Frequently Asked Questions about AGRA’s role in inclusive agricultural transformation in Africa

Key Background

AGRA is an African institution, founded and led by Africans and with roots across the continent. The organization was founded by former UN Secretary-General the late Kofi Annan with funding from multiple international partners, in response to the need for an African institution to drive agriculture transformation across the continent. At AGRA , we understand that African farmers need uniquely African solutions, designed to meet their specific needs and environments in order to sustainably increase production, and gain access to rapidly growing agriculture markets. 

Our mission is to catalyse transformational change in agriculture across Africa, and to improve the lives of millions of smallholder farmers. Our three headline goals are: to directly reach 9 million farmers, to indirectly reach 21 million farmers with best-bet agricultural technologies and practice, and to help advance 11 countries on their inclusive agricultural transformation (IAT) pathways. We work with African partners, who identify and deploy approaches that are appropriate to the continent, and are alive the local context. We collaborate with African governments, with whom we partner and help them implement the priorities and policies contained in their national agricultural development strategies.

We are convinced that smallholder farmers must be given at least the same opportunities as their European, North American and Asian counterparts and opportunity to learn from things that went wrong in those geographies, such as loss of biodiversity, environmental pollution, over reliance on agro industries and lack of competitive markets.

We continue to refine our approach based on the evolving needs of our partner farmers, SMEs and African government priorities, while also considering long term risks due to climate change and other extreme events. Over the last 14 years, AGRA has achieved many successes, and has also learned a lot.  Among the lessons is the fact that the task of catalyzing transformation is difficult, and needs exceptional commitment, collective action,  structural change and investment.  African farmers, too, have shown huge potential when they gain access to high yielding, climate resilient and reliable seeds, finance and markets.  

AGRA has taken systematic measures to assess its impact.  The organization  has shown that an African institution with local knowledge and appropriate tools can help African governments and partners to achieve what has long not been possible – to transform the agricultural sector, focusing especially on the needs of the smallholder farmers, who form the bulk of the poorest on the continent.

Frequently asked questions:

The climate, soils and cultural values have shaped the African food systems and the choice of crops over centuries. ’Farmers grow different staple crops depending on region and/or country. Key staples in West Africa are cassava, sorghum and cow peas; in East Africa: maize, sweet potatoes and beans; in Southern Africa: maize, cow peas and cassava. Because of this, AGRA promotes a range of crops, and supports farm diversification through its network of village-based advisers and other partners.  

There have been some questions about our role in supporting monoculture.  However as an organization, we have supported the larger objective of farmers and government of achieving food security and poverty alleviation through developing and taking advantage of context-specific, high-yielding varieties. We have supported the release of 685 crop varieties which are now being grown by farmers across AGRA focus and neighboring countries along with agronomic recommendations. These include cereals (maize, rice, sorghum, millets, wheat, teff), legumes (beans, soybean, ground nuts, cow peas), roots and tubers (cassava, yams, sweet potatoes), and bananas.

Governed largely by the food habits and market opportunities, farmers usually grow more than one crop in a given area or change crops according to the seasons (intercropping and crop rotation). This is what AGRA promotes as part of integrated soil fertility management…  We support the use of improved blends of fertilizer, organic inputs, and improved germplasm, combined with the knowledge of how to target and adapt these practices to local conditions. We also aim to optimize the agronomic use of the applied nutrients in improving crop productivity, reducing cost and minimizing environmental effects. Where feasible, soil nitrogen constraints are reduced through the use of biological nitrogen fixation by integrating legumes and recycling of nutrients.. Organic resources are generated in the form of crop residues and manure derived from crop and livestock production, complemented by the judicious use of mineral fertilizer to fill nutrient gaps. All inputs are managed by sound agronomic and economic principles aimed at sustainable intensification.

AGRA believes that a strong private sector is crucial for the development of the agricultural sector and ending rural poverty and hunger.  The private sector is fundamental for innovation and R&D to flourish in establishing sustainable systems, by providing information and products to farmers that they can use to make informed choices.  AGRA believes that African farmers should have choices and access to technologies that other farmers around the world take for granted. We help unlock the private sector by linking farmers, SMEs, national actors and multinational corporations to give access to inputs and markets, and to help in building resilient food systems.

