By Stacy Malkan
The first major evaluation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s controversial efforts to expand capital-intensive, high-input agriculture in Africa found that the 15-year-effort has failed to achieve its goals of improving food security.
The Gates-led Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) aimed to transform agriculture in Africa by increasing incomes and food security for millions of smallholder farmers. But an independent evaluation by the consulting firm Mathematica provides no evidence of progress toward these goals.
The evaluation posted Feb. 28 was funded by the Gates Foundation on behalf of AGRA’s lead donors, including the Rockefeller Foundation and government agencies in the U.S., U.K. and Germany. It is the only macro-level performance review of AGRA released to the public since the effort launched in 2006.
Still, the review of AGRA’s core strategy, the Partnership Inclusive Agricultural Transformation in Africa (PIATA), is far from comprehensive, covering just five years, leaving out many of AGRA’s target countries, and offering few details on key metrics, including specifics on yields and incomes. Although AGRA operates in 11 countries, the analysis reports only on select countries for each outcome it measured.
Among the details that were reported: Yields for maize (the most heavily subsidized crop) increased in just three countries, Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria, but not in Tanzania, Burkina Faso or Kenya, as a result of PIATA. Only one country (Burkina Faso) shows evidence of increased farmer incomes related to PIATA. Few details are provided about the size or scope of these impacts.
The “mixed results” for farmer outcomes, the report notes, “likely reflect remaining farmer constraints in access to affordable inputs and output markets, as well as low per-farmer investment levels. These findings suggest that AGRA did not meet its headline goal of increased incomes and food security for 9 million smallholders, despite reaching over 10 million smallholders.”
“an expected outcome”
In a formal published response, AGRA said that finding is “an expected outcome and a true reflection of the realities that farmers, AGRA, and other institutions that support farmers today live with daily.”
The admission is a major departure from AGRA’s earlier rhetoric; the group has raised over $1 billion – two-thirds of that from the Gates Foundation – on promises it would “double yields and incomes for 30 million farming households by 2020.”
Those goals were quietly removed from the AGRA website in June 2020 after an independent assessment by Tufts University found little evidence of progress. AGRA’s new headline goals make no mention of specific improvements, promising simply to “improve” incomes and food security for African farmers. But even that outcome is not supported by the evidence provided in the Mathematica evaluation.
Where’s the data for AGRA?
Evaluators also noted many deficiencies in AGRA’s reporting and monitoring data, which they characterized as “not suited for rigorous impact analysis.” The lack of robust data is surprising for a program heralded by the Gates Foundation, which calls for “data driven” and “evidence based” philanthropy.
Bill Gates famously bet, for example, that big data could “save American schools.” But a seven-year, over $500 million educational-reform effort designed and funded in part by the Gates Foundation, “did not achieve its goals for student achievement or graduation,” particularly for low-income and minority students, and “failed to produce the desired dramatic improvement in outcomes across all years,” according to a 2016 evaluation by the nonprofit policy think tank RAND.
The Gates Foundation’s efforts to fix U.S. education and African agriculture share some similarities: audacious promises to transform systems, followed by heaps of tax-exempt charity money and direct taxpayer spending, ending with disappointing results.
But for AGRA, the Gates Foundation has kept its evaluation data mostly out of the public eye until now. The foundation has ignored multiple requests from U.S. Right to Know to release a 2016 evaluation of AGRA conducted by consulting firm DAI Associates. AGRA also would not release the document, claiming that only the Gates Foundation could authorize its release. U.S. Right to Know was unable to obtain the evaluation via public records requests, even though the U.S. Agency for International Development is a donor to AGRA.
In the wake of these public records requests, AGRA did release what is described as a “mid-term evaluation” of PIATA’s strategy process. Dated January 2020 (and posted to the AGRA website in December), the report focuses on AGRA’s internal processes, with few details about its performance. Like the Mathematica evaluation, it includes multiple references to AGRA’s poor monitoring processes and evaluation data.
It also includes a summary of the unreleased DAI evaluation and the results do not appear favorable: the summary notes a “lack of clarity surrounding AGRA’s core value proposition and business model” due to many factors that were “aggravated by fatigue among staff caused by too frequent, top-down strategy refreshes.” It also calls out “ambiguity over AGRA’s identity, including its perception as an African institution.”
AGRA is now in a regrouping phase. Its most recent five-year strategy plan ended in 2021. The group has not yet publicly released its new strategy plans but expects to do so later this year, according to an AGRA spokesperson. He said AGRA is now in consultation with countries and partners to develop a five year strategic plan for 2023-2027.
