One of the Gates Foundation’s primary goals in fighting global poverty is to improve agricultural productivity and the livelihood of smallholder farmers in the developing world, especially in Africa.
One Kenyan man – who actually represents a lot of Kenyan people and organizations – thinks the Seattle philanthropy is pursuing a strategy that will largely help corporate (mostly U.S.) agricultural interests and hurt smallholder farmers.
Josphat Ngonyo, who spoke Thursday at the University of Washington, has long been involved in efforts aimed at protecting and rebuilding biological diversity in Kenya. As a member of the Kenyan Biodiversity Coalition, Ngonyo said he believes the Gates Foundation is probably well-meaning in its efforts to help improve farming in Africa but, “They need to reconsider what they are doing … This will be very damaging.”
One reason for his concern is the Gates Foundation’s support for research into creating genetically modified (GM) seeds and plants for use in Africa. At a talk to UW students Thursday, Ngonyo made jokes about how African farmers don’t really need tomatoes that can see and walk on their own to market, or chickens conveniently bred without feathers.
The Gates Foundation’s main program aimed at improving agriculture in Africa is AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Done in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation (which spearheaded the previous Green Revolution), AGRA neither supports or opposes the use of genetically modified crops. But, as Ngonyo notes, the Gates Foundation is AGRA’s primary backer and the Seattle philanthropy has a dozen grants supporting GM crop research. He noted the Foundation has hired former executives or scientists from Monsanto – perhaps the world’s leader in developing GM agricultural products. Still, the support for GM crops is actually just a symptom of Ngonyo’s over-arching concern.
Just as during the last Green Revolution, Ngonyo said, the problem with the Gates Foundation’s approach is that it is encouraging adoption of Western industrialized farming methods in communities that instead need more support for traditional crops and locally sustainable farming methods.
Ngonyo told UW students about a community in eastern Kenya encouraged years ago by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID, which is now run by Dr. Raj Shah, a former Gates Foundation program director) and others to shift from traditional “subsistence” methods of diverse crop use to “cash crops” like coffee or tea. The wildlife was killed off to make room for plantation farming but the scheme failed and, for the last 20 years or so, the community has had to depend upon international food aid to eat. The farmers are worse off economically, Ngonyo said.
“These farmers, who used to be self-reliant, are now dependent upon aid and are slaves to the multinational corporations,” said Ngonyo. Further, food aid is “not free,” he said. It is given free but often used by foreign governments to extort favorable trading policies, Ngonyo said.
As a representative of a number of Kenyan wildlife, farming and consumer organizations, he said he is happy to come to Seattle and speak in the hope of gaining the ear of somebody at the Gates Foundation. Ngonyo said his organization in Kenya has not been able to raise their concerns with anyone representing the Gates Foundation or to talk with local representatives of AGRA in Kenya. “They have a big public relations team there, but they have no public forums. We would like them to meet with the community.”