Written by Maimuna Safiyyah
Food sustainability issues raised during the All African People’s Development and Empowerment Project’s (AAPDEP) Annual conference in October 2012 prompted me to write this article in hopes to highlight the dire situation faced by many African regions regarding agriculture.
The purpose of this article is to provide some insight and context on agricultural practices in Africa, and convey how crucial it is to develop a pool of ideas leading to genuine solutions to food insecurity that can be duplicated in order to eliminate hunger as well as provide entrepreneurial opportunities for many communities worldwide.
A Clear & Present Danger
At a 2011 seminar in Uganda, organized by the Uganda Muslim Youth Assembly, the clear and present dangers to food security and the roadblocks to eliminating hunger were outlined. A key presenter from the Ugandan government held a Ph.D. in Agriculture.
During the Q&A session I asked, “How can hunger be eliminated, and sustainable food supplies achieved when farmers must buy seed every season imported from abroad?”
The government expert suggested that participants, “Find seed experts who are qualified to answer such questions.”
In Africa “the experts” are from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Founded in 2006 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, AGRA is at the forefront of promoting the use of genetically modified seeds, environmentally destructive fertilizers and pesticides throughout the continent as a part of the “Green Revolution.”
The response from the presenter was typical in the AGRA controlled environment where anti genetically modified organism (GMO) views will lead to an organization losing its funding. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through its AGRA organization financially dominate African food policies, agriculture outputs, and innovation.
The negative impact of the AGRA on grassroots farmers near the urban centers and the most remote villages is the same. Every growing season farmers sink deeper into debt buying GMO seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides.
On top of seed costs, fertilizers, pesticides and water and farm soil implements is the complex balance of fertilizer and pesticide specifications with corresponding equipment, which when done incorrectly, leads to damage to crops and the environment.
Moreover, acquiring water is difficult where laborers must fetch water on the head from the wells as very few farmers use irrigation system.
I have traveled in many agricultural districts throughout the continent, speaking to farmers, and discovered total confusion.
Where before subsistence farmers had expert knowledge and developed skills of managing formidable constraints imposed by nature, incompetent politicians, traditions and society, now added was the menace of multi-national corporations.
Individual subsistence farmers devised strategies that helped them survive within the local constraints and still managed to produce negligible crops.
Farmers over generations selected varieties of grains that match their local conditions and food preferences. Before huge corporations flooded GMO seed, researcher volunteers (working with National Research Council, Washington DC, 1996) found in Nigeria farmers were able to identify a selection of 109 sorghum cultivars known to all.
In Tanzania, a researcher counted 100 local sorghum cultivars known to local farmers by name. In Kenya, researchers discovered farmers who had developed the skill by which they identify sorghum varieties and can distinguish by looking at the grain and tell the household that grew it.
The researchers called it a form of natural bar coding devised to ensure against theft. All this technology handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years is under threat by GMO merchants rendering African farmers inept in agriculture methods.
I traveled the East African region and discovered not many farmers as yet have any idea that agriculture problems relate indirectly to AGRA and benefactor AID agencies.
Most are not as yet able to tell GMO seed is different from organic seed since GMO is the only seed flooding the countryside.
Farmers are bombarded with radio advertisements in local languages prompting them to buy “improved” seed in order “to overcome” poverty – “Buy fertilizer and pesticide and implements and get profit.”
Yet Wikileaks reports that Monsanto’s genetically modified corn have been linked to organ damage and environmental devastation.
The Second Green Revolution
This is the second green revolution of Africa. In both, small to medium scale farmers were targeted throughout Africa as a way of “rapid agricultural growth.”
The first Green Revolution was an ongoing series of Western initiatives of research, development, and technology transfers that occurred between the 1940s and the late 1970s.
The Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, US Agency for International Development (USAID), The World Bank were the major actors in developing the new paradigm agriculture.
With a mandate on the development of high-yielding varieties (HYV) of cereal grains, the expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of agricultural and management techniques, along with distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers – African starvation was supposedly over.
Utilizing toxic pesticides and expensive foreign fertilizers, the “revolution” created a lopsided system where the harvested grain cannot be replanted, and decreases in domestic seed varieties never realize substantially greater yields or profits for the farmers.
Moreover, all the components of the Green Revolution were manufactured and sold by the multinational corporations to the farmers.
The “revolution” created a neo-colonial system where all agricultural outputs of third world nations was determined by market value, rather than the needs of the people.
