Sunday, February 14, 2010

There's a lot of talk these days about the need for a new Green Revolution, especially in Africa. Behind this talk, there is often the assumption that the original Green Revolution was an unmixed blessing, which it was not. Countries most profoundly affected by the revolution saw land ownership patterns change to the extent that small farmers almost disappeared and small farming became uneconomic for most. Farming become more intensive, with devastating environmental impacts, it became more mechanized, generally more expensive and less scalable.

Some countries in Africa did experience some of the excesses of the revolution, though you wouldn't always think that when you read about the phenomenon. So now there is AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa. This is funded by some of the funders of the original revolution, a number of prominent philanthropists that includes Bill Gates and several powerful international institutions. Again, the assumption is that such an initiative is an unmixed blessing.

Kenya has a number of problems at the moment relating to land ownership. There are pressures for the number of people owning land to go down and the amount of land each owner owns to go up. One of these pressures comes from the many countries and institutions that want to invest in African land to grow food for themselves. Another pressure comes from those who want to exploit cheap African land and labour for biofuels. And a third pressure comes from the desire of biotech companies to spread their genetically modified crops (GMO).

All these pressures go to exacerbate the already serious problem of food shortages that millions of Kenyans face every year. The new green revolution, the 'opportunity' to grow GMOs, the great foreign direct investment (FDI) that is being 'injected' into the country, all these incursions on the country's food sovereignty are being presented as a chance for Kenya and other African countries to reverse their fortunes.

What most Kenyans know and what most of the people hawking these 'solutions' wish to ignore is that hungry people need food. Those interested in investing in Kenyan land are not coming here to provide people with food, they want to grow food to export it to the highest bidder. Biofuels are being produced for the Western market. GMOs are not a gift, except in the Trojan Horse sense. Once people grow GMOs, they are effectively working for the multinational that produces the seed, fertilizer and pesticides that all necessarily go together.

Kenyans need to produce their own food and the only way that can be done is if the millions of people who own or rent small farms, the vast majority of Kenyans, are enabled to do that better. They need access to information, skills, tools and techniques that will benefit them as small farmers. They need to reduce their dependence on rain fed agriculture by availing of some of the many irrigation and water harvesting techniques. They need to grow more varieties of crop, rather than depending on a few non-indigenous staples, such as maize.

Malawi has been praised for its 'green revolution' but things are not so straightforward there. As in Kenya, people there still need better access to land and to more land. They need to reduce their dependence on imported fertilizers and adopt some organic methods. Countries like Malawi and Kenya simply dump tonnes of organic waste every year that could provide better sustenance to their crops than the artificial fertilizer that requires much more water than is readily available and eventually poisons the soil and water table.

People here have been promised so much, they have been promised massive production levels, copious foreign markets and great wealth. These things have been promised for decades and yet all Africans have seen is greater poverty, starvation and dependence. Whatever will result in food security in Africa, it will need to arise in Africa. None of the many foreign initiatives have ever resulted in Africans being better off, probably none ever will. The sooner people see this, the better.



Tamaku said...

I hear you, we're trying to buy a farm but the cost of land is prohibitive. Even in the semi-arid areas (most of Kenya is) the menace of land grabbing has pushed prices up to unrealistic levels. This feels like Brazil all over and all I want (like so many) is just a patch on which to grow food for local consumption.

Simon said...

Hi Tamaku, yes, buying is really prohibitive, but when you think of it, huge tracts of land are owned by a few people, many of them not even Kenyan. It would be an interesting study to find out how much of the arable land in Kenya is owned by a handful of millionaires. Certainly, much of the land between Nakuru and Nairobi is owned by one fairly controversial English person who has a fondness for shooting members of his community!

We have been renting and it's relatively cheap. But when it comes to buying we may need to compromise a lot. I hope you manage to get something, even something small, it's quite a blessing in a country where you can grow between two and four crops a year.
All the best

Border Jumpers said...

Just an FYI, wanted to share a blog we did today (please feel free to cross-post) about our travels in Lilongwe, Malawi. We blog everyday from all over Africa at a website call Border Jumpers ( and for the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet (

Here is the link: "1,000 Words About Malawi"

All OUR best, Bernard Pollack and Danielle Nierenberg