The fight for the future of food

Centering African voices in a discussion so often dominated by non-African observers.

Dr. Jahi Chappell, Victoria Adongo, Mariann Bassey-Orovwuje (Left to Right). Image courtesy Joeva Rock.

Who gets to decide African food and agricultural systems? And what does it mean—and what does it look like—to build political power of communities, of farmers and of social movements? These questions—recently posed by Dr. Brian Dowd-Uribe and Maggie Nyce at a gathering at the University of San Francisco—are of particular importance in the current moment wherein an international consortium of development donors, private foundations, and multinational corporations are attempting to spark what is being called a “New Green Revolution” for Africa. This revolution, spearheaded in part by the US Agency for International Development, along with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation, seeks broadly to (a) increase the purchase and use of high yielding seeds and chemicals; (b) transition smallholder farmers to contract laborers; (c) integrate networks of contract farmers into international value chains; and (d) encourage farmers to increase production of certain commercial crops. To achieve this, New Green Revolution funders create new organizations to act as brokers, who in turn work across the continent to help write policies that liberalize African seed, chemical and trade sectors. These efforts are taking place at a time where global financiers are increasingly looking to African markets—whether agricultural, extractive, or otherwise—to extend their reach. The Economist has called African markets “the final frontier” for capital.

Victoria Adongo, Mariann Bassey-Orovwuje, Dr. Million Belay, Mariam Mayet, Bern Guri (Left to Right). Image courtesy Joeva Rock.

On October 23, 2019, over 150 people gathered at the University of San Francisco. They included African activists who for years have been opposing these efforts and demanding space to theorize different food futures. The event—held in collaboration with the University of San Francisco and 11th Hour Project—sought to center African voices in a discussion so often dominated by non-African observers.

Moderated by Food First Executive Director Dr. Jahi Chappell, the panel consisted of Victoria Adongo, the Executive Director of the Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana; Mariann Bassey-Orovwuje, Program Manager of Friends of the Earth Nigeria and Chair of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA); Dr. Million Belay, Coordinator of AFSA; Mariam Mayet, Executive Director of the African Centre for Biodiversity (South Africa); and Bern Guri, Executive Director of the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development (Ghana). Collectively, the panelists are all active members of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, a continent-wide umbrella organization that boasts members in 50 of 55 African countries. (A recording of the full event can be found here.)

For some panelists, the New Green Revolution marks, in Mayet’s words, “neocolonial, corporate occupation.”

“The Green Revolution is a foreign concept,” Adongo explained, noting the emphasis on outside, rather than African, expertise in developing and executing Green Revolution polices.

Mayet and Adongo’s remarks served as an important reminder of questioning who gets to drive development narratives. Or, as Bassey-Orovwuje put it starkly: “we need to deconstruct the ideology behind this [New Green Revolution].”

For many of the panelists, countering New Green Revolution efforts is partly a war of words. This narrative, Dr. Belay argued, helps drive the idea that African knowledge and technology are “backwards,” African farmers unproductive, and therefore in need of intervention and substitution: outside experts must be brought in, land must be given to commercial entities, and new chemicals must be bought and sold on the market.

Panelists and event co-organizers from the University of San Francisco and 11th Hour Project. Image courtesy Joeva Rock.

“We the activists and smallholder farmers in Africa resist this, and we will not accept a green revolution that is foreign,” Adongo said. “Africa has its own homegrown agricultural protocols that we have formed and we are looking at feeding our citizens in the best ways that we can.”

While the first half of the talk was spent dissecting New Green Revolution efforts, the second half was dedicated to discussing alternatives. This was a particularly interesting aspect of the evening, given AFSA’s work to promote agroecology—an agricultural framework that privileges biodiverse and organic inputs across the continent. This work is driven in part, Dr. Belay and Adongo explained, to increase food production. But where panelists see their production goals differ from those of New Green Revolution proponents is the framework taken. For AFSA, Dr. Belay explained, a fundamental question is how to produce food in a way that is socially just, culturally appropriate, healthy and nutritious, and environmentally friendly. “In Africa food is not just a commercial commodity,” Guri clarified, emphasizing the need to develop policies and frameworks that incorporate socio-cultural meanings of food and agriculture.

Drawing upon examples from South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, Mayet emphasized that achieving food sovereignty is more than achieving an agricultural model of production, whether agroecology or otherwise. It is about, she said, “power, control, autonomy, and agency.” Guri furthered: “political freedom is not enough. Until we have a free food system determined and designed by us, we are not free.”

“The power of the people is strong,” Adongo told the crowd, smiling. And with that, the event was over.

Further Reading