Backing up AGRA’s critics
Based in Kenya and registered as a tax-exempt nonprofit in the US, AGRA encourages African countries to pass business-friendly policies and scale up markets for patented seeds, fossil-fuel based fertilizers and other industrial inputs they say are necessary to boost food production.
“In Kenya, the cost of synthetic fertilizers has almost doubled.”
To that end AGRA has spent close to $1 billion on efforts to improve market conditions for Africa’s farmers, while African governments spent billions more subsidizing the purchase of expensive “green revolution” technologies, including chemical fertilizer and commercial seeds that are supposed to boost yields.
These strategies “continue to impoverish smallholder farmers,” said Anne Maina, national coordinator of the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya (BIBA), in response to the evaluation. “It is time to stop promoting green revolution technologies that do not improve our soils … In Kenya, the cost of synthetic fertilizers has almost doubled,” Maina said. That problem may get worse due to rising input costs.
“The time is now to increase funding to support the promotion of biofertilizers and biopesticides that not only build our soils but are safe and affordable for current and future generations,” Maina said.
BIBA co-authored a 2020 report that critiques AGRA’s programs as “false promises” that are not helping African farmers. AGRA described that report as a “flawed analysis” but did not provide data to refute the critiques. AGRA also did not provide a detailed response to follow-up questions from African groups and requests for more data.
The new Mathematica evaluation does not provide that data either, said Timothy Wise, senior advisor to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. In an analysis posted last week, Wise said the new evaluation supports his 2020 Tufts paper that found slow yield growth and no evidence of increased farmer incomes in AGRA’s target countries, while hunger increased 31%. “AGRA’s donors should reconsider their support for such an unsuccessful and unaccountable initiative,” Wise wrote. “They should shift their funding to agroecology and other low-cost, low-input systems” which “have shown far better results.”
Million Belay, coordinator of the broad-based Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), said the Mathematica evaluation “largely confirms AFSA’s concerns about AGRA.” The alliance of African groups wrote to the Gates Foundation and other AGRA donors last June asking them to stop funding AGRA and shift their political and financial support to more sustainable and equitable agroecological approaches.
Also last June, 500 faith leaders led by the Southern African Faith Communities and Environment Institute (SAFECEI) signed an open letter expressing “grave concern that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s support for the expansion of intensive industrial scale agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis.”
The Gates Foundation has not met with the groups, nor has it provided any public response to these concerns. Nevertheless, the foundation’s disclosures show that it donated another $40 million to AGRA in December 2021. The foundation did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
AGRA President Agnes Kalibata defended AGRA’s approach in an article in the East African, and she noted progress the group has made. Criticisms that AGRA promotes a broken green revolution industrial model, Kalibata said, are “based on an inadequate appreciation of our model. AGRA’s model is based on an approach that African farmers can change their lives with improved food security and incomes if they had better access to finance, inputs, knowledge, and markets.”
German government considers pulling funding over pesticide use
At least one of AGRA’s major donors has considered quitting its partnership with AGRA over concerns that an AGRA-connected project in Ghana allows farmers to use pesticides that are banned in the European Union for health concerns.
In February, Der Spiegel reported that German Development Minister Svenja Schulze is considering exiting the government’s partnership with AGRA over concerns about the use of hazardous pesticides — specifically propanil-based pesticides and permethrin that are used in the Ghana project. Germany has so far contributed 25 million Euros to AGRA, the paper reported.
Schulze, a member of the Social Democratic Party, was appointed German Development Minister in December 2021. Her predecessor had defended the use of the controversial pesticides in Africa, according to Der Spiegel. Schulze told the news outlet that she will review Germany’s partnership with AGRA and also work with the Ministry of Agriculture to prepare an export ban on pesticides banned in the EU. “The goal,” she said, “must be a socio-ecological transformation of agriculture.”
Civil society organizations in Germany and Africa said the German government “is violating its own compulsory pesticide-use standards in development projects in Ghana” by allowing propanil-based pesticides and permethrin, which are banned for use on food crops in Europe. Both pesticides are toxic on contact and require strict safety protocols and conditions that “are not even remotely being met” in the AGRA projects in Ghana, according to Jan Urhan, program director for Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, a left-wing political foundation in Germany.
In Urhan’s view, the poor results of the independent AGRA evaluation, along with the German government’s public pronouncements of concern, “are the beginning of the end of AGRA.” He called the Mathematica evaluation “a damning verdict” and said it “confirms the studies done by civil society in the past years: AGRA has failed.” He said donor governments and African countries involved “must now withdraw from AGRA.”