AGRA’s focus on the private sector has been with local home-grown SMEs as evidenced by the 119 seed companies established in 18 African countries since 2007. These enterprises have produced 847,655 MT of quality seed, which has benefited 25.1 million farmers. One advantage home-grown companies have over MNCs is that they produce seed from a wide range of crops grown by farmers e.g. sorghum, cow peas, rice, beans, soybeans and groundnuts. The MNCs mostly focus on one crop, such as maize.

AGRA’s primary focus is SMEs, often run by women entrepreneurs.  We have supported the establishment, training and certification of 40,000 agro-dealers, who make inputs available to farmers in mom-and-pop shops across AGRA focus countries. The distance travelled by farmers to get inputs has reduced from 30km in 2006 to an average of 10km as of 2020. The other category of SMEs we have supported and worked with are those involved in produce uptake and processing thus creating ready market for farmers.

AGRA works with African and global MNCs in two ways. First, we support national priorities to strengthen the policy environment for doing business in the agriculture sector. This includes policy reforms to streamline variety releases, seed inspection, certification, and plant variety protection.

Secondly, the organization also helps suppliers reach the agro-dealers and village-based advisors who work with farmers directly. These entrepreneurs distribute inputs and popularize technologies such as microdosing to improve soil fertility and access to improved varieties of seeds; both interventions are designed to increase yields for farmers and promote sustainability.

AGRA supports smallholder farmers’ growth and creates opportunities for them.  We know that poverty is exacerbated, soil health deteriorates, and uncontrolled extensification occurs when farmers do not have access to what they need to be productive, and are food insecure. AGRA believes that sustainable intensification and crop diversification is the best way to improve yields, incomes, and food security and reducing risk.

It has been falsely reported that AGRA promotes intensive, input heavy agriculture.  AGRA focuses on building local capacities to develop adapted crop varieties and fertilizer blends to address Africa’s depleted soils due to mining and limited application of fertilizer for centuries. We promote ISFM as a viable strategy and have trained over 800 African scientists at PhD and masters levels. These breeders and soil scientists have developed improved crop varieties and blended fertilizers with the required macro and micro nutrients.

Africa has heavily depleted soils, lacks key nutrients in its soil pool, and uses much less fertilizer per hectare than the rest of the world. In 2005, the AU set a target for fertilizer use of 50kg/ha by 2015 and to-date no African country has attained that target. Fertilizer use in Africa is 17 kg/ha compared to 250 kg/ha in more developed countries.

AGRA recognizes that the benefit and returns from applying inorganic fertilizers is high in soils where the soil organic carbon is high and soil water holding is improved through the application of organic resources. Hence, we encourage farmers in Africa to embrace integrated soil fertility management options, which combine both inorganic, organic, improved seed and other soil health improvement techniques like crop rotation.

AGRA supports the use of conventional breeding methods that allow farmers to provide inputs of what they want in crop varieties. This is achieved through participatory breeding practices, where farmers participate in crop selection at various stages of breeding, and in so doing traits of their choice are incorporated in the varieties. These preferred traits bring many benefits to farmers, including substantially increased yields, better taste, reduced cooking time, short maturity time, disease and pest resistance, drought resistance, and specificity to the ecosystem of the community.

Many of the crops AGRA supports and that farmers are using have been bred to have resistance to pest and diseases and therefore do not require use of pesticides for control. For instance, newly developed Cassava varieties are resistant to diseases like African cassava mosaic, and, therefore, do not require the use of pesticides. Maize has been bred to be resistant to the maize streak virus and leaf spot diseases, while rice has been made resistant to rice yellow mottle virus. These and other crop varieties have been developed and supported by AGRA through partnerships with national research systems and local seed companies. They are sold through agro-dealers in mom-and-pop shops, and are widely adopted by farmers.

Africa is recognized as having at least a quarter of the biodiversity in the world, although many of its habitats are being subjected to tremendous pressure from ever expanding agriculture, overgrazing, urban development and burgeoning human populations.

