Since the 2007-08 world food price crisis, Western governments and philanthropies, led by the United States and the Gates Foundation, have backed a multitude of programmes across Africa to raise farmers’ productivity and connect them to commercial supply chains. Together, these efforts were called the “African Green Revolution”. This agricultural “modernisation”, we are told, will benefit Africa’s smallholder farmers by giving advantages to farmer-entrepreneurs with larger landholdings.
The result of this “revolution” ostensibly meant to help the poor has actually made rural life more difficult for anyone but the most well-off, well-connected, commercially-oriented, and “efficient” business people.
Development planners have long touted technologies like hybrid seeds as “solutions”. However, local farmers understood well, their own hardier, local varieties of maize were more resistant to drought, required less labour, cost less, and required little or no chemical fertiliser. Moreover, unlike hybrids, whose wide leaves obstruct the sun for neighbouring plants, farmers could plant their own maize varieties alongside peanuts, cowpea, and bambara beans – all nutritious crops well adapted to the local ecology.
Beyond adopted technology businessmen acquired farms to capitalise on the very programmes supposedly meant to help smallholders. The emphasis on expensive technology and commercial access has only made it harder for smallholder farmers to survive in their native lands, while opening the door to businessmen who see in the African Green Revolution their own investment opportunity.
Studies show that a major share of the world’s food is grown by smallholder farmers. Yet many critical agrarian thinkers like Henry Bernstein have argued that smallholder farming is becoming increasingly difficult, and even impossible in some places. Developmental aid that largely goes to the agri-food companies and well-capitalised businessmen, while smallholders lose the very farmland they need to survive, is undoubtedly one of the underlying causes of this phenomenon.