According to Eric Holt-Gimenez, the Executive Director at the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First), AGRA’s claim that “Green Revolution technology packages has or will benefit poor farmers is misleading.”
He cites research which analyzed the results over 30 years and 300 published reports from Green Revolution programs, which showed that 80 percent of the projects that were supposed to create more equity actually increased inequality.
Holt-Gimenez raises serious question about the Green Revolutions. “If the millions of dollars from foreign aid and Bill Gates’s foundations was not invested in a Green Revolution for Africa, then where were they spent? If they were spent on the Green Revolution, then why does Africa need another one? Either the Green Revolution’s institutions don’t work, or the Green Revolution itself doesn’t work – or both. The Green Revolution did not “bypass” Africa. It failed.”
He characterized the actions of the Second Green Revolutions as a series of decisions “that ignores, misinterprets, and misrepresents the harsh lessons of the first Green Revolution’s multiple failures and it will likely worsen the problem.”
Philanthropic efforts often “ignores, misinterprets, and misrepresents.”
For example, in 2005 Britain chose Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, to chair the Commission for Africa.
Britain set up the commission to “define the challenges facing Africa, and to provide clear recommendations on how to support the changes needed to reduce poverty.”
One of the 12 voluntary organizations Tony Blair founded was the Faith Foundation.
Among other things, the foundation aims to eradicate malaria in Africa by donating mosquito nets. In her book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, African economist Dambisa Mayo recounts how an African entrepreneur who was locally making mosquito nets was forced to close his shop as a consequence of the Faith Foundation’s importation of donated mosquito nets.
Also consider the Neem tree. In 1992 a group of scientist published a report entitled, The Neem: A Tree for Solving Global Problems. Neem is cited as “…one of the most promising of all plants, that may eventually benefit every person on the planet. Probably no other plant yields many varied products or has as many exploitable by-products.
“This tree may usher in a new era in pest control; provide millions with inexpensive medicines; cut the rate of population growth; and perhaps even reduce erosion, deforestation, and the excessive temperature of an overheated globe…”
Despite its promise, U.S. companies will not fund necessary research following a failed attempt to secure patents for Neem.
Further, not only does Neem grow throughout Africa, but it is also a safe and inexpensive natural contraceptive.
Despite this benefit, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced a new device for Depo-Provera to be tested as an injectable contraceptive on women in Senegal and Uganda delivered by less skilled health workers to cut costs.
This announcement was made at the Family Planning Summit hosted by Bill and Melinda Gates foundation in London in July 2012.
The Scramble for Africa
I helped harvest corn (and sesame seed) on a 30-acre farm where we discovered the entire farm carried a single cob on the stalks.
Traveling through the districts, I took care to observe corn in the fields – all carried one cob per stalk. While normal in the U.S., this was highly abnormal in Africa prior to the advent of GMO crops.
A few farmers in one area of the Jinja district harvested traditional grain that yielded several cobs per stalk.
These farmers preferred grains that yield several cobs per stalk over grains producing one cob per stalk.
More disturbing, throughout East Africa, where a second cob on the same stalk attempted to manifest, the cob does not bear even a single seed.
Historically, corn cultivated yielded tasty soft seed and each stalk yielded 2-5 cobs that were replanted.
Today, despite how many acres are cultivated, only single cob stalks are harvested. Moreover, the taste is unpleasant, and unlike food at all with taste akin to animal feed.
In the book Confessions of An Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, American couple Greg and Cindy recounted their first hand experience with the harm caused by Genetically Modified Organisms while working in Mali.
The couple was concerned by the collusion between U.S. agencies and big businesses that purchase and market GMOs in Mali.
Greg and Cindy recounted families living off the land for hundreds of years, saving seed to replant, were now becoming dependent on fertilizers, pesticides and seeds available for purchase from foreign companies.
Greg and Cindy were invited to participate in a conference on GMO crops, cotton subsidies and African Agricultural heritage, attended by farmers representing Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin and Gambia, as well as academics, scientists, activists, and politicians.
Greg and Cindy informed that USAID and Monsanto were working together to rewrite Malian legislation, and starting in 2003 a U.S. government agency is working with Monsanto to write into the Malian constitution language that will allow the introduction, sale, and patent rights of GMO crops.
At the Mali conference, Greg and Cindy learned further that “experts” persuade farmers to shift from growing food crops to cotton. In an attempt to boost production, farmers take credit to purchase GMO seed, pesticides, herbicides and newer plows and fertilizer which send them deeper into debt to international companies that have a monopoly on cotton.
