Investing in agriculture to reduce poverty and hunger
Poverty and hunger in Africa are inextricably linked to the plight of smallholder farmers, who produce most of the continent’s food but struggle with unproductive soil, unreliable water supplies, low-quality seeds, and scarce markets for their crops.
Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was founded in 2006 on the belief that investing in agriculture is the surest path to reducing poverty and hunger in Africa. It works across the continent to help millions of smallholder farmers—who make up 70 percent of Africa’s population—boost their farm productivity and incomes.
AGRA has supported more than 400 projects, including efforts to develop and deliver better seeds, increase farm yields, improve soil fertility, upgrade storage facilities, improve market information systems, strengthen farmers’ associations, expand access to credit for farmers and small suppliers, and advocate for national policies that benefit smallholder farmers.
AGRA aims to play a central role in transforming the agricultural sector in Africa and its food system—in a way that is tailored to conditions in Africa and places a strong emphasis on safeguarding the environment. To that end, AGRA is building an alliance of partners—including farmers and their organizations, governments, agricultural research organizations, the private sector, local nongovernmental organizations, and civil society—to significantly and sustainably improve the productivity and incomes of smallholder farmers, many of whom are women.
AGRA’s Origins and Approach
Inspired by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s call for a uniquely African “green revolution” to improve smallholder farm productivity while preserving the environment, AGRA was founded through a partnership between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It has since expanded its donor base to include governments as well as other international organizations.
AGRA is an independent organization based in Africa and led by Africans. Its board of directors, chaired from the start by Annan, includes influential African political and business leaders as well as scientists and international experts in agriculture and economic development. A team of mostly African professionals with expertise in African agricultural development issues designs and carries out AGRA’s programs.
AGRA’s primary strategy is to facilitate the creation of an efficient African food system through grants and capacity-building assistance to institutions that are helping to improve the productivity of smallholder farmers. AGRA carries out its activities in 16 countries, with a special emphasis on Ghana, Mali, Mozambique, and Tanzania. The aim is to improve production of staple crops in “breadbasket” areas that have relatively good soil, adequate rainfall, and basic infrastructure, and then replicate successful approaches in other areas and other countries with similar conditions. AGRA also supports programs in Malawi, Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Nigeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso, and it has recently ventured into three post-conflict locations: Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
Solutions Tailored to Africa
AGRA began its work with a program that addresses farmers’ lack of access to good seeds, especially for staple crops such as maize, sorghum, and cassava. It provides operational support to African crop-breeding teams to develop, through conventional approaches, higher-yielding, locally adapted varieties that are suited to Africa’s ecological conditions. AGRA also works to help small companies breed, multiply, and market high-quality hybrid seeds that farmers can afford. Small entrepreneurs in the seed business now number in the dozens, and together they are producing about one-third of the seed used by smallholder farmers in Africa. The effort also involves getting seed and fertilizer to small village shops set up by entrepreneurs who are supported by AGRA. This reduces the distance that farmers must walk to buy these items—which in some cases can be 50 kilometers (31 miles) or more.
AGRA’s programs also encompass soil health, market access, affordable financing for farmers and small agricultural businesses, assistance to farmers’ organizations, and advocacy for national policies that are favorable to smallholder farmers. Given the critical role that women play in African agriculture, AGRA works to increase women’s participation in its programs.
In all of its work, AGRA emphasizes the wise use of science and technology, innovative approaches to addressing bottlenecks in the system, reducing environmental degradation, and conserving biodiversity. In the area of soil health, for instance, AGRA promotes the use of small quantities of mineral fertilizers with organic ones, such as farm yard manure. This approach also involves increasing the cultivated area of grain legumes, such as soybeans, which fix biologically significant amounts of nitrogen from the atmosphere.
AGRA considers the foundation a valuable partner in its work, not just a funder, says Sylvia Mwichuli, AGRA’s director of communications and public affairs. “We have a shared vision with respect to the plight of smallholder farmers in Africa and are convinced that the continent has an unexploited potential to feed its citizens and achieve food security.”
The foundation’s Amsale Mengistu, who manages the AGRA relationship, concurs. “AGRA is one of our anchor grantees on the continent and will continue to be a key actor in African agricultural development,” she says. “We have a different level of engagement with them.” Grants to AGRA from the foundation’s Agricultural Development program have totaled US$380 million so far, and two foundation leaders sit on AGRA’s board.
Says Mwichuli, “Our work involves a lot of innovation and risk taking. This involves learning from our mistakes and scaling up our successes. Sometimes we try out a new idea and it doesn’t work as efficiently as we envisaged in the planning process. It is a mutual learning relationship, and we meet the challenges and opportunities together.”