Mukoma Wa Ngugi speaks to the dangers surrounding the Bill Gates initiative - Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)
"Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It ensures that the rights to use and manage lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food" – Declaration of the Forum for Food Sovereignty, Nyeleni , February 2007
From November 25th to December 2nd African farmer-, agricultural-, and pastoralist organizations from over 25 countries gathered at the Nyeleni Center in Selengue, Mali to, amongst other things, discuss the pitfalls of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) -- the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation initiative now chaired by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. With around 100 organizations present, thousands of Africans concerned with social justice and agriculture were represented.
Now, the theme of the conference might at first glance seem outrageous. After all, we are talking about Bill Gates here – a man who has become the poster child of good philanthropy. But this is precisely my point: because AGRA is a Bill Gates initiative with widely respected Kofi Annan as the chair, most of us are not going beyond the first glance. But it is important that we send a second glance AGRA’s way because what is at stake here is the very future of the continent’s agricultural practices - what is grown, how it is grown, who gets to grow it, who processes it, who sells it and where and how much the African consumer will pay. Simply put, if food is the basis of life, what is at stake is the very sustenance of the continent.
But in order to fully appreciate the role the sweet sounding Alliance for a Green Revolution is playing in Africa, we need to take a step back and situate AGRA in the context of other international and national forces that are undermining the well-being and sovereignty of African nations – forces that are in fact part of the problem, even as they present themselves as part of the solution.
Amongst the international forces undermining Africa’s well being is an overt US foreign policy whose goal is to consolidate a growing Empire through the pipeline of the war on terror – under the guise of spreading democracy. We have seen how well this is working in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. But even more insidious is the arm-twisting of African governments to pass anti-terror bills that tie African domestic policies to US foreign policy goals.
On top of this we must add US foreign policy-led organizations such as the USAID, and the International Republican Institute, currently active in over 40 African countries. Organizations such as the IRI build on the tracks laid down by missionaries. The missionaries came to Christianize and civilize, the IRI types come to democratize, liberalize and westernize. The missionaries paved the way for the colonialists our history teachers were fond of saying. In the future, they will be saying that organizations such as the IRI paved the way for the US Empire.
Lest this seems far-fetched, here is an example of these seemingly disparate forces at work. The IRI in 2006 helps Africa’s first woman president, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf into power. So instrumental is the IRI that when receiving a Freedom Award from them, she declares that the “IRI was particularly active in promoting these elections. Very quickly an office was established. They came, they did workshops. They brought political groups together. They worked with the media. They educated. They instructed. They supported. They assisted the process.”  But even before the democracy solidified, Liberia becomes the first country to offer the United States a military base for its African Command Center. There are no coincidences here – the IRI paved the way for US further militarization of Africa using Liberia as a launching pad.
Meanwhile in Liberia, Firestone has the gall to invite the Liberian people into its website with a photograph captioned “since 1926 we have succeeded together and we have suffered together, now that peace has returned, learn how we are working for a better future for Liberia.”  Firestone, much like Shell, has a philanthropic arm used to cover up the actions of the other heavy, hungry and brutal arm. Under the exploitation of colonialism, industries and corporations served the nation-state. Today it is the other way around: the nation-state serves industries and corporations.
It is into this mix that we need to throw initiatives such as AGRA. An outcome statement produced by the Selingue conference organizers states that “AGRA is actually the philanthropic flagship of a large network of chemical-seed, and fertilizer companies” and is designed to “attract private investment, enroll African governments, and convince African farmers to buy new seeds and fertilizers.” 
Waiting at the wings, or more correctly, waiting in the AGRA boardrooms, are seed and fertilizer organizations such as Syngenta (with total sales of 1.2 billion dollars in 2004) and Monsanto (a multi billion dollar seed company), amongst other players. AGRA claims that it will help “millions lift themselves out of poverty and hunger by dramatically increasing the productivity of hundreds of millions of small-scale farmers and improving livelihoods.” 