Greg and Cindy also described the ravaging effects of US cotton subsidies on Malian farmers. By allowing American farmers to sell their cotton at artificially low prices, the U.S. government undercuts African producers in world markets, they observed.
The Gates Foundation claims AGRA was established to assist small farmers secure needed funding to enable them to feed themselves.
AGRA works in collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation, Monsanto Corporation, Syngenta Foundation and the government of Norway, and is financially backing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located in Norway.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault initiative has agriculturalists from around the world sending every possible specimen of non-GMO seeds to Norway.
As a result, a scarcity of non-GMO seed (including vegetables and fruits) was created but blamed on the “ineptness” of African farmers throughout all regions of the continent. The calculated result was farmers pressured to buy imported seed.
The above developments are not isolated and are mentioned here to shed light on the confusion and create a sense of urgency regarding the fact of whoever controls food, controls life or enslaves others. In fact, the Vatican openly declared Monsanto’s GMO crops as the “new form of slavery”.
This situation need not arise. Scientists from the National Research Council studying strategies to overcome Africa’s food and poverty dilemmas discovered Africa has more native cereals than any other continents.
The Greatest Potential Worldwide
The African food heritage is comprised of over 2000 grains, roots, fruits and other food plants that have fed generations stretching back to the origins of mankind.
Those promoting GMOs in Africa have completely ignored the potential of African native cereals. The National Research Council (NRC) proposed African cereals could be expanded and diversified to facilitate feeding the world.
In fact, some of these cereals are currently cultivated in developed nations, which export them on a large scale.
Nutrition scientists have identified five African native cereals with the greatest export potential worldwide: (1) sorghum, (2) Finger millet, (3) Pearl millet, (4) African rice, (4) Fonio (Acha), and (5) Tef.
Countries that have undertaken extensive research studies and production of these cereals are earning enormous benefit and have yielded new food and other by-products which they export in large volumes to international markets such as Japan and Mexico.
Africa could be exporting the same, instead American multi-national corporations target Africa as recipient of GMO crops.
The U.S. produces sorghum as feed for cows, chickens, pigs, lambs, horses, catfish, and shrimp. Sorghum is also used for many industrial uses i.e., foundry-mold sands, charcoal briquettes, oil-well drilling mud, manufacturing plywood and gypsum (for building houses), and refining the process of potash, aluminums and ethanol (to fuel American cars).
Nearly 2000 years ago, sorghum from Africa was carried to China and is a daily staple there even today.
Hybrid sorghums develop increasing food supplies and grains as every part of sorghum is utilized.
To-date 1,000 local varieties have been recorded: 980 for food; 50 for industrial use; and 14 for sugar in China alone.
Sorghum grains are eaten at every meal and certain types of grains are baked into cakes.
China is known for producing the best liquors, distilled from sorghum. Seed heads are converted into brushes (as in the U.S.).
Sweet stemmed sorghums are a major source of sugar to millions of Chinese. Stalks of more woody varieties are bound together, cemented with clay and used for partitions, walls and fences.
The green stems are split and woven into baskets and fine matting.
The strong dry stems are used in making handicrafts and many types of small household utensils including plate-holders and pot covers.
Sorghum stalk is a favorite for making children’s toys and many types of containers. The leaves are removed before the grain harvest and used for fodder for cattle, goats, horses and rabbits. Sorghum stems are a basic fuel for cooking and roots are also grubbed out and dried for fuel.
Sorghum has impacted more than the U.S. and China.
Since 1800 in South Africa, sorghum has been the preferred feed for horses and the largest brewery in the country produces popular beer from sorghum.
In India, researchers at the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI)found sorghum varieties that yield both grain and sugar-filled stems.
This variety of sorghum yields grain from the top for human consumption; from its stalk, sugar (hence alcohol) for fuel; and from the pulp remaining after the sugar is extracted, animal fodder.
NARIresearchers claimed that 1 hectare of their sorghum can annually yield 2-4 tons of grain; 2,000-4,000 liters of alcohol; and enough crushed stalk to feed three to five cattle year round.
Farmers in East Africa have devised various survival strategies to mitigate nature’s constraints.
Without research, farmers deliberately cultivated sorghum containing tannin in the outer layer of the grain to prevent the crop devastation by the queleabird that typically devours sorghum at an alarming speed.
While the tannin ingredient prevents the body from reaching the protein in the grain, rendering inedible for food, this particular sorghum farmers brew for beer.
Farmers can extract and remove the tannin to make the grain palatable, however this requires farmers to process the grain.
