The need for a radical shift in Africa’s agricultural funding models

African countries need to lead by example by reforming their farming systems and putting more money into agroecological approaches.


A new report by Biovision International, IPES-Food and the UK-based Institute of Development Studies reveals that only a small fraction of agricultural research funding coming to Kenya and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa is being used to support agroecology and other sustainable, regenerative approaches. Money flows in Africa’s agricultural development sector are mainly reinforcing damaging industrial models.

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Funding for agricultural research, education and extension through official development assistance (ODA) has more or less stagnated over the last 10 years, and stood at only 14% of agricultural aid in sub-Saharan Africa in 2017. Most funders and governments still favour ‘green revolution’ approaches, in the belief that industrial agriculture is the only way to produce sufficient food. 

Though the agri-development landscape in Africa is extremely complex and donor priorities are highly divergent, there is a need for donors to rethink their financing strategies for the African agriculture sector. Despite the well documented merits of agroecological approaches in transforming food and farming systems, only a handful of donors have explicitly recognised it as a key solution for building sustainable food systems. In short, African governments and their development partners need to consider providing stronger support for agroecological initiatives.

Investments in agricultural research by governments in sub-Saharan has fallen significantly despite commitments made through the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). Though African nations pledged to invest more than one per cent of agricultural GDP in agricultural research, between 2010 and 2014, the overall investment ratio within the continent dropped below 0.5 per cent. The volume of direct government funding for agricultural research and food security programmes has generally been de-prioritized in favour of other development issues including health, education and national security.

Though countries like Kenya and Ethiopia attract a significant amount of bilateral and multilateral agricultural aid, the resources received for agricultural research are mainly used for industrial agriculture with very limited resources going to agroecology. More than 70% of projects carried out by Kenyan research institutes were focused on industrial agriculture with only 13% of projects being agroecological. Another 13% of funding is used to replace synthetic inputs with organic alternatives. Currently, the top donors for Kenya are the US, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the EU, Germany, the World Bank’s International Development Association and Japan. At US$274 million per annum, Kenya’s investment in public agricultural research is the third highest in Africa. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested $4.9 billion since 2006.

The ‘Money Flows’ report also shines a light on Switzerland (a major bilateral donor) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the biggest philanthropic investor in agri-development. The findings paint an interesting picture. As many as 85% of projects funded by the Gates Foundation are limited to supporting industrial agriculture and/or targeted approaches such as improved pesticide practices. Meanwhile, only 3% of Gates Foundation projects were agroecological, i.e. they included elements of agroecosystem redesign.

By contrast, 51% of Swiss-funded AgR4D projects had agroecological components, and the majority of these (41% of all projects) also included aspects of socioeconomic and political change like decent working conditions and gender equality. Just 13% of Swiss-funded projects focused only on industrial agriculture and efficiency-based approaches. A fraction of United Kingdom and Belgian development aid, and minimal United States agricultural research funding, also goes to agroecology.

The good news though is that the tide is changing and Switzerland is not the only funder adapting its approach. There is a growing interest in agroecology from a growing number of bilateral and multilateral donors — notably France, Germany, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

To accelerate this shift, donors must move towards long-term, pooled funding models that encourage research institutes to implement agroecological projects, with opportunities to pitch for resources. They should also ensure that their projects are inclusive and co-designed with farmers and communities. Funders also need to increase the share of funding going to African organisations and increase transparency in how their projects are funded, monitored and measured for impact. To give primacy to African research institutions, they should set clear targets for the share of AgR4D going to Africa-based organisations, and the share of Africa-based organisations that are project leads.

To be more impactful on the ground, donors also need to address the issue of unequal power relations in the agricultural sector. This can be done by building strong, long-lasting partnerships and supporting the development and functioning of bottom-up alliances with the involvement and ownership of farmers’ groups, researchers, NGOs and social movements. The primary focus must be on growing the voice and positioning of smallholder farmers who have chosen to contribute to a safer and healthier world by growing their crops using agroecological approaches. Let us turn our backs on the vested interests that are propping up agricultural practices – based on an obsession with technological fixes that are damaging soils and livelihoods, and creating a dependency on the world’s biggest agri-businesses.

African countries need to lead by example by reforming their farming systems and putting more money into agroecological approaches. We urge broader and deeper support for approaches that transform food and farming systems. Let’s collectively seek to ensure that we take sustained actions to effectively deal with the negative impacts of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. Let us be responsive to the needs of the millions of African smallholder farmers who are counting on us to make the right decisions.

Olivia Yambi is co-chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food). Hans Herren is the president of the Biovision Foundation.


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