11.06.2020 |

Report calls for shift to agroecological research in Africa

Farmers, extension workers and researchers in Mozambique (Photo: Julio Onofre Rainde,,

Only a fraction of agricultural research funding in Africa is being used to support sustainable agricultural practices, while the majority of funding still goes to industrial agriculture. This is the message of a new report published by Biovision, IPES-Food and the Institute of Development Studies on June 10. The authors argue that around the world, farms, communities and regions are engaging in agroecological transitions, and delivering impressive results. Agroecology combines different plants and animals, and uses natural synergies – not synthetic chemicals – to regenerate soils, fertilize crops, and fight pests. The report estimates that around 30% of farms worldwide have redesigned their production systems around agroecological principles. However, this has not yet translated into a meaningful shift in funding flows that go to sub-Saharan Africa. Investments by philanthropic foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and major donor countries still reinforce the status quo in agricultural research, the report finds. “Most governments, both in developing and developed countries still favour ‘green revolution’ approaches, with the belief that industrial agriculture is the only way to produce sufficient food,” said Biovision president Hans Herren. “The same goes for the Gates Foundation and its development agency AGRA. But these approaches have failed. They have failed ecosystems, farming communities, and an entire continent,” Herren added.

The report found that as many as 85% of projects funded by the Gates Foundation, the world’s biggest philanthropic investor in agri-development, are limited to developing industrial agriculture, or increasing its efficiency. This was via targeted approaches such as more efficient use of water, pesticides, livestock vaccines, fertilisers or reductions in postharvest losses. Only 3% of Gates-funded projects in Africa included elements of agroecosystem redesign. In Kenya, one of Africa’s leading recipients of agricultural research money, more than 70% of projects carried out by research institutes were limited to supporting industrial agriculture and/or increasing its efficiency. “A Green Revolution narrative dominates in Kenya, leading to an emphasis on efficiency and markets rather than ecological sustainability, equity and well-being,” according to the report. But at least 13% of projects by Kenyan research institutes are agroecological and another 13% focus on replacing synthetic inputs with organic alternatives. The good news is that 51% of Swiss-funded agricultural research projects had agroecological components, and 41% of those projects also included aspects of socioeconomic and political change like decent working conditions and gender equality. Only 13% of the projects funded by the Swiss focused only on industrial agriculture and efficiency-based approaches. But there is still much room for improvement because even the better-performing Swiss programmes lacked truly systemic approaches. The authors highlight that individual components of agroecology (e.g. agroforestry, complex crop rotations) tended to be addressed in isolation.

The report calls for a meaningful shift in funding flows and argues that change can’t come soon enough. “With the compound challenges of climate change, pressure on land and water, food-induced health problems and pandemics such as COVID, we need change now. And this starts with money flowing into agroecology,” says Herren. This view is supported by Olivia Yambi, co-chair of IPES-Food, an independent expert panel that works towards the transition to sustainable food systems worldwide. “We need to change funding flows and unequal power relations. It’s clear that in Africa as elsewhere, vested interests are propping up agricultural practices based on an obsession with technological fixes that is damaging soils and livelihoods, and creating a dependency on the world’s biggest agri-businesses. Agroecology offers a way out of that vicious cycle,” Yambi said.

The report also includes a series of recommendations for bilateral donors, philanthropic funders and scientific research institutes which want to advance agroecological research in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. The first recommendation is to focus on operational elements of agroecology as a first step in a well-sequenced strategy for transformation. The authors recommend a focus on core practices and principles (e.g. closing natural resource cycles, agroforestry, inter-cropping and crop rotation, push-pull technology, system of rice intensification) to introduce agroecology to new actors. They call on donors to shift towards long-term, pooled funding models; including the removal of obstacles to funding subsequent phases of the same project or programme. The authors stress the need to co-design projects with farmers and communities and increase the share of funding going to African organisations. “Support the development and functioning of bottom-up alliances with the involvement and ownership of farmers’ groups, researchers, NGOs and social movements; use these alliances as a key partner in knowledge generation and sharing,” they write in the executive summary. Another recommendation is to introduce agroecology to research and training institutes by developing agroecological curricula at colleges and universities and launch a network of decentralised centres of excellence on agroecology in sub-Saharan Africa. (ab)

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