Unfortunately, this process is currently done manually.
The sorghum seed is very small and farmers cannot ingest the grain as food in the absence of mills for processing.
Findings from the National Research Council Report (NRC) claim simple harvesting and processing machines could greatly increase the effectiveness of seed production at minimal costs.
A. Bruce Maunder, a NRC researcher, writes even on research station in Africa, it is common to see sorghum and millet being pounded with wooden clubs.
Maunder observed many suitable small machines that have been superseded by newer and more sophisticated models, readily available in the developed world.
Because of the constraints, the market for sorghum flour as food and by-products has remained under-developed, a situation perpetuated since the colonialists and missionaries introduced and supported wheat and maize (from Europe), and rice from India (not African rice).
Even today several websites describe sorghum as, “food for poor rural people”, and African rice as, “inferior and weak.”
Yet sorghum has evolved, making the U.S. the second largest grower, with exports to Japan and Mexico (but not for human consumption.
John Perkins, author of Confessions of An Economic Hit Man) identify economic hit men as highly trained professionals.
Unlike the days when slavers kidnapped Africans, contemporary hit men come dressed as teachers with computers, and speak to farmers and shopkeepers “with kind words.”
For Africa to overcome this dilemma, researcher Donald F. Beech recommends African postgraduates studying agriculture abroad return to their home country and work on the cultivation of crops from their own country instead of wheat or maize.
This approach might broaden the thinking, as stated by researcher Gerald E. Wickens, ”Maybe the local farmers growing a mixture of cultivars in a field have the right idea.”
The Report in Africa’s Lost Grains Vol. 1, outlines that Nutritionistssee Africa’s native grains – specifically sorghums and Finger millet – as the key to finally solve Africa’s malnutrition problem.
Further, food technologists are finding vast new possibilities in processes that can open up vibrant consumer markets for new and tasty products made from Africa’s native grains.
Sorghum, Finger millet and Tefproduce baked goods such as breads and pastries, which would greatly reduce reliance on imported wheat, and also create viable economic development opportunities that accrue to local farmers instead of to the international investors generating income from these farmers by selling GMO and chemical products!
Some nutritionists suggest solutions to malnutrition in Africa be solved through international organizations handing out exotic crops.
However, experts have never considered native cereals.
Consider the following, Finger millet malt and sorghum malt are both easily digested, rich in calcium and sulfur-containing amino acids, and are prepared the same as infamous foods such as Ovaltine and malted milk.
Food technologist suggest fermentations of some sorghum and finger millet deserve attention as they hold promise for creating nutritious and tasty weaning foods as well as food for the elderly.
Further sorghum and millet are good for malting (better than barley), higher in nutrition, and can be grown and processed locally.
After sorghums, Tef and millet are doing well as alternative food sources internationally.
The potential to develop and process convenient pre-cooked sorghum foods that are palatable and shelf stable can keep from deteriorating that can attract and compete with already established food sources in cities, needs to be explored.
For example, in Korea, sorghum is cooked the same as rice. In sorghum growing regions, extending from West to South Africa, it can replace imported rice.
Corn, a major crop in western agriculture systems, has become an increasing complex practice. Throughout Africa, in many regions, farmers grow sorghum as a substitute to corn.
The potential of sorghum in Africa as a food and by-product can leverage great improvement in food sustainability and livelihood.
From West to South Africa, wild sorghums can be found that have not been domesticated since wild grasses have not wiped them out.
Most regions in Africa face energy shortages due to poorly planned power grids that require prolonged periods of rolling blackouts.
Throughout the continent small scale industries and household users would benefit tremendously from Sorghum-generated solid fuels to power local mills, which can process flour mills.
The National Council Report estimated an average user cooking meals on open fire burns over a ton of firewood a year.
However it was noted that few advisers or administrators have ever thought of developing sorghum for firewood in Africa, which Egypt is already doing and so is China.
Since George Bush’s war on terror was declared, in many regions in Africa construction of high walls around houses “for security” has inflated costs in cement and bricks.
Construction of fencing material grown locally could minimize costs for imported materials helping local incomes, and improving the overall local quality of life.
Cutting down forests for firewood would be minimized, environment degradation prevented, more rain would come and more food grown.
Some sorghum varieties can be harvested several times a year. Farmers would find great relief harvesting crops that yield food for humans and fodder for their animals, fuel for lighting and cooking in their homes, and power for small-scale mills.
