Where is the agency of farmers in Africa’s ‘new Green Revolution’?

Training with women farmers in Kenya

by Joanes Atela, Charles Tonui, Dominic Glover and Saurabh Arora

Hunger and food insecurity have continued to persist in sub-Saharan Africa. To address these problems, during the last decade there has been a renewed thrust for a ‘new Green Revolution’ in Africa. In popular discourse, the Green Revolution (GR) is associated with a technology-led transformation of agriculture in so-called developing countries, aimed at boosting agricultural productivity, achieving national food security and supporting economic development.

The GR is often considered as a success story in developing countries such as India and Mexico, where national food security appears to have been achieved despite a large increase in population since the 1960s. However, there is a widespread consensus that the GR did not reach, or failed to establish itself on, the African continent.

This blog post explains the discourse around GR in Africa, what kind of interventions it promotes, and what farmers think about them. Drawing on research in Kenya, as detailed in a new STEPS working paper, we explore how three different sites have experienced GR initiatives, what farmers think about them and whether their views are being taken into account.

Where does the GR discourse for Africa come from?

In recent decades, the GR discourse has been championed by organisations such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the African Union (AU). These organisations have been in the vanguard of a political and technical drive to create a new GR that is ‘uniquely African,’ promising to fix some of the shortcomings of previous agricultural development efforts.

By simultaneously promoting new technologies and market linkages, proponents of this narrative believe that Africa can realise a revolution like those in Asia and Latin America. New measures to stimulate the African GR include ‘smart’ subsidies that reach poor smallholders while helping to build markets; new seed varieties that are adapted to ‘African’ ecological conditions; agricultural technologies that supposedly reduce environmental degradation and conserve biodiversity; linking farmers to national, regional and global value chains; and the promotion of ‘partnerships’ with farmers, to determine what works and what does not.

Continent-wide frameworks such as the AU’s Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP), reaffirmed in the Malabo Declaration of 2014, have committed African governments to halving poverty and ending hunger by 2025, while enhancing livelihood resilience to climate change. The Malabo Declaration elaborates a range of actions, from the AU Commission’s accelerated promotion of intra-African trade in food and agriculture, to the development of ‘integrated and coherent’ national agricultural research systems. Similarly, the AU’s agenda 2063, adopted in 2013, specifically prioritises agricultural transformation through an African Commodity Strategy and a Continental Free Trade Area.

The Government of Kenya’s Agricultural Sector Development Strategy (PDF) for 2010–2020 is one example of the discourse of a new African GR being translated into a national context. The ASDS prioritises the role of the private sector in food production, processing and marketing, and the reform and streamlining of agricultural research and extension systems. But do the priorities of this new African GR discourse align with the key aspirations of small farmers? And are these priorities responsive to the unprecedented changes in climate and unpredictable weather patterns being experienced in Africa?

What do the farmers think?

When smallholder farmers are going hungry, increasing production can only be a priority. But do farmers aspire to increase production using the types of technologies and practices the African GR discourse emphasises and promotes? To explore this question, we visited three sites in Kenya: Ugunja and Nyando in western Kenya and Machakos in Eastern Kenya, close to the capital city, Nairobi.

Farmers in all three sites have been introduced over several decades to waves of GR-style farming technologies, such as subsidised fertilizers and seeds in Ugunja, new seed varieties in Nyando and water harvesting and irrigation facilities in Machakos. We found that many farmers have come to understand these technological interventions as the principal solutions to low crop yields, particularly for maize and beans. While the farmers do not necessarily articulate their changed technological practices within the idiom of the GR, they do link their farming technologies to their primary interest in boosting production and achieving food security.

To that extent, the new African GR discourse seems to be aligned with farmers’ own aspirations, at least as far as the promise of technological interventions are concerned. However, the practical realisation of productivity boosts and better food security in rural communities is achieved by the farmers themselves, and not by the external interventions. The reality of how this is accomplished is complicated by local histories of social, ecological and technical change in the communities concerned. Crucial to these historical trajectories is the mediating role played by farmers’ agency.

Local histories of socio-eco-technical change

In the 1990s, Kenya faced severe droughts that led to food shortages, as well as major demographic changes caused by migration, urbanisation and population growth ranging from 3.2 to 3.9 per cent per year. The three rural communities we visited were affected by these trends, but in different ways.

The three sites are different in socio-economic and ecological terms. Ugunja and Machakos are classified as semi-arid zones, while Nyando is semi-humid and often gets waterlogged during rainy seasons.

In the Ugunja site we studied, some farmland was sold to incoming migrants and converted into residential plots before the 1990s, fuelling the expansion of Ugunja town. As a consequence, many farmers ended up coping with drought on smaller parcels of land. The farmers needed to increase yields and productivity on these smaller areas of land in order to feed their households.

In Machakos, a growing population was further boosted by an influx of workers seeking employment in local steel, cement and iron industries. Again, this increased the demand for housing and led to the conversion of some farmland into residential plots. Drought in the early 1990s created considerable pressure on the available land and depletion of trees and shrubs, which made local soils even more arid. Among the attempts to deal with this aridity were various GR-style interventions, including the development of water harvesting and irrigation infrastructure and the breeding of drought-resistant and high-yielding varieties of maize and beans. The new varieties were developed locally at the Katumani agricultural research station near Machakos town.

In Lower Nyando, the situation was different. Though there were not the same pressures of industrialisation or growing migrant labour, the area still experienced climatic stresses and soil nutrient depletion. Here, GR technologies were introduced to enhance natural resource management and improve local livestock herds, especially sheep and goats.

