The green revolution in the Great Lakes region of Africa put to the test: What the COVID-19 crisis can teach us

The green revolution in the Great Lakes region of Africa put to the test: What the COVID-19 crisis can teach us

14 sept 2021
by Anuarite Bashizi & An Ansoms

In this blog, Bashizi and Ansoms demonstrate that the COVID-19 crisis forces us to question the resilience of the Green Revolution model - as implemented in today's Africa - to local, continental and global crises.


Photo by Rowan Simpson on Unsplash

In the early 2000s, countries of the African Union agreed to invest massively in agriculture within the framework of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD, 2001). This program has been strongly supported by the World Bank since 2008. It ambitions matched with the World Bank's desire to favor an agro-industrial approach to agriculture, focusing upon the promotion of profit maximization, poverty reduction and the eradication of food insecurity (Vilain 2015).

Countries in the Great Lakes region of Africa have aligned their rural policies with the ambition to ‘modernise’ agricultural production, although the exercise remained theoretical for some countries. Rwanda, however, has proven to be an efficient adopter. In alignment with its 2004 agricultural program geared towards a 'green revolution', the country has hosted several agro-industrial projects who aim at agricultural intensification (Rwanda MINECOFIN, 2020). Thousands of farmers have been stimulated – or pushed - to replace subsistence farming with commercialized agriculture (Ansoms et Hilhorst, 2014). They have adopted 'modern' agricultural practices in favour of production maximization - such as the use of improved seeds and chemical fertilizers. Burundi and the DRC on the other hand, have failed to implement their agricultural programs although also their agricultural policies prioritize investment in market agriculture.

While several studies have evaluated agricultural programs in the Great Lakes region of Africa, limited attention has been paid to how these programmes interact with and react to crises. The COVID-19 context therefore provides an interesting time window, offering us with an opportunity to interrogate the effectiveness of the productivist agricultural model in the context of the pandemic and, more generally, to assess its sustainability and resilience in the face of crises.

Four dynamics have marked the way in which the agricultural sector in the Great Lakes region of Africa has been affected by Covid-19: (1) the suspension of harvesting and disturbed food markets, (2) difficult access to agricultural inputs, (3) agro-industrial projects put to halt, and (4) lack of employment for people dependent on daily wage labour.

First, the crisis has strongly affected farmers' capacity to harvest and to access markets. The onset of the pandemic crisis generated a rush on food while food supply chain activities slowed down. Generally, in the rural areas of Africa's Great Lakes region, harvesting is done through manual labour working side by side. With measures prohibiting the gathering of people – and with total quarantine installed between March and June 2020 - farmers were forced to suspend their harvest. Leaving crops in the fields beyond their harvesting period, led to the deterioration of harvests. In many cases, crops were stolen. Moreover, the distorted mobility between rural and urban areas, between cross-border areas, and because of the suspension of public transportation impeded farmers to bring their crops to the market. Local markets in rural areas were not able to absorb all agricultural production. This was especially problematic in Rwanda, where people had been forced to specialize in cash crops. Large quantities of the harvest remained in storage, often in inadequate conditions. Those who had taken out bank loans to pre-finance the purchase of seeds, were confronted with considerable losses. Meanwhile, in urban markets - dependent on rural production and food imports - there was a shortage of food, which led to a significant increase in food prices and a disruption of people's nutrition (Desbureaux et al. 2020).

Second, Covid-19 measures also had a string impact upon farmers’ access to improved seeds, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. These inputs or their raw materials are usually produced and supplied by firms located outside the region, and were difficult to access during Covid-19. Again, Rwandan farmers have been more strongly affected given that over the years 'modern techniques' - imposed by agrarian policies - have pushed farmers to abandon local seed multiplication. As a result of this difficulty, some 'modernized' farmers have missed the 2020 B cropping season because they could not access seeds. Others have turned to private markets where they purchased improved seeds at very high prices. Still others resorted to old seeds that they had secretly kept in order to plant something. The difficulty of accessing ‘obligatorily-imposed’ seeds has also been used as a pretext by farmers to abandon monocropping and to plant their own preferred crops.

Third, several larger scale agri-food projects were put to halt due to the limited mobility of people between districts and across borders. Their contractors often live in urban areas.  The lack of access to their agricultural concessions - located in rural areas or in neighbouring countries – impeded the monitoring of their projects. In the Ruzizi plain in the DRC, for example, several hectares of land exploited by Rwandan and Burundian entrepreneurs were abandoned during the entire period of border closure. At the same time, donors suspended part of their activities - including the distribution of inputs, sensitization to modern agricultural practices, the granting of subsidies and aid, etc. This severely complicated the situation for local farmers who had become dependent upon these inputs.

But even more problematic was the effect of disrupted mobility on the livelihoods of thousands of people who are dependent on access to daily wage-labour jobs in the agrarian sector. Given the lack of land and the concentration of natural resources in the hands of fewer people, young people in rural areas of the African Great Lakes have become increasingly dependent on seasonal or daily labour. They are often highly mobile, traveling from one region to another, depending on the labour needs of agricultural entrepreneurs.  As a result of confinement and mobility restrictions, many people who were already living in precarious situations have found themselves without employment, and thus without the necessary means of subsistence.

Our observations raise many questions about the viability of a 'modern' agricultural model focusing mainly upon maximal productivity. Indeed, the agro-industrial model - which was supposed to guarantee food security for the population (World Bank 2008) – has appeared to be non-resilient to the COVID-19 crisis. The context of COVID-19 caused agribusiness producers to suffer significant income losses. But above all, the small-scale farmers - who were obliged to be part of the 'modern' model - were the ones who lost most. Particularly in Rwanda, many rural areas have not been able to access a balanced food diet due to the unavailability of crop diversity in fields or on markets.

Although the response to COVID-19 was necessary to control the spread of virus, the various measures severely disrupted the food supply chain and significantly affected people's access to food. The COVID-19-time window shows us that agrarian public policies – inspired by a neoliberal vision - may not only be problematic in terms of long-term sustainability; they may also be less resilient to crises. The experience of COVID-19 obliges us to further call into question the Green Revolution model in Africa.

Anuarite Bashizi is a post-doc researcher at the Catholic University of Louvain and researcher at CEGEMI (Catholic University of Bukavu)

An Ansoms is professor of development studies at the Catholic University of Louvain. She coordinates research projects on rural resilience and conflicts related to natural resources in the African Great Lakes region.

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