AGRA further states that it will “develop and strengthen Africa’s small and medium-scale seed companies to develop and sell appropriate seeds to farmers, [it will also] develop rural agro-dealers (small rural shops, mainly owned by women) and work with local food processors that can add value to products [and] and with local micro-finance institutions.”
Pointing to Asia, AGRA claims that the green revolution there lifted millions from poverty. This claim was refuted by the Mali conference participants who pointed out the tragic case of Indian farmers. In India, farmers initially flourished under the green revolution because millions of dollars were used to buoy up the farms. But as soon as the money stopped being pumped, Indian farmers found that they could not afford hybrid seeds, or the high price of pesticides, and they entered into debt, eventually losing their land to banks. The green revolution in India really was the pauperization of the poor Indian farmer. AGRA’s promise of Agro-dealers in Africa, and its promise to follow the Asian model means small scale African farmers will be strangled by ever widening circles of dependency and debt.
AGRA claims to be African led because it appointed Kofi Annan as its chair. In Selengue, conference participants responded by saying Kofi Annan surely cannot be seen as speaking for over 50 countries and 680 million people. In any case as African American poet Sonia Sanchez, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. said in response to a question on Condoleezza Rice and Clarence Thomas “We should not fight for equal rights in order to do wrong with them.”
In this same sense, women presidents (as in the case of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf) and African UN Secretaries General (as in Kofi Annan) do not automatically do good for the continent. With Kofi Annan as the chairman of AGRA, AGRA will still do harm. And it will not be any better because he is African.
AGRA’s critics contend that the alliance will not take a definitive stand against Genetically Modified Foods. This was of grave concern to the organizations in attendance at Selengue. The AGRA website leaves a lot of wiggle room when it states that “Introduction of genetically engineered crops are not part of AGRA strategy at this time” but a little later states that “AGRA will not shy away from considering the potential of bio-technology in reducing hunger and poverty and we do not preclude future support for genetic engineering as an approach to crop variety improvement…”
Soon after he was appointed chair, Kofi Annan declared that AGRA will not use GMO’s – a statement that is contradicted in the website statement quoted above – and which he and AGRA retracted.  In a sense then, AGRA critics are right when they call it a “Trojan horse” for GMO’s.
Once the mask of philanthropy is removed, we find profit-hungry corporations vying to control the seed market in African countries, create a path for Genetically Modified seeds and foods and to pry open a market for chemical fertilizers – which in turn will have an adverse effect on African indigenous seed populations and destroy bio-diversity, not to mention the devastation of the environment and the salination of the soil. The philanthropic arm that Africa welcomes is in real terms paving the way for further exploitation of our resources.
In his latest novel, Wizard of the Crow, my father Ngugi Wa Thiong’o aptly talks of a corporony – a colony run by a corporation. Fiction is not so strange after all, because with AGRA we are looking at the corporatization of the food industry, from planting to production to selling and buying. With AGRA, what and how we plant and eat, and how much we pay for it will be decided in western corporate offices.
Africans should grasp what is at stake here and mobilize against AGRA. African leaders have already sold off the land and the right to natural resources. They have sealed off some parts of the continent into export processing zones. They have allowed foreign military bases onto African soil. They have given organizations such as the International Republican Institute free reign to determine the very nature of African political institutions. But here it should stop. Africans simply cannot let them sell off the right to food sovereignty. Because if they do, they will be selling off the very future of Africa.
* Mukoma Wa Ngugi is Co-Editor of Pambazuka News. He is also the author of Hurling Words at Consciousness (AWP, 2006) and a political columnist for the BBC Focus on Africa Magazine
* Please send comments to or comment online at www.pambazuka.org
For notes, see link below
1. The International Republican Institute 2006 Freedom Dinner and Award Ceremony Honoring First Lady Laura Bush and President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf http://www.iri.org/newsreleases/pdfs/2006-09-22-PresidentJohnsonSirleafRemarks.pdf
3. Final conference document soon to be online at: http://www.nyeleni2007.org
5. What exactly did Kofi Annan say in Nairobi? http://www.bdafrica.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2257&Itemid=5822