The Rockefeller Foundation has a long history of helping to build the national and international research resources necessary to generate and disseminate agricultural interventions that can increase the productivity, profitability, and sustainability of small-scale farms in developing countries. For many years, the foundation's agricultural funding has included a component in Africa. The successes and failures of that work have led to a better understanding of the diverse agricultural systems on the continent and of the special needs of African farmers and the agencies and institutions that serve them. Drawing on lessons learned from this experience, the foundation decided in 1999 that the time was right to shift most of its agricultural funding to Africa and to begin implementing an expanded program on the ground from its field office in Nairobi. The program strategy is based on a rather simple theory of change referred to as “market-led technology adoption,” as depicted in Figure 2. There are three basic components:
Enhanced soil productivity combined with more resilient crop varieties enables farmers to obtain higher and more stable yields and frees up land and labor for other uses. In the presence of fairer and more efficient markets, this leads to increased farm profits, which encourage even further adoption of yield-enhancing technologies. Higher yields and increased profits provide farm households with greater food security and incomes and stimulate national economic growth. Whereas Asia's Green Revolution had a somewhat similar theory of change, the specific strategies for achieving each of these objectives need to be different in Africa from what had been used in Asia. The differences are as follows.
In Asia, the principal genetic factors limiting increases in crop productivity were related to plant type. When provided with additional plant nutrients, Asia's traditional irrigated varieties simply grew taller. With a little wind they tended to lodge, reducing both yields and the farmer's incentive to use fertilizer. Thus, the primary objective of breeding programs was to produce a new plant type (semidwarf, short duration) that responded to fertilizer by growing more grain on shorter plants in less time.8 Breeding to reduce losses and improve quality were secondary objectives that often came later. For example, IR8, the first of the miracle rices, produced yields several times that of traditional varieties when provided with ample fertilizer and water on experiment stations and yielded two or three times traditional varieties on farmers' fields. Even though it was susceptible to pests and diseases and did not have the desired taste and aroma of traditional varieties, IR8 swept across Asia and Latin America because it made money for farmers and fed the starving.
On the predominantly rain-fed farms of Africa, the key factors limiting crop productivity are the lack of plant nutrients in the soil and the loss of a significant portion of the crop owing to pests, diseases, and abiotic stresses. Thus, the primary objectives of Rockefeller Foundation–supported breeding programs in Africa are as follows: (1) to reduce crop losses by introducing genetic resistance for pest and disease control and for tolerance of drought and other stresses, (2) to enable the crop to use soil nutrients more efficiently, and (3) to do this in varieties that are well adapted to local conditions and meet farmer preferences. This goal requires many breeders working on many crops in many locations, all using the best breeding lines that they can obtain from each other and international centers, the best tools that science has to offer, and in-depth farmer knowledge obtained through new and more effective farmer participatory methods.9 The result has been the release of hundreds of locally well-adapted new varieties. These include maize varieties combining disease resistance, drought tolerance, and nitrogen use efficiency with traits unique to local growing conditions and consumer preferences; rice varieties that combine the yield potential of Asian rices with the weed competitiveness, disease resistance, and quality characteristics of African rices; cassava and banana varieties resistant to major diseases that had devastated production in some regions and had been spreading across Africa; bean varieties with various combinations of multiple stress resistance targeted to specific locations; four improved sweet potato varieties targeted to specific locations in Uganda; and maize varieties that use a herbicide seed treatment for resistance to the parasitic weed Striga. But just funding breeding programs was not sufficient. The foundation is also investing in (1) African-based training programs designed to produce and put to work in Africa whole new cadres of additional crop breeders; (2) local, African-owned seed companies that can multiply seed and distribute it to the locations where it performs best; and (3) a network of retail shops that sell the locally adapted seeds and fertilizers directly to farmers while training them in the proper use of these inputs.
During the Green Revolution in Asia, soil fertility and water were seldom important factors limiting crop production. In 1960, Asia already had 86 million ha of irrigated land and vast areas of fertile alluvial soils, chemical fertilizer was readily available and cheap because of subsidies (often funded by donors), and labor was abundant and used to expand irrigation and to use more intensive crop management practices.
