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Looking for a Greener Revolution: Visit to AGRA

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This is the first of a three-part series about our visit to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and AGRA grantees in Kenya.

We visited the headquarters of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in Nairobi, Kenya, this week. The organization, which began in 2006 with a $150 million grant from both the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which is one of the organizations supporting our Nourishing the Planet project), has some pretty ambitious--and controversial--goals for agriculture in Africa.

As we walked into the building, I couldn't help but think to myself that many of my friends and colleagues in the sustainable agriculture community would think that I was walking into the belly of the beast, so to speak. Try googling AGRA--and in addition to the organization's website, you'll find pages and pages of criticism about them from groups like GRAIN, Food First, and The Oakland Institute. But as part of our research for State of the World 2011, we thought we had to see--and hear--for ourselves what AGRA program representatives had to say about their work.

One thing that surprised me, but maybe it shouldn't have, is the candor and openness of everyone we talked to at AGRA.

We chatted first with Argent Chuula, a program officer in the Soil Health Program working on fertilizer business development. Mr. Chuula, who is from Zambia, joined AGRA from the fertilizer industry in September and had some interesting thoughts on fertilizer use--and misuse--in Africa. By trying to increase awareness about input markets for fertilizers, he's hoping to improve soil health. He compared the loss of nutrients from the soil all over Africa to a depleted bank account--"we've just been taking money out," he said, "and not depositing anything." In other words, soils have been mined of their nutrients without being replenished, causing 75 percent of the farmland in Africa to degrade.

While his job is to help increase fertilizer use in Eastern and Southern Africa, Mr. Chuula also stressed that "inorganic fertilizer alone can't improve soil health," and that a one-size-fits-all approach to fertilizer use can't work in Africa. Lots of "wrong" fertilizer is being used all across Africa, he noted, and what's needed is to use "the right fertilizer for the right crop at the right time."

By building up the private sector and creating a system of agro-dealers to distribute fertilizer, AGRA is hoping to reduce the gap between farmers and inputs. Over the past few years the distance farmers have had to travel to get seeds or fertilizer has gone from 17 kilometers to 3 kilometers in some countries, including Kenya. AGRA wants to ultimately reduce that distance to zero.

I have to admit, I'm more than a bit skeptical about this focus on free market, private enterprises because I don't think there's a guarantee it will help smallholders. Stay tuned for more about AGRA's work on that and other issues later this week.