New book says farm input subsidies deepen poverty

Saturday November 23 2019

Irrigation in Nakuru County. Irrigation is one of the most effective inputs in any agricultural system. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Hundreds of billions of dollars spent on fertiliser and hybrid seed subsidies by Kenya and other African countries over the past few years have gone down the drain, a new book argues.

In 2006, the Gates Foundation joined the Rockefeller Foundation to launch the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), an ambitious programme that saw multinationals get billions of dollars to subsidise synthetic fertiliser and hybrid seeds that were seen as a panacea for the region’s underproduction.

But US academic Tim Wise writes, in Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers and the Battle for the Future of Food, published this year by The New Press, New York, that the fertiliser subsidy is a classic high-input treadmill that keeps the people and their governments running without getting anywhere.

The scholar’s verdict that there is little evidence of any green revolution coming to Africa more than 10 years after Agra is likely to kick up a storm in agriculture and development circles.

“Even on its own flawed terms, Agra was failing in its 13 chosen countries. With the clearly stated goals of doubling productivity and incomes for 30 million African farm households by 2020, there was little sign the well-funded initiative would come close to meeting either of those objectives.”



Wise writes that between 2006 and 2014, more than halfway into the Agra initiatives, yields had increased slowly — just 38 per cent for maize, 22 for rice, 23 per cent for wheat and nine per cent for cassava.

Overall, cereal production increased only 33 per cent over the eight-year period. This wasn’t enough to factor for inflation.

Production had also grown often not from productivity gains, but from bringing new land into crop production.

The book argues that the farm inputs subsidy programmes amounted to subsidising the multinational seed giants and that the high dependency on fertiliser subsidies was no different from dependency on food imports.

Wise says even where yields increased, they soon stagnated after soils were depleted and often rarely generated the prosperity to sustain commercial fertiliser purchases without subsidies.

“Nigeria and Kenya, two of Agra’s top five maize producers, saw declining yields, while a third, Tanzania, saw annual yield growth of just one per cent,” writes Wise, who did extensive research in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.

The book comes on the back of a Nation study that found most of Kenya’s soils were too sick to sustain any meaningful agriculture and that increased fertiliser use had only raised acidity.


Kenyan farmers produce a third of maize harvested by their Chinese counterparts and a fifth of US yields on comparable land.

He says by subsidising big multinationals such as Monsanto and Yara, the agribusiness giants had gained inordinate power to dictate the terms of trade, the high prices farmers must pay for their inputs and the low prices they can get for their crops.

In some of the countries covered by the ‘revolution’, such as Malawi, multinationals went as far as writing self-serving national policies that outlawed farmers’ savings and exchange of seeds to impose a regimen of high-cost purchased seeds on poor farmers.

Absurdly, some of these laws ‘limit’ farmer-saved seeds to grain and not seeds to grow.

With money flowing in, politicians see patronage through the subsidy programme and are fixated on the hybrid seeds, which have to be purchased every year.

With this, soil-friendly practices that would have produced richer, diversified foods are pushed to the back burner.


But the subsidy programme spawned even greater damage. In countries like Zambia, where Agra registered some success, production had grown, not from productivity gains, but from bringing new land into maize production.

The subsidies pulled land out of drought-tolerant and nutritious crops such as millet and sorghum, which reduced diet diversity and undermined crop diversity and climate resilience.

In Zambia, for instance, between 2004 and 2014, the land under maize grew by 77 per cent even as that under millet fell by 40 per cent and sorghum 47 per cent.

As this went on, Wise notes, poverty persisted, prompting him to suggest that the country’s policies seemed more like “poverty enhancement” programmes, seeing as the input support programme and the Food Reserve Agency consume 98 per cent of the government’s budget for poverty reduction.

“In Zambia, a mind-boggling 78 per cent of small-scale farmers are estimated to be in extreme poverty, living below the $1.25 a day.”

But why had things gone so wrong? Why was performance lacklustre when fertiliser use was massive?

Why were rural poverty rates so appalling in a country that’s considered a green-revolution success story like Zambia?


Wise’s thesis is that seed and fertiliser were distributed with no attention to the actual condition of the soils.

That the standard compound of nitrogen, potassium and phosphate was the wrong mix for most farms.

“It was easy to see that farmers and consumers weren’t the main beneficiaries of Zambia’s “poverty reduction” programmes in agriculture. As far as I could tell, the winners were commercial farmers with land, large millers multinational and national input suppliers,” he concludes.

Wise also contends that unlike the technology-led campaign that brought Asian and Latin American countries into high-yield agriculture in the 1960s and 1970s, Africa’s ‘revolution’ package did not have other important components like irrigation.

Yet a reliable supply of water was critical to the success of the seed and fertiliser package in Asia, with India becoming the world leader in local tube-well irrigation with generous support from international donors.

“By recent accounts, irrigation (not seeds or fertiliser) was the input most responsible for the yield increases in wheat and rice. Sure, the improved seeds responded to fertiliser — they were bred to do just that — but they needed water to thrive,” Wise notes.


Irrigation is one of the most effective inputs in any agricultural system.

The effect of reliable supply of water in Africa, which is hard-hit by prolonged droughts, is particularly life-changing.

The Agra package also left out key features such as infrastructure, credit and marketing support, prompting Wise to bemoan what he calls the monoculture of the mind where “agriculture is reduced to isolated problems of one nutrient such as nitrogen, one seed such as hybrid maize, even one gene with one genetically modified seed”.

A member of a growing army of agroecology crusaders, Wise directs the Land and Food Rights Programme at Small Planet Institute.

He also headed the Research and Policy Programme at Tufts University's Global Development and Environment Institute.

Even though Eating Tomorrow is packed with data, it is accessible, rendered in the traditional journalistic manner that speaks to mass audience.

The smallholder African farmer, who even in the daunting environment that faces her, still produces 80 per cent of the food consumed on the continent, as well as anyone interested in the urgent question of the future of food, will find the book intriguing.

It will, however, not be music to the ears of the African Green Revolution Forum bosses who crow that the initiative is the “world’s most important and impactful forum for African agriculture”.

Mr Sigei is Nation Media Group’s Agriculture editor.