The opposite is true for Africa. Most African farms are rain-fed, often receiving too little or too much water; fertilizer is expensive, if available at all; labor is in short supply; and donors now shun subsidies (through some still shower them on their own farmers and dump their resulting surpluses on Africa). Most of Africa's soils are ancient, derived from granite weathered over millennia. Driven to meet the food demands of a growing population, African farmers have steadily abandoned traditional practices that restore soil nutrients, such as leaving fields fallow for several years between plantings. Without replacing lost nutrients, after 5–10 years of cultivation, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and other trace nutrients are insufficient to support adequate crop growth. More than 95 million ha of sub-Saharan Africa's arable land, or 75% of the total, now has serious soil fertility problems, and farmers are still losing 8 million tons of soil nutrients each year, estimated to be worth $4 billion.10 With less plant growth, soil organic matter also becomes depleted, reducing the soil's water-holding capacity, which further reduces nutrient use efficiency. Meanwhile, few small-scale farmers in Africa can use fertilizers to restore soil health because either it is simply not available or they cannot afford to purchase inputs. Today, sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) uses only 1% of the world fertilizer supply and at 1/10 the average rate commonly applied on farms around the globe.11
The Rockefeller Foundation learned useful lessons from investments that it has made aimed at trying to improve the soil fertility of African farms under these difficult conditions. Cereal rotations with grain legumes are one of the most promising strategies. To be effective, they often required small amounts of phosphorous fertilizer and legume varieties, such as promiscuous soybeans, that produce larger amounts of organic leaf matter as well as fixed nitrogen. Being able to market the legume grain in addition to the cereal is key to farmer adoption.
It is also possible to improve soil fertility by using combinations of “strictly organic” methods, such as green manures, cover crops, agroforestry, and collecting and composting crop residues and other available organic materials. Often, however, these methods are not broadly adopted by farmers beyond the project sites. Technically they work, but for most farmers these methods do not increase the yields of their staple food crops sufficiently to warrant the extra labor required of the farmer, who is often a woman seeking to maximize returns relative to a limited labor supply. Growing a cover crop can be just as difficult and labor intensive as growing a food or cash crop. Only with special incentives, such as subsidies or guaranteed premium pricing, does organic farming alone generate sufficient returns to achieve broad adoption. Again, however, if just a little carefully formulated inorganic fertilizer is used along with the organics methods, yields increase sufficiently to warrant the extra labor.
The foundation also funds projects aimed at promoting locally adapted fertilizer blending and the marketing of fertilizer in smaller packets that farmers can afford. Even these small amounts of fertilizer can improve crop productivity, but the yield increases achieved are sometimes not sufficient to warrant the high unit cost of fertilizer. Again, adoption is limited without some form of subsidy. Hence, in Malawi and Kenya the foundation is experimenting with “market smart” subsidies that stimulate demand for fertilizer and seed from private markets by providing farmers with targeted vouchers redeemable at local shops to help cover the cost of specific inputs.
The most effective approach to enhancing soil fertility is various forms of integrated soil fertility management (ISFM). The ISFM strategy involves assessing local soil and water resources and considering how organic matter, fertilizers, cropping systems, and farmer knowledge can work in concert to create highly productive and environmentally sustainable approaches to soil revitalization. It combines judicious use of inorganic fertilizer with locally adapted “organic” methods. The two types of inputs, organic and inorganic, are highly synergistic. The fertilizer is formulated to meet local needs and greatly increases production of organic matter. In turn, organic matter in the soil improves its water-holding capacity and increases the efficiency of fertilizer use by crops. Building on what works best, the foundation now focuses its support on development of locally well-adapted ISFM practices while simultaneously trying to reduce the price of fertilizer and make it more readily accessible to small-scale farmers. This effort included helping to organize and sponsor the African Fertilizer Summit in Abuja, Nigeria, in June 2006, where African leaders pledged to improve fertilizer access for small-scale farmers by establishment of financing mechanisms, providing tax and tariff reductions, building supply chains, and training farmers in ISFM practices.12
The rate of uptake of agricultural technologies by poor farmers is positively correlated with the state of market institutional development. When critical markets are missing or existing markets fail, technology uptake and productivity growth are low. In Asia, one of the reasons that the Green Revolution spread as rapidly as it did in the 1960s and 1970s is that governments and donors manipulated input and output markets to promote adoption of yield-enhancing technologies. In India, the Green Revolution was state led and state supported. Governments built infrastructure, including roads; subsidized inputs, such as seeds and fertilizers; and provided financial services, including price supports that helped ensure that farmers made a profit from surplus production. To reduce risks, they established grain reserves that helped stabilize prices and served as insurance against famine-associated production shortfalls.
Across most of Africa these types of complementary government investments have been limited. Where they did exist, structural adjustment programs imposed by donors have “restructured” them by promoting privatization of government agencies, liberalization of markets, removal of government from agricultural markets, and elimination of subsidies. It was assumed that the private sector would be able to perform marketing functions more efficiently and would subsequently increase investments in critical market infrastructure, especially storage, transport, market information systems, and grades and standards. These market improvements were in turn expected to lead to increased sale prices for poor farmers and stimulate more widespread adoption in improved agricultural technologies.
