AGRA Sets the Record Straight

Danielle with Joe DeVries after their meeting in Nairobi

Danielle with Joe DeVries after their meeting in Nairobi

This is the second of a three-part series about our visit to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and AGRA grantees in Kenya.

“Read our lips,” said Joe DeVries, near the end of our conversation with him in his office at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). “We are not promoting or funding research for GMOs (genetically modified organisms).”

Dr. DeVries, the Director of AGRA’s Program for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS), was responding to our question about how his organization deals with criticism from environmentalists. It was one of many questions we asked him during a lively discussion on the 5th floor of AGRA’s headquarters.

DeVries has worked in Africa most of his professional life and has some pretty strong opinions on the future of agriculture on the continent. Part of his job, he says, is to demystify food insecurity as an “African problem.” He noted that every continent has a food crisis over the last hundred years. And either they overcame the problem—or, in his words, “hit the wall.”

He reminded us that Africa’s food insecurity problem is not just a problem for Africa, but “worrisome for the whole world.” DeVries said that Africa is now suffering the results—child malnutrition, maternal deaths, and famine—of not having a green revolution (the term used to describe the increase in food production in Asia in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of increased inputs, such as fertilizer, and hybrid crops.) “Somebody has to step forward and take Africa on that path.” That “somebody,” DeVries believes, is AGRA.

Seeds are likely the most important component of AGRA’s mission. Why seeds? According to DeVries, seeds are not unlike computers—“they serve as the operating system for the whole farm, showing farmers what can be better on the farm.” If farmers get their hands on “better,” or hybrid, seed, he says, they’re more likely to buy and use fertilizer to propagate those seed because they know they’ll get “more bang for the buck.”

While many food advocates are concerned about the encroachment of transnational agribusiness into Africa, DeVries stresses that AGRA is focusing on breeding hybrid seeds locally, a departure from the first green revolution. “They have to be bred here,” he said, and noted that it’s no more expensive to develop seeds “in house,” or in country, than getting them from neighboring countries. Breeding “in house” also has the added benefit of being able to customize hybrids specifically to local growing conditions and climate. “Farmers are poor,” says DeVries, “because they don’t have hybrid seed.”

Getting seed to the farmers is also something AGRA is taking on by building the private sector for inputs and outputs in Africa. AGRA is investing in three or four seed companies in every country where they are working and this helps to both increase competition and lower prices. And as we mentioned yesterday in our first blog about AGRA, the organization is building a network of small agro-dealers to help minimize the distance farmers travel to get seed or fertilizer, while also training the agro-dealers to act as extension officers, training the farmers they sell to. Again, this can be considered an improvement on what occurred during the first green revolution when things were more top-down.

DeVries, critics of AGRA might be surprised to hear, considers himself an environmentalist. And he agrees that mistakes were made during the Green Revolution in Asia: “We have seen the excesses of the Green Revolution and they haunt our memories,” he confided. He says that there’s no question that if AGRA is successful in creating a Green Revolution in Africa that agricultural biodiversity will be diminished and while AGRA is not currently investing in collecting and preserving biodiversity, it is something they hope to do in the future.

I left the meeting amazed, again, by AGRA’s candor, but still skeptical regarding the completeness of their formula to save Africa from continued hunger and poverty. Are seeds, fertilizer, and the strengthening of the private market enough? I don’t know, but I’ll look forward to learning more about AGRA’s work when we visit projects they’re funding next week and later on in the trip. Stay tuned.

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