Report: Industrial agriculture receiving bulk of Africa’s agricultural development funding

Olivia Yambi, co-chair of IPES-Food

Industrial agriculture receives the bulk of Africa’s agricultural development funding from the world’s major donors, according to a new report by experts on sustainable food systems.

The report by Biovision, IPES-Food, and the UK-based Institute of Development Studies reveals that money flows in agricultural development are still reinforcing damaging industrial models in Africa.

New data shows that only a fraction of agricultural research funding in Africa is being used to transform food and farming systems.

Only 3 per cent of Gates Foundation projects in Africa supports sustainable, regenerative approaches – or ‘agroecology’.  As many as 85 per cent of projects funded by the Gates Foundation, the world’s biggest philanthropic investor in agricultural development, are limited to developing industrial agriculture.

The report says 13 per cent of projects by Kenyan research institutes are agroecological. Another 13 per cent focus on replacing synthetic inputs with organic alternatives. Some 51 per cent of Swiss-funded projects have agroecological components, but only a handful are truly systemic.

“Most governments, both in developing and developed countries still favour ‘green revolution’ approaches, with the belief that industrial agriculture is the only way to produce sufficient food,” says Biovision president Hans Herren.  

Industrial agriculture is defined as the large-scale, intensive production of crops and livestock, often involving the use of synthetic chemical fertilisers on crops and pesticides.

“But these approaches have failed,” warns Herren, winner of the 1995 World Food Prize and 2013 Right Livelihood Award.

“They have failed ecosystems, farming communities, and an entire continent,” he said.  

The Money Flows report looks at investments in sub-Saharan Africa with a focus on Switzerland, a major bilateral donor, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the biggest philanthropic investor in agri-development and Kenya, one of Africa’s leading recipients and implementers of agricultural research for development or AgR4D.

More than 60 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is smallholder farmers, and about 23 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP comes from agriculture, according to the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm.

Herren added: “With the compound challenges of climate change, pressure on land and water, food-induced health problems and pandemics such as COVID, we need change now. And this starts with money flowing into agroecology.”

Biovision president Hans Herren

Agroecology is a way of building sustainable and resilient food systems. It works with nature, not against it – combining different plants and animals, and uses natural synergies rather than synthetic chemicals to regenerate soils, fertilize crops and fight pests.

Agroecology also improves farmers’ livelihoods through diverse income streams, resilience to shocks, and short supply chains that retain value in the community. In other words, agroecology has the potential to reconcile the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of sustainability.  

Olivia Yambi, the co-chair of IPES-Food, said: “We need to change funding flows and unequal power relations. It’s clear that in Africa as elsewhere, vested interests are propping up agricultural practices based on an obsession with technological fixes that is damaging soils and livelihoods and creating a dependency on the world’s biggest agribusinesses. Agroecology offers a way out of that vicious cycle.”

Approximately 30 per cent of farms around the world are estimated to have redesigned their production systems around agroecological principles, the report says.  

The report finds that support for agroecology is now growing across the agri-development community particularly in light of climate change, but this hasn’t yet translated into a meaningful shift in funding flows.  
The authors of the report argue that change can’t come soon enough.

“What needs to happen is for investments in AgR4D to target agroecology because the industrial agriculture and food model has shown its many weaknesses and failures to assure food and nutritional security in a positive social and environmental context,” said Hans Herren.

Kenya is one of Africa’s leading recipients and implementers of agricultural research for development (AgR4D).

The country ranks third in sub-Saharan Africa in spending on agricultural research after Nigeria and South Africa. Around 13 per cent of projects carried out by Kenyan research institutes are ‘agroecological’, with a further 13 per cent of projects focusing on the substitution of synthetic inputs.  

To accelerate shift, the report calls on donors to shift towards long-term, pooled funding models; require projects to be co-designed with farmers and communities; increase the share of funding going to African organisations; and increase transparency in how their projects are funded, monitored and measured for impact.

The study was carried out by Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development, a not-for-profit organisation involved in ecological and sustainable development projects in Africa, in collaboration with the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), an independent, expert panel that works towards the transition to sustainable food systems, and the UK’s Institute for Development Studies.