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Green Revolution for Africa�s Sustainable Development: Renewed Interest or Paradigm Shift?

Ghelawdewos Araia

October 4, 2010

The concept of green revolution is not nascent to Africa, but African leaders were not able to successfully implement its objectives, nor consistently follow the parameters of the Revolution. When Africans gathered in Ghana on September 4, 2010 to once again talk about the priority of agriculture for development, it is indeed a promising endeavor and initiative by the respective African ministers and the plethora of experts in the field of agriculture.

However, the Ghana conference labeled �Forum on Green Revolution� was prompted by the food crisis in Africa, which is altogether reactive and not proactive. On top of this, Africans are still not addressing the real causes for the food crisis, poverty, famine, and underdevelopment in most part of the continent.

If the recent African conference is only a renewed interest in green revolution of the 1960s and not a paradigm shift in agriculture for sustainable development, then Africa will not break the cycle of poverty once and for all. If, on the other hand, it is a genuine paradigm shift Africa will not only make overall progress in development, but it may also conquer famine in some pockets of the continent, ensure sustainable development, and may even witness the emergence of economically powerful countries in most part of the continent. The precondition for the latter rosy scenario, however, is correct economic and development policies in general and agricultural development focused on food crop in particular, and this is the central theme of this paper.

In June 2002, African ministers of agriculture met in FAO headquarters in Rome in an effort to get a blessing by the global community to the joint FAO/NEPAD initiative known as Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). This conference was a follow up of the Cairo conference of February 2002, in which the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) was discussed and FAO pledged its support. One year after the Cairo conference, African leaders agreed to dedicate 10% of their national budget to agriculture, and in 2006 a reinforcing joint program known as Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was initiated by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Foundation.  In 2008, �59 governments published a report, drawn up by four hundred agronomists. The International Assessment of Agriculture Science and Technology for Development was promoting agro-ecology, an agronomy that relies on ecological processes and support for food crops.�1   

However, the question remains. Are African ministers of agriculture simply reassessing the past or are they coming up with a totally different agenda that can uplift the continent from its current malaise? It has become a dominant framework of thinking and a standard practice in the last decade and half for Africans to describe the problem of food crisis, but they are not quite sure when it comes to offering a permanent solution to Africa�s problems in agricultural development.

In order to further understand the above concerns, we must first discuss the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). In its Executive Summary, NEPAD�s CAADP �areas of primary action� include: 1) extending the area under sustainable land management and reliable water control system; 2) improving rural infrastructure and trade-related capacities for market access; 3) increasing food supply and reducing hunger; and 4) agricultural research, technology dissemination and adoption.

By and large, NEPAD is on the right track with its primary actions, but for the sake of Africa�s success in the overall development agenda, the shortcomings should also be examined. In the first area of action, for instance, the �low nutrient� of Africa�s soil compared to Asia is mentioned, but what can be done to correct the problem is not discussed. Moreover, generalizing Africa�s soil as �low nutrient� is misleading, for there are also high nutrient and alluvial soils such as that of Ethiopia. In point of fact, three million tons of fertile soil that comes from Ethiopia with the Blue Nile is dumped every year into the Aswan Dam of Egypt. Similarly, in the second area of action, i.e. improving rural infrastructure, the significance of roads, storage, and market etc. are suggested but these have been raised several times in the past. What should be discussed is why Africa still encounters poor infrastructure and what it can do to overcome this critical problem, which indeed is a prerequisite to Africa�s development. Moreover, instead of simply comparing Africa with Latin America and Asia, it would be more prudent to come up with comprehensive development program in industry and agriculture, and the primacy of infrastructure, as a matter of course, will have a place in the holistic development agenda.

Increasing food supplies, the third area of action of NEPAD, is central to CAADP, and in this area it is argued, �Improved farm support services, pilot projects targeted at poor communities and a supportive policy environment.�2   However, it is not discussed how those recommendations are going to be accomplished. In the fourth area of action, i.e. agricultural research, technology dissemination and adoption, the main focus is on research and development (R&D) and information technology (IT), but technology transfer and dissemination of information pertinent to development had been Africa�s negative encounter. During the colonial period, the former imperialist powers transferred very negligible technology, left the bulk of Africa intact as a peasant/traditional society, and in light of overall historical capitalist development the market economy was unable to expand in the continent. In other words, the universal applicability of capitalism has ignominiously failed in Africa during the colonial period, but even after most of Africa became independent in the 1960s, the majority of African nations did not attain an admirable economic progress.

NEPAD estimated a budget of US $ 251 billion for the four areas of action beginning 2002 and ending 2015, the due date for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, the question again remains. Where are the finances going to come from? African leaders in general and NEPAD leaders in particular have been going all over, including the world economic forum in Davos, to ask for financial aid. Is development based on dependence going to be successful? And even if the donor nations are willing to extend help, their aid packages necessarily include high interest rates that in fact made Africa a debtor continent, and as a result it was unable to break the cycle of poverty.