AGRA interventions have positively contributed to the minimization of biodiversity loss, and increasing the diversification of production systems through the following investments:

  1. Increasing genetic diversity: AGRA supports new crop varieties with differing maturity periods, colours, and genetic traits that not only increase yield but also enhance the diversity of crops in farmers’ fields and landscape. This diversity addresses the possible effects of climate change on biodiversity, by reducing the disappearance of crop species as climate shifts, and by providing food options for pollinators and other organisms.
  2. Improving soil health: For the last 15 years, AGRA has been working on improving soil health in 11 countries in Africa, which facilitates conservation outcomes by enhancing above and below ground biodiversity. Reducing land degradation reduces the direct pressures on biodiversity and promotes the sustainable use of land. AGRA has found that increasing production and productivity per area helps farmers to increase their food supply and income, reducing pressure on opening up new land covered by wetlands, forest areas and other protected territories. For instance, the use of yield enhancing technologies like improved seed, and inorganic and organic fertilizers, accompanied by good agronomic practices reduces pressure on forests and helps avoid land use changes by increasing the productivity of available arable land. This approach is recognized in the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO’s) International Code of Conduct for the Sustainable Use and Management of Fertilizer (FAO, 2019). Judicious use of fertilizers also help to build carbon sinks in agricultural soils by maximizing their biomass production, which results in higher levels of soil organic matter and the soil organic carbon pool.
  3. Sustainable landscapes: AGRA employs landscape interventions that reduce the erosion of biodiversity and improve the health of habitats. These include regenerative agriculture practices, crop rotation, the increase of tree cover and increase of crop and forage types in home gardens, farms and landscapes.

AGRA has never and does not work with or promote the use of GMOs. The organization has been falsely accused by some critics of doing so, even as they lack any evidence of the same.

AGRA supports the use of conventional breeding methods that allow farmers to provide input of what they want in crop varieties. This is achieved through participatory breeding strategies, where farmers participate in crop selection at various stages of breeding, and in so doing traits of their choice are incorporated in the varieties.  For more information please refer to question 4 above.

AGRA is a technical, knowledge-based organization that stays abreast of advances in scientific thinking and practice, and applies an adaptive and context-specific approach to its strategy. We consider our role as an African-owned and managed institution to be critical to taking the best global practices and applying them to individual country contexts  This allows us to help countries avoid past development mistakes, and develop and roll out uniquely African solutions to African problems.

AGRA’s experiences from the field shows that farmers’ livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa can be transformed through employing four intertwined systemic investments namely: (i) optimized use and management of resources through agroecological principles; (ii) transformation from subsistence to profitable farming through improved market linkages and agroecology-friendly incentive mechanisms; (iii) improved last mile delivery using context-specific agroecological innovations; and (iv) promoting policies and regulatory mechanisms in favour of smallholder farmers and their service providers.

We use context-specific entry points to facilitate science-based system change, informed by emerging thinking on agroecology and resilient food systems. Our entry points, seeds, organic and inorganic fertilizers, help farmers to access drought resistant and nutrient dense varieties along with improved soil health practices that promote nutrient use efficiency, soil carbon build-up and sustainable farming, while addressing food security and income. This has resulted in about 2.27 million smallholder farmers adopting improved soil health practices on 1.8 million hectares of land. Farmers who used integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) technologies reported cereal yields of about 61% above those of farmers who did not use the technologies.  Boosting fertilizer use in Africa by 20% is predicted to raise yields of rice by 5.1%, wheat by 11%, and maize by 9.9%. This would permit 2 million hectares of currently cultivated land to be set aside for reforestation, thus sequestering carbon (Vlek et al. 2017).

Source: https://agra.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/SHP-Impact-Study-2020.pdf

AGRA believes that smallholder farmers are the key to sustainable development by ending hunger and rural poverty in Africa.  We fully support the targets of African governments to double yields, alongside the relevant Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Agricultural transformation is challenging, due to deep rooted structural and historical reasons. Change takes time.

We focus our support on input and output markets, extension services, policy reforms, directly or indirectly through partnerships with both public and private sector all aimed at ensuring farmers get better yields, food security and incomes. 

Increase in yields

AGRA’s 2019 Outcome Surveys by the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) put the adoption of maize related improved technologies in AGRA countries of operation at over 80% on average. In Nigeria, the report noted that there were yield improvements in maize by 40% over the 2016 baseline. In Mali, there was a 67% increase in cowpea yields over the 2016 baseline.

As yield trends can fluctuate sharply from year to year, for example with droughts, floods, fall army worm, locust infestations, and climate field conditions, we are reluctant to draw conclusions from this data until we have an additional two years of data for comparison. However, using data from FAO tracking rice and maize yields, Jayne and Sanchez (2021) argued that countries that were assisted to develop seed systems managed to increase yields.

Invested Countries:  Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia.

Non-Invested Countries:  Angola, Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Congo Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, DR Congo, Guinea, Togo.

