levels of support.
The German and UK governments have not announced their support or whether it would come with similar restrictions. The U.S. Agency for International Development, under pressure from members of Congress to justify continued support, said it would provide $3-4 million per year, which would also represent a reduction in funding from previous levels of $6-7 million per year.
Without the Green Revolution, what does AGRA stand for?
Despite its flawed design, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa used to stand for something. It had a coherent theory of change: new seeds and fertilizers would catalyze a productivity revolution, which would raise farmer incomes and food security. It had ambitious and measurable goals: to double yields and incomes for 30 million small-scale farming households while halving food insecurity.
Now, those goals are long gone, progressively watered down and now erased from AGRA’s web site. Is productivity still the assumed catalyst for rural development? If so, are improved seeds, fertilizers and other inputs still key to driving those yield gains? If they are, what has changed in AGRA’s new strategy?
Where before AGRA’s tagline was “Growing African Agriculture,” now AGRA bills itself as “Sustainably Growing Africa’s Food Systems.” What does that mean? Africa doesn’t need larger food systems, it needs stronger, more resilient food systems that are less reliant on the sorts of imported inputs — and development strategies — promoted by AGRA.
The rebranding is likely an attempt to distance AGRA from the growing evidence not only that Africa’s Green Revolution is failing but that the earlier Green Revolution in India and other parts of Asia and Latin America was not the success story we’ve been led to believe. Historians have shown that: food crop productivity as a whole did not increase after the arrival of Norman Borlaug’s wheat varieties in the late 1960s; wealthier farmers were the main beneficiaries; many farmers ended up in debt as costs for the inputs rose and yields failed to pay the bills; and the environmental costs were very high, with water and soil depletion and pollution. (I detail this evidence here.)
It is remarkable that a program enshrined in so much mythology over so many years is now being shunned by some of the most powerful mainstream agricultural development donors.
AGRA’s website still offers no explanation for dropping “green revolution” from its name, and officials did not respond to requests for comment or clarification. It certainly suggests that AGRA and its donors are concealing their retreat from a failing strategy.
They didn’t fool African civil society leaders either. “AGRA is just putting new labels on the failed policies of the past,” said Anne Maina, of BIBA Kenya, who reiterated the call to defund the initiative. “AGRA’s time is up! Donors should pull the plug on AGRA.”