African leaders must seriously consider or rethink aid-dependent development, which is contradiction in terms, and to be sure dependency would negate the continent the possibility of standing on a solid ground of development. It is understandable that sometimes, given historical circumstances, reality sets in and at this juncture the continent indeed needs external assistance but if the latter is designed to ensnare Africa or hamper its development, as I have argued elsewhere, Africa must be left alone and find its way independently.

In Chapter I of NEPAD�s comprehensive agricultural development, it is stated, �agriculture-led development is fundamental to cutting hunger, reducing poverty, generating economic growth, reducing the burden of food imports and opening the way to expansion of exports.� This may very well be! But, we must ask what kind of agriculture and who owns what? On top of these questions, the typology of governance also plays a pivotal role. The latter, in fact, is the crux of the matter in development and NEPAD indeed addresses the significance of good governance in the same chapter. The importance of food crop as opposed to cash crop is also addressed; it is only the property ownership or access to capital that is not clearly extrapolated.

The food crop-cash crop nexus is most often unnecessarily dichotomized and diluted, but African policy makers can actually consider both crops, with priority to food crop. Heavy emphasis on cash crop and neglecting food crop could have a far-reaching negative consequence on African societies, including the recurrence of pestilence and famine. The 1973 Sahel famine in West Africa, for instance, was engendered by the predominance of cash crop (initiated by the former colonial powers and later continued by African leaders) like cocoa and cotton as opposed to food crops such as cassava, yam, and rice. Likewise recurring famines in Ethiopia were caused by lack of ecological balance and lack of agro-ecological production system that has now become the theme of the Ghana conference. On top of these problems, however, the present famine in Ethiopia is definitely caused by the heavy emphasis of traditional cash crops such as coffee and sesame and now coupled by other cash crops like flowers, eggplants, strawberries, and mushrooms. The latter three cash crops, though edible, are not part of the Ethiopian staple food system; they are farmed and harvested, along with flowers and coffee, for the sole purpose of earning foreign currency. The Ethiopian cash-crop frenzy could result in yet another major famine nightmare.

The intention of NEPAD and Africa�s ministers of agriculture is well taken. Without resolving the problem of ownership, however, talk of agricultural development, halving poverty, and reducing (or eliminating) hunger could be meaningless. Three decades ago Susan George, in her book How The Other Half Dies: The Real Reason for World Hunger, critically examined the world food controlled by international agribusiness vis-�-vis a starving multitude in the Third World. Ironically, the new wave of agribusiness, this time representing countries/states and/or companies such as Saudi Arabia and India, have been accorded vast tracts of farm lands in Ethiopia for food crop production to either feed their people or sell the produce at international market.

Amartya Sen�s rationale �lack of access to food as the main cause of famine� rather than drought or natural calamities still holds water, especially if we see it in the context of the condition of the rich and the poor in respective African countries. Access to food and ownership of the means of production do not necessarily entail ideological affiliation as it was falsely assumed during the heyday of socialist movements and rule in some countries around the world. The socialists then blamed capitalism as the cause for poverty and hunger in a stratified class society or sharply differentiated socioeconomic systems. The paradox, however, was that millions of people starved to death under Stalin in the Soviet Union and under Mao in China.

In the final analysis, although the nature and characteristics of political systems contribute to poverty or prosperity, it is the productive capacity of the system that matters. One of the success of the market economy or the triumph of capitalism is mass production and the bounty of worldly goods including food that people can have access to. It is for this apparent reason that we may have hungry and poverty-stricken people but not widespread famines in capitalist nations.

Outside the capitalist West, India, which was once known as land of famine in the 1960s, has managed to overcome mass starvation by its overall production capacity and its success in the first green revolution. Same logic applies to China, which also managed to uplift more than 400 million people out of poverty. Both nations have successfully overcome famine and ameliorated the condition of their people.  

My contention of accessibility to food is clearly corroborated by the Rockefeller Foundation in its support of AGRA in �four interrelated areas of activity�:

Improving access to more resilient seeds that produce higher and more stable yields

 Promoting soil health and productivity

 Building more efficient local, national and regional agriculture markets

 Promoting improved policies and building partnerships to develop the technological and institutional changes needed to receive a Green Revolution.3 

Furthermore, the Rockefeller Foundation argues, �If better seeds could reach this farmer, along with techniques for using them effectively, the inefficiency and risk of food shortages could be reduced or eliminated. In time, the farm could be converted from subsistence to surplus, with the additional harvest available for sale, locally or regionally.�4