The reality has not been as predicted. It is now widely accepted that market reforms have had negative effects on poor farmers, especially those in areas far from major markets. Prices for food and agricultural inputs have increased substantially. Although the private sector did move into markets for agricultural inputs and outputs, their investments have been concentrated in areas closer to urban centers with better market infrastructure. In most rural areas, where millions of the poor live and earn their livelihoods, farmers now face significant difficulties in getting access to seeds, fertilizer, and other inputs and often cannot sell their farm produce at profitable prices. When they produce a surplus for the market, they are often forced to sell at low prices. Moreover, these farmers have not effectively organized themselves to achieve economies of scale in bulking, storage, and marketing their produce or in accessing agricultural input and capital markets. Consequently, they have not been able to drive down their market transaction costs.
Although building markets had not been a traditional forte of the Rockefeller Foundation, lack of markets was increasingly recognized as an impediment to African farmers' adopting yield-enhancing technologies generated through foundation support for work on improved seeds and soils. Thus, the foundation began supporting projects that were trying to reduce the search costs and travel times of farmers looking for inputs, improving on-time access to inputs during the crop production season, providing inputs in appropriate quantities, and lowering the farm gate price of inputs through a reduction in market transaction costs. Then, to help farmers sell their surpluses at better prices, the foundation supports work to reduce inefficiencies in output markets by improving market coordination between buyers and sellers, reducing market transaction costs, improving economies of scale through collective action in storage, bulking and marketing, and improving transparency and equity by using market information systems. This endeavor is complemented by interventions directed at improving on-farm product development, product transformation, and value addition for crops, so that poor farmers can increase their share of the income generated from their crops. The foundation also seeks to improve the overall policy environment for agriculture, including the gradual process of moving agriculture away from subsistence systems into more market-oriented systems that can better support the incomes and livelihoods of farmers.
With the difficulty of building markets, there is a strong need for multiple institutions to work together from the public, private, and civil society sectors. For that reason, the foundation is increasingly focusing on joint projects where grantees work together to solve the multiple problems faced by farmers. For example, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation jointly helped to establish the African Agricultural Capital Fund to address the capital constraints facing local companies serving rural areas, particularly seed companies.13 However, there was also a lack of small retail shops in rural areas that could sell the seeds and complementary inputs, such as fertilizer, directly to farmers. To build the input supply pipeline, the foundation supported nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that train local shop owners to become agrodealers. The NGOs train these village retailers to develop their technical, product, and business management skills. Those that meet the requirements are certified as agrodealers. Certified agrodealers are linked to the seed companies and other input supply firms using partial credit guarantees that cover 50% of the default risk. Agrodealers are also organized into purchasing groups to facilitate bulk purchasing and to provide joint collateral to guarantee repayment. Some agrodealers repackage seed and fertilizer into small packets (e.g., 1 kg for seeds, 2 kg for fertilizer) to increase the affordability for poor farmers. And, increasingly agrodealers serve as extension agents conducting demonstrations of new technologies for input suppliers, governments, and donors. Agrodealers have contributed significantly to the increases in crop production that have recently occurred in Malawi.
In Africa, the foundation has had to support the development of the whole agricultural value chain, from building the capacity required to create the inputs farmers need, to delivering these inputs directly to farmers, to helping farmers convert their surpluses into value-added products and other profitable outputs.
Monitoring and Evaluation
If the foundation's theory of change is correct, then African small-scale farmers with access to input and output markets should readily adopt new farming practices and improved crop varieties that can enhance soil fertility and reduce crop losses, thereby increasing farm productivity, food security, and incomes of the rural poor. To determine whether this is indeed occurring and to accelerate learning about the effectiveness of each component of the strategy, the foundation is also funding a monitoring and evaluation component. Foundation officers work with grantees to ensure that cohorts of farmers in test groups are informed of and provided access to improved crop varieties, soil management technologies, and collective marketing opportunities. The progress of farmer adoption of each intervention is now being monitored, farmer interviews are being conducted, and comparisons are being made with locations where similar farmers did not have access to the interventions. All grantees in the target region meet regularly with the monitoring and evaluation team to discuss results. There have been spirited discussions, much has already been learned about why farmers do or do not adopt technologies, and useful modifications have been made in how the foundation seeks to help build agriculture value chains in rural Africa. Much of this learning and many of these Rockefeller Foundation–funded activities are now being transferred to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).