In Kenya, where he works with small farmers, Daniel Maingi “failed miserably” in his attempts to connect with agricultural organizations funded by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
So he and fellow African activists from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and Ethiopia are bringing their message to Seattle, headquarters of the world’s richest philanthropy. At a Town Hall event Sunday, The Global Struggle for Food Sovereignty, they will argue that the foundation’s push for a “Green Revolution” in Africa is a flawed attempt to impose industrial agriculture at the expense of more ecologically sound approaches to farming.
Some of the visitors, including Maingi, will meet with staff at the Gates Foundation. But it won’t be the high-level gathering he had hoped for.
“At least we tried,” Maingi said.
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The Gates Foundation spends nearly $400 million a year on programs to improve production and income for African farmers. Since 2006, the foundation has funneled nearly $420 million to its flagship agricultural initiative, a collaboration called the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, or AGRA.
But the foundation’s outsized spending and influence have raised concerns in Africa, just as some American educators have become alarmed over the foundation’s influence on the U.S. education system.
“It’s important that these voices be heard,” said Heather Day, of Seattle-based AGRA Watch/Community Alliance for Global Justice, an organizer of the Town Hall event and a five-day summit between African and American organizations seeking to persuade the Gates Foundation to change course.
While the goal of helping African farmers is laudable, the “Green Revolution” approach is based on Western-style agriculture, with its reliance on fertilizer, weed killers and single crops, such as corn, Maingi said.
But much of Africa is so dry that it’s not suited for thirsty crops, and heavy use of fertilizer kills worms and microbes important for soil health. “The model of farming in the West is not appropriate for farming in most of Africa,” Maingi said.
Maingi’s organization, Growth Partners Africa, works with farmers to enrich the soil with manure and other organic material, to use less water and to grow a variety of crops, including some that would be considered weeds on an industrial farm.
As the use of chemical fertilizers has soared in Africa, many farmers have seen increased yields. But a recent analysis in Malawi found the cost of fertilizer was so high that farmers actually lost money.
Many countries are subsidizing farmers to buy fertilizer, said Mariam Mayet, of the African Centre for Biosafety in South Africa. But that takes money away from public crop-breeding programs that provide improved seeds to farmers at low cost.
“It’s a system designed to benefit agribusinesses and not small-scale farmers,” Mayet said.
Gates Foundation press secretary Chris Williams said in an email that the organization does focus on improving traditional crops like cassava, sorghum and millet, and that most of the new varieties are being developed by government scientists, not corporations.
“We think that farmers should be able to choose the seeds they want to use, whether those are saved seeds or the newest hybrids,” Williams wrote. “Our goal is to give them a range of options.”
But so many institutions, from African governments to the World Bank, have embraced the “Green Revolution” that alternative farming methods are getting short shrift, Mayet said.
Elizabeth Mpofu, of La Via Campesina, grows a variety of crops in Zimbabwe. During a recent drought, neighbors who relied on chemical fertilizer lost most of their crops, while she reaped a bounty of sorghum, corn and millet using what are called agroecological methods — natural pest control, organic fertilizer and locally adapted crops.
If she had 10 minutes with Bill Gates, Mpofu said, she would tell him about her farm and the power of agroecology.
“Maybe because we are a group from Africa, we can leave them with some new thinking,” she said, “some ideas for reviewing the way they work.”
Sandi Doughton at: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org