There is a need for an ongoing extended dialogue between farmers, nutritionist, and the people to overcome the major barriers of growing and sustaining native nutritious food.
In 1884, Europeans demarcated artificial boundaries of African nations.
A by-product of the imperialist action has been the lack of regional interaction and sharing of knowledge and grains.
Yet Europe recognizes the importance of opening up borders (to Europeans) who move freely, study, trade and work from Poland through Germany to Britain.
A farmer grows his/her produce, stacks it in the car and sets off with it to sell throughout the twenty-seven European Union zone wherever he/she finds a market, be it in Scotland or Switzerland.
Restriction to free movement is still a major condition imposed on Africans by their governments in the interest of “security” as dictated by Western nations.
Thousands of years of knowledge and experience pertaining to native cereals, roots, fruits and grasses that Africans passed down to future generations cannot be shared because of these constraints and restricted free movement regionally (some regions in West Africa have started to open their borders to neighbors) and internationally.
As a barrier to entry, in 2012 Britain updated new visa rules stipulating entry and stay of only the brightest and talented international students.
Student entrepreneurs able to invest a minimum of £50,000 in their business can also apply for the visa in the U.K.
Students must provide land titles bearing their name, bank statement in their name, and meet other conditions the U.K. Border Agency deem necessary to impose.
These standard conditions are strictly enforced within African regions as well as internationally.
At the Annual conference in October, AAPDEP probably did not realize how apt their observation fit in relation to Africans on the continent when they wrote a scenario of a scramble to get to what is inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
These stringent rules are securely in place to deter Africans and especially students, who are expected to take back knowledge in order to improve the situation in Africa.
What chances does any African have of getting a visa for the purpose of traveling to solicit for seed fortified behind a $ 1.6 Billion Vault in Norway?
“Usipojenga ufaa utajenga ukuta” & “musajja Kaama, yerandiza yekka” are African proverbs Marcus Garvey constantly repeated. Interpreted, the proverbs mean, “Africans must fix things for themselves.”
This motivated Garvey to found the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
We live in an age where the masses are convinced the Internet is the only viable option to convey information around the globe.
This is misinformation. Misinformation is deliberately and strategically availed from various misinformation media channels.
Irresponsible opinions are copied, pasted and spread like bushfire to various network groups.
In this way, the masses are kept ignorant of real issues while the few individuals struggling to present beneficial researched studies remain in obscurity, their voices drowned out, for example, by organizations such as Bill Gates’ AGRA.
Since financial matters progressed from push to shove, Warren Buffet reportedly bought a total of 69 newspapers that were near collapse. Is Warren Buffet in the business of buying companies that have no future?
As a wealthy entrepreneur, Warren Buffet is convinced of a future in newspapers although the media conveys a different message.
Closer appraisal of developments might reveal that actual users that access the Internet in terms of percentages might not be in the majority.
As usually happens, the majority have not the means to embrace the new technology (whatever the reasons).
What will happen to the majority?
This is the niche Warren Buffet is focused on as an entrepreneur.
It is crucial Africans stay right beside Warren Buffet, researching and publishing newsworthy materials in the form of newspapers, books videos, CDs and speaking events to fill the gap the Internet cannot reach.
The challenge facing us today is to ensure worthy news is published that is relevant to communities in their areas, as well as real world events of concern.
If Marcus Garvey wrote empowering and inspiring news items for the African communities in the Caribbean, African Americans, and Africans in Europe back in 1920-40s, it is crucial this challenge is tackled in the same manner today.
It is not a secret the media is owned by entrepreneurs, driven by profits.
Like Marcus Garvey, our objective has to be to inform, educate and inspire – to empower the masses to educate themselves.
How can Africans on the continent overcome the challenge of language?
How did Marcus Garvey do it?
“In 1921, Kenyan nationalists, unable to read, would gather round a reader of Garvey’s newspaper, The Negro World and listen to an article two or three times.
Then they would run various ways through the forest, carefully to repeat the whole, which they had memorized, to Africans hungry for some doctrine which lifted them from the servile consciousness in which Africans lived.”
Because English secured a niche, many people are convinced it is pointless presenting information in any other language.
However, English is a recent addition to the linguist world scene. It is possible to reach every corner of the world through Arabic and Swahili, and both have been on the world scene longer. Literature from the Arabic language has been translated into local languages for centuries and many populations in remote regions write and speak Arabic.
Both Arabic and Swahili are among 160 languages currently translated via the Internet. Garvey’s publications brought news to the masses without ever compromising to the barrier of language.