It is important to note that with the COVID-19 interruptions, data was not collected in 2020 as planned. We will be reporting on the outcomes in AGRA focus countries as our teams resume data collection through the first half of 2021.

Case studies show that yields can double if input and output market systems are fixed. We have observed remarkable results when farmers can access the right kinds of seeds, fertilizer and knowledge, as well as access to markets.  The challenge for AGRA and its partners is to help develop these resources at scale and make them sustainable.

Have incomes increased?

Of the 10.14 million farmers reached directly, evidence from our outcome panel surveys shows 76% of them are using improved technologies/management practices on average across focus crops; 38% are using improved seed, 70% are using inorganic fertilizer, 47% are applying organic fertilizer, and 31% have access to formal financial services. We expect that the projected increase in yields will be a positive influence on incomes and food security over time.

AGRA is depending on multi-year income and food security data and cannot yet draw conclusions on how farmers are being affected in this way.  However, farmer surveys show increases in production and surplus.  Between 75% and 96% of AGRA farmers in the last year reported surpluses, with up to 30% of them showing reductions in post-harvest losses, and 30-60% of surpluses being sold. At least 67% of AGRA-supported farmers reported increased incomes since 2017 as a result.

AGRA went for scale as the only way to help catalyze inclusive agricultural transformation.  This provides a gateway to impact – and AGRA has come through on its targets. While AGRA awaits outcome survey data for 2021 and 2022, we have collected and analyzed available data and can conclude that we have supported and catalyzed change at farmer, systems and national level. In fact, the number of farmers benefiting from AGRA’s engagement could be much higher as our policy engagement in favour of small scale farmers yielded concrete policy reforms, with broad national influence. For instance, the policy change for free import of mechanization equipment in Ethiopia.

To give concrete examples of how farmers are reached, out of the 10.14 million farmers reached to date, 7.9 million (78%) had access to an integrated suite of services, normally more than one of the following: an  extensionist who trained them; received a pack of seed of  improved variety to try out in their plots; training on soil fertility management especially compositing and the use of organic manure, plant spacing, post-harvest loss management; training on appropriate use of fertilizers and other agronomic practices, and/or  access to an agro dealer from whom they could buy seeds and fertilizers. 

It should be noted that ‘reaching a farmer’ is not an outcome in itself. AGRA considers farmer reach to be a gateway to the impact that will effect agriculture transformation across the continent.

Specifically:

  • At farmer level, AGRA has seen 62% of supported farmers change their practice, largely due to our work at systems level (seeds, soil, knowledge, access to markets). There is emerging evidence that farmers are innovating and adopting technologies, seeing increases in yields, bringing more produce to market, and increasing their incomes.
  • AGRA has significantly strengthened the systems that support farmers – without which there can be no development of the sector and improvement in farmers lives.

AGRA significantly catalysed change through our Policy and State Capability (PSC) work, prioritizing successfully, and building important linkages with our work in systems and the private sector.

  • As an African institution, AGRA has been established as a trusted go-to partner for governments across its areas of operation. It engages both widely and deeply, and has been able to document improvements due to its work with partners in supporting governments.
  • The Flagship model of mobilizing governments to lead nationally prioritized investment plans has been successful. Design time has reduced, national ownership and prioritization has increased, and some $1.4 billion of resources have been mobilized.
  • AGRA has significantly supported policy reforms at both micro and macro levels, guided by government priorities, and has seen reform implemented in 60% of its cases.
  • Our regional food trade investments are leading to policy reforms to remove barriers to trade and new approaches to data, such as the Regional Food Balance Sheet. We have also supported improvement of market systems and off-taker engagement that more effectively connects farmers and structured trade opportunities.

AGRA assumes that a functioning government is a necessary condition for agricultural transformation, and thus works closely with governments to strengthen government capacity as well as to improve and reform policies and regulations affecting conditions in Africa’s smallholder agricultural value chains. Through its policy and state capability work, AGRA provides African governments with enhanced access to high quality and local technical expertise for identifying, analyzing and prioritizing policy and institutional reforms and regulations aimed at addressing fundamental challenges facing smallholder agribusinesses.  These include lack of access to good quality, timely and affordable inputs, lack of access to structured markets, as well as lack of access to critical support services (e.g., finance, extension, information, infrastructure, cost-effective logistics etc). In doing so, AGRA helps to build the capacity of African Governments to champion regulatory reforