The need for radical shift in Africa’s agricultural funding models

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With unsustainable forms of intensification driving negative social and environmental impacts in Africa, and the COVID-19 pandemic revealing major vulnerabilities in food supply chains, there is a need for a radical shift in agri-development priorities and the money flows behind them.

A new report by Biovision International, IPES-Food and the UK-based Institute of Development Studies reveals that only a small fraction of agricultural research funding coming to Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa is being used to support agro-ecology and other sustainable approaches. Money flows in Africa’s agricultural development sector are mainly reinforcing damaging industrial models.

Funding for agricultural research, education and extension through official development assistance (ODA) has more or less stagnated over the last 10 years, and stood at only 14% of agricultural aid in sub-Saharan Africa in 2017. Most funders and governments still favour ‘green revolution’ approaches, in the belief that industrial agriculture is the only way to produce sufficient food.

Though Africa’s agri-development landscape is extremely complex and priorities highly divergent, there is a need for donors to rethink their financing strategies. Despite the merits of agro-ecological approaches in transforming farming systems, only a handful of donors recognise it as a means of building sustainable food systems.

Despite Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme commitments to invest more than one percent of agricultural GDP in research, investments in agricultural research by governments in sub-Saharan Africa have fallen significantly with the overall investment ratio dropped below 0.5 percent between 2010 and 2014. The agricultural funding has generally been de-prioritised in favour of other development issues, including health, education and national security.

Though Kenya and Ethiopia attract significant bilateral and multilateral agricultural aid, the resources for agricultural research are mainly used for industrial agriculture, with limited resources going to agro-ecology. More than 70% of the projects by Kenya’s research institutes focused on industrial agriculture, with only 13% being agro-ecological.

Another 13% of funding is used to replace synthetic inputs with organic alternatives. Top donors for Kenya are the US, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the EU, Germany, the World Bank’s International Development Association and Japan. At US$274 million a year, Kenya’s investment in public agricultural research is the third highest in Africa.

The ‘Money Flows’ report also shines a light on Switzerland (a major bilateral donor) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the biggest philanthropic investor in agri-development. The findings paint an interesting picture. Some 85% of the projects funded by the Gates Foundation support industrial agriculture and/or targeted approaches such as improved pesticide practices. Only 3% of Gates Foundation projects were agro-ecological.

By contrast, 51% of Swiss-funded AgR4D projects had agroecological components, and most of these (41%) also included aspects of socio-economic and political change like decent working conditions and gender equality. Just 13% of Swiss aid focused only on industrial agriculture. A fraction of UK and Belgian development aid, and minimal United States agricultural research funding, also goes to agro-ecology.

The good news, though, is that the tide is changing. There is a growing interest in agro-ecology by bilateral and multilateral donors — notably France, Germany, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

To accelerate this shift, donors must encourage long-term, pooled funding models that encourage research institutes to implement agro-ecological projects. They should also ensure that the projects are inclusive and co-designed with farmers and communities. They also need to increase funding to African organisations and transparency.

Donors also need to address the issue of unequal power relations in the agricultural sector. This can be done by building strong, long-lasting partnerships and supporting the development of bottom-up alliances with the involvement of farmer groups and researchers. The primary focus must be on smallholder farmers contributing to a safer and healthier world who support agro-ecological approaches. Let us turn our backs on the vested interests obsessed with the technological fixes damaging soils and livelihoods, and creating a dependency on the world’s biggest agri-businesses.

African countries need to reform their farming systems and put more money into agro-ecological approaches. They need to implement sustained actions to effectively deal with the negative impacts of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. They must be responsive to the needs of the millions of African smallholder farmers, who are counting on them to make the right decisions.

Olivia Yambi is Co-Chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food); Hans Herren is President of the Biovision Foundation.

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