The changing context of agricultural development

While the history of agricultural intensification in Kenya extends back to the British colonial era, systematic and large-scale investments in agricultural research, policy and advocacy were delayed until the 1990s. The introduction of GR technologies was led by government agencies until the early 2000s. The technical emphasis was on increasing productivity and addressing ecological stresses, such as aridity and nutrient depletion in soils. Yet, despite the extensive involvement of government institutions, the introduction of new farming technologies was neither systematically planned nor widely promoted.

In the new African GR period, the approach seems more proactive. Agricultural investments were increased in the 2000s, under the influence of AGRA and the CAADP. There was a new focus on integrating farmers into agricultural value chains, involving agribusinesses that supply farm inputs and help to bring crops to markets. Through this market-oriented approach, and by focusing on farmers’ needs rather than technical programmes, the proponents of the new GR believe that they are creating a more robust framework for an African GR to be built.

Who is involved?

In Machakos, the introduction of most GR technologies continues to be led by the breeding programmes of national and international agricultural organisations such as the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT). New technologies that emerge from these institutes, such as new varieties of cereals and legumes, and drip irrigation, are designed to combat aridity, and meet the increasing demand for food from the expanding industrial area of Machakos and the sprawling city of Nairobi. Local agro-dealers are active in the area to sell farm inputs and send harvests to the market.

In Lower Nyando, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in partnership with registered community based organisations (CBOs) and unregistered farmer groups and other partners including KALRO, mainly introduced new farming technologies oriented towards natural resource conservation and building alternative rural livelihood and resilience to climate change. There have been attempts by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and its partners to link farmers with the private sector, especially those supplying farm inputs and providing technical services, but these are still at the pilot phase. The kinds of technologies promoted were not necessarily designed for GR-style intensification. They included improved livestock breeds (intended to reduce open grazing but use space efficiently), techniques to enhance soil fertility and overall watershed management.

In Ugunja, new technologies are driven by intermediaries’ concerns around achieving self-sufficiency as well as an effective level of market integration. Important actors in this case are public-private partnerships (PPPs) such as the county government’s partnership with agro-dealers to deploy subsidised seeds and fertilizers to farmers.  The One Acre Fund, which has been given a three-year, US $11.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support input subsidies and market capacities, also works in the area.

The beneficiaries interviewed expressed satisfaction with the impacts of their support, including subsidies, technical support through extension and timely supply of seeds and fertilizer. This support through PPPs is yet to reach the wider communities due to many factors, including low advocacy and awareness of the availability and benefits of PPPs to small scale farmers. Among the beneficiaries are mostly female farmers working in organised but informal groups supporting each other through table-banking, where they can borrow unsecured loans from regular collective savings to help them purchase farm inputs and repay the loan according to an agreed system.

Where are the farmers?

While the high-level discourse of the new African GR is appreciative of differences in socio-ecological contexts and diverse farmers’ needs, the design and deployment of new technologies continue to leave very little room for farmers’ agency.

To some extent, this is a self-fulfilling dynamic. Project managers, extension agents and company representatives often behave as though the farmers’ only role is to be exposed to new technologies (through demonstration plots, etc) and – if they are considered smart – adopting them. In all three of the sites we visited, farmers reported that they had taken up new technologies that were introduced to them through development projects.

However, very little attention is given to the farmers’ own capacity to make choices and decisions that suit their own preferences, priorities and capacities. Farmers are not invited to participate in designing and implementing projects. Nor were farmers recognized as skilful practitioners who learn and innovate (improvise) on their own farms and in relation to changing market opportunities.

This approach continues in the current era, when project-based approaches dominate agricultural development. The agency to design and lead projects is placed upon NGOs, government agencies, the private sector and development partners, drawing upon academic discourses and policy provisions. The project model mobilises resources and expertise from outside to promote GR technologies locally. But farmers perceptively identified the project model of development as a predominantly top-down affair, in which they were the recipients of technologies.

Privileged farmers

Ordinary farmers were also aware of their dependence on the influential local ‘contact persons’: that is, farmers who were regarded as influential in the community, who were targeted by project designers and implementers to receive information, training and inputs, and whose land was used for local demonstration plots. In most farmers’ groups, these ‘contact’ farmers are also the custodians of equipment and other materials supplied by the project, which undermines the potential of these initiatives to be genuinely inclusive.

In the projects we encountered across the three sites, the privileged role of the ‘contact’ farmers raised important governance concerns about equity and transparency, especially where (in some groups) chairpersons and other officials would attend trainings but fail to share the new knowledge and information with other group members.

We observed that, in projects, activities often stopped at the level of exposure and demonstration, and there was little evidence of wider technology adoption on other farms. Some farmers explained that new technologies were in any case often too expensive for them.

Are African farmers being involved enough?

We found that the project-based approach to involving farmers in a new African GR affords only weak agency to farmers to be involved in technological design and development. New technologies continue to be developed outside the farm, and are then handed down to small farmers, without engaging with the farmers’ own situated knowledge and practices of learning, technical innovation and ecological adaptation. We believe that this oversight presents a risk that may undermine the potential gains and transformations of an Africa-driven and small-farmer-driven new Green Revolution.

Read the working paper

Farmers’ agency and experiences of agricultural change in rural Kenya: Insights from exploratory fieldwork

STEPS Working Paper 102
by Joanes Atela, Charles Tonui and Dominic Glover

Full details | Download (PDF)