In very simple terms, the Rockefeller Foundation statement corresponds to my food accessibility thesis, but access to food by the poor can be guaranteed only if the development of agriculture in Africa is sustainable. Eight years ago, I wrote on sustainable international development (SID) with respect to its philosophical connotation and practical policy implications and this is what I have argued in part: �Sustainable development cannot be realized without a multidisciplinary approach and a multivariate analysis of the various attributes such as ecological process, biological diversity, human population and their needs, renewable and non-renewable resources, and global re-distributive justice etc. Sustainability�requires practical constructive engagement and the above mentioned attributes couldn�t be meaningfully addressed and dealt with unless 1) political systems exhibit commitment to enhance citizen participation in decision-making (this also entails accountability and transparency); 2) economic systems generate surpluses and technical know-how on a sustained basis (by extension, this must foster human development index � HDI); 3) social systems provide mechanisms to resolve conflicts that may arise as a result of development ; 4) production systems preserve the environment or the ecological base for development; 5) technological systems keep up new devices that are environmentally friendly; 6) international systems promote sustainable patterns of trade, finance, and development that are deliberately geared toward reducing, if not eliminating hunger and poverty.5      

The other important component that African leaders must seriously consider is education. Time and again, the Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA) posted several articles on its website pertaining to the input of education to development and vice versa. Without education, sustainable development is going to be minimal and Africa�s development progress could be constrained in many ways, if not completely falter or come to a standstill.  �And because I am an educator by profession, I strongly believe that education and training are central to sustainable development. In fact, education could be an indispensable requirement for a SID program. Put simply, technological input and agro-industrial development couldn�t take place without a professional skilled manpower, and no ecological insights (environmental consciousness) can be instilled into the population  (e.g. farmers) that are directly engaged in sustainable projects unless there is mass education such as adult and literacy programs. In the long run, we may seriously consider the Schumacher legacy were �an international center for studies informed by ecological and spiritual values� is pigeonholed into the curriculum of SID. In this context, the best example of a success story is Japan, a country that managed to eliminate hunger through sustainable food security that is the direct result of economic development and environmental protection.�6

The contribution of education to development that I have discussed above is in line with the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UNDESD), and the latter, �as defined by UNESCO, is not merely a synonym for environmental education. Rather, it is the educational process of accomplishing sustainable human development � including human growth, social development and environmental protection � in an equitable manner. Thus, educational programs for sustainable development may include both formal and informal initiatives for poverty alleviation, human rights, gender equity, cultural diversity, international understanding, and peace.�7 

The Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA) strives to incorporate not only the key concepts of development education into the corpus of the green revolution for Africa, but it also endeavors to make further studies on comprehensive African development agenda that could genuinely uplift the continent from poverty in the 21st century. One major problem that IDEA encountered, however, is financial hardship that virtually impeded its research and development (RD) programs. IDEA appealed to many American philanthropist organizations and foundations, but none of them were forthcoming. Foundations and development-oriented agencies like the World Bank deal with governments and ignore institutions for the most part, but by supporting non-profit institutions like IDEA they could have further promoted the mission and objectives of the Green Revolution for Africa in particular and the Millennium Development Goals in general.

For instance, on September 30, 2010, the World Bank�s press release entitled �Improving Food Security in Ethiopia through Agricultural Growth,� stated that the Bank�s �Executive Directors�approved funding of US$150 million (US$108.4 million as credit and the remaining US41.6 million as grant) to the Government of Ethiopia to support increased agricultural productivity and enhanced market access for key crop and livestock products, and improved food security.�8

We at IDEA commend the World Bank�s support to Ethiopia, but we also like to use this opportunity to convey a message to the Bank, Foundations, development agencies, NGOs, and philanthropy, to also support research, development, and educational institutions so that the Green Revolution for Africa could be implemented successfully. Institutions at respective African universities and non-profit institutions operating on the ground in Africa or researching from outside the continent must be supported so that they can fulfill the African dream of green revolution in the 21st century. The world development agencies including the various UN specialized agencies, the Bretton Woods Institutions, USAID, Swedish, Finnish, and Canadian development agencies must either contract out some of their field projects to independent institutions or generously support the latter in their contribution toward the realization of the African Green Revolution. 


  1. Afrique Avenir, The Green Revolution: As a means of protecting African subsistence farming, www.afriqueavenir.org, September 7, 2010
  2. Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme, Executive Summary, p. 3
  3. Rockefeller Foundation, Strengthening Food Security: Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), www.rockefellerfoundation.org, pp. 1-2
  4. Rockefeller Foundation, Africa�s Turn: A New Green Revolution for the 21st Century, July 2006
  5. Ghelawdewos Araia, African Education and Sustainable Development, www.africanidea.org/african_education2.html, September 6, 2005
  6. Ghelawdewos Araia, African Education and Sustainable Development, Ibid, p.3
  7. Teachers College, Columbia University, �Education for Sustainable Development: Change and Challenges,� Current Issues in Comparative Education, Volume 7, Number 2, April 2005
  8. World Bank, Improving Food Security and Livelihood in Ethiopia through Agricultural Growth, Press Release No: 2011/AFR/113, September 30, 2010
All Rights Reserved. Copyright � IDEA, Inc. 2010. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for constructive and educational feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org