In an email to U.S. Right to Know, an AGRA spokesperson responded to the concerns raised in the Der Spiegel article: “AGRA works under government national priorities and regulations – in this case under the Government of Ghana. Only pesticides approved by the Environmental Protection Agency in Ghana are allowed for use by our project partners. It is worth noting that AGRA does not buy, distribute or promote Permethrin or Propanil.” He also referenced AGRA’s Environmental and Social Management System that all AGRA grantees comply with.
“AGRA greatly values the partnership with the Government of Germany as we work with the Government of Ghana, who we both support in this programme,” the spokesperson said.
USAID remains steadfast in its support
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will continue to support AGRA in spite of the critical evaluation, according to a spokesperson there. “USAID reviewed the findings and recommendations and is satisfied with the independence and rigor of the [Mathematica] evaluation. We appreciate AGRA’s response to the report conclusions and concur with their proposed next steps to improve performance outcomes,” the spokesperson said.
“USAID remains steadfast in its commitment to people across the African continent and around the world to address the root causes of poverty, hunger and malnutrition. Through the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative, USAID supports partners – AGRA – to increase incomes and boost nutrition for smallholder farmers, their families, and communities in the areas where we work.”
U.S. taxpayers contributed at least $90 million to AGRA between 2006 and 2020. USAID did not respond to multiple requests for information about whether the U.S. agency has provided or committed more funds to AGRA since 2020.
AGRA’s success with lobbying and corporate partnerships
The Mathematica evaluation was more positive about some aspects of AGRA’s work, praising its successes lobbying African governments for an “improved policy environment for private sector investment in agriculture,” as well as its progress building partnerships with the corporate sector.
It notes, for example, that over 700 village based advisors “are using digital platforms to register farmers and broadcast information on weather, seeds, and fertilizer to over 30,000 farmers through AGRA’s partnership with Microsoft.” However, the report notes that these programs may not be sustainable as there is no clear path to scalability or profitability, and that African governments are unlikely to take on the costs.
On the policy front, the evaluation noted AGRA’s participation in 72 agricultural policy reforms across 11 target African countries in the areas of seed, fertilizer and market access. Among its biggest successes was “increasing supply of certified seed through direct support to seed companies” and market linkages, most notably in Rwanda, Ghana and Nigeria, according to the report.
Laws that protect intellectual property rights for “certified” seeds, while creating penalties for open-source seed sharing – often referred to as “plant protection” or “seed harmonization laws” – are among the most controversial policies AGRA promotes. An AGRA spokesperson said, “AGRA supports efforts to harmonize seed laws /regulations to maximize choice and opportunity for farmers we support, as well as the small and medium-size enterprises that support them.”
However, seed privatization is a major concern among African groups that have critiqued AGRA. “Protecting corporate entities’ certified varieties while criminalizing trade of non-certified seed is particularly problematic for small-scale farmers in Africa, where 80 percent of non-certified seed and food come from millions of smallholder farmers who recycle, and exchange seeds each year,” wrote Africa-based faith leaders Gabriel Manyangadze and Francesca de Gasparis in Business Daily last year.
“Not only does the corporatization of seed undermine existing indigenous knowledge systems regarding seed diversity and multi-cropping,” they wrote, “but more insidiously, it centralizes control of production systems, disempowering and reducing the resilience of small-scale farmers who rely on informal trade, historical and cultural knowledge in addition to their unique understanding of their ecological landscapes.”
Stopping seed privatization laws is a major focus of food sovereignty groups in Africa and around the world. Last week, the Honduran Supreme Court of Justice declared the Law for Protection of Plant Varieties unconstitutional. The legislation, which made it illegal to save, give away or exchange seeds, was dubbed by critics “The Monsanto Law.”
Million Belay of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa described in an op ed for Al Jazeera why many food producers in Africa oppose AGRA’s push to expand the use of expensive inputs. “The strategy has indebted our farmers, ruined our environment, harmed our health and undermined our seeds and culture,” Belay wrote. “We object to the flurry of initiatives to amend our seed laws, biosafety standards, and institutionalize fertilizer rules and regulations that seek to entrench Africa’s over reliance on corporate agriculture.”
Following the Mathematica evaluation, African civil society and faith leaders said they will continue to press governments and private philanthropies to hear their concerns and stop supporting AGRA.
Stacy Malkan is managing editor of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health.