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Report calls for agroecological rethink of Africa’s food amid $61b industrial plan

Kouanda Issiaka watering his mango plantation for extra income in Boromo, Burkina Faso.

Kouanda Issiaka watering his mango plantation for extra income in Boromo, Burkina Faso. Image by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • The African Development Bank (AfDB) has released agricultural development plans for 40 countries across the continent that outline pathways to improving food security and productivity.
  • But a recent report by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) argues that the AfDB initiative, which seeks to industrialize African food systems at a cost of $61 billion, may potentially marginalize small-scale farmers, harm biodiversity, and foster dependency on multination corporations for seeds and agrochemicals.
  • AFSA suggests focusing instead on agroecology and food sovereignty, emphasizing the importance of sustainable agriculture and the empowerment of small-scale farmers.
  • High rates of undernourishment across sub-Saharan Africa are largely unchanged since 2005 figures, and a rapidly growing population putting pressure on food resources and production has prompted some policymakers to seek out industrial agriculture projects as a solution.

Civil society groups have criticized a new $61 billion initiative to industrialize African food systems, calling the plan a “significant threat to small-scale farmers.” The groups, under the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), say the initiative by the African Development Bank (AfDB) will marginalize smallholders through its one-size-fits-all approach, increase dependency on multinational corporations for seeds and agrochemicals, and lead to the loss of land and biodiversity.

“The emphasis on principal commodity crops, mechanized farming tools, and standardised land tenure systems condenses the practices into a uniform effort aimed at agro industrialization,” AFSA said in a report.

The “Feed Africa: Food Sovereignty and Resilience” initiative was born out of a two-day summit held in January 2023 in Dakar, Senegal, where representatives of various African governments, the private sector, multilateral organizations, NGOs and scientists met to discuss pressing food issues on the continent. Rates of undernourishment in sub-Saharan Africa are roughly at the same levels since 2005 figures, jumping after the COVID-19 pandemic, while a rapidly growing population is putting more pressure of food resources and production.

To address these challenges, the AfDB published agricultural development plans for 40 countries, known as country compacts, which are made up of concrete national policies, incentives and regulations to boost investments across the agricultural sector. Most of this financing would come from national governments and private sector partners, including seed companies, food giants such as Nestlé and Kellogg’s, as well as funds from the AfDB itself, amounting to $1.7 billion in 2022. This initiative is the latest itineration of big industrial agriculture solutions in Africa, which have a track record of failing on their own terms.

AFSA analyzed each of the 40 country compacts and summarized the proposed plans in its new report, some of which include the expansion of large-scale monocropping and the establishment of formal certified seed systems. These have elicited strong opposition from farmers’ organizations, which have raised concerns about the potential costs of a transition that emphasizes high-yielding, uniform crop varieties and promotes the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

“This initiative contradicts the needs of farmers, as today, we are actively involved in an agroecological transition,” said Ndiakhate Fall, coordinator of the Senegal National Council for Consultation and Rural Cooperation (CNCR) and a member of La Via Campesina, the global movement of small farmers. “This transition entails both reducing and abandoning the use of chemical inputs, along with implementing strategies for diversifying production.”

Crop distribution in the Congo Basin

The AfDB has called for 25.7 million hectares (63.5 million acres) of land — an area larger than Senegal — to be converted for agricultural production across 23 countries. AFSA says that this land, which the AfDB considers underutilized but useful for maize, rice and soy monocrops, is already being cultivated or used by local farmers, herders or other rural producers, and that the plan threatens to dispossess these smallholders of their land.

“They call it development, but it’s land grabbing,” said Hakim Baliraine, the AFSA chair and head of the Eastern and Southern Africa Small Scale Farmers Forum (ESAFF). “We’re being pushed aside for an agriculture that doesn’t fit us; doesn’t respect the biodiversity we’ve nurtured for so long. It’s not just our farms at risk; it’s our heritage, our culture.”

In the Congo Basin, home to the world’s second-largest expanse of tropical rainforest, more than 5 million hectares (12 million acres) of land is being targeted for agroindustrialization — an area around twice the size of Rwanda — AFSA reports. In addition to threatening millions of land users with displacement, this could also accelerate climate change, said Ange-David Baïmey, head of the Africa program at GRAIN, an international NGO that advocates for sustainable agriculture. These rainforests hold huge amounts of carbon dioxide, and clearing them for farmland would release this greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, he told Mongabay.

“While the initiative seeks to transform African agriculture, its current approach risks exacerbating existing challenges faced by small-scale farmers such as access to resources, land rights, market access, cultural and biodiversity loss, increased dependency on external inputs, and environmental sustainability,” Million Belay, general coordinator of AFSA, told Mongabay.

AFSA is instead calling on the African Development Bank to reevaluate its approach to ensure plans are inclusive, sustainable and tailored to the specific needs of diverse African countries and their small-scale farmers. It advocates for a shift toward agroecology to meet the continent’s nutritional needs, emphasizing the importance of sustainable agriculture and the protection of land rights.

The African Development Bank didn’t respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment.


Banner image: Kouanda Issiaka watering his mango plantation for extra income in Boromo, Burkina Faso. Image by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Agroecology holds promise in Congo Basin — if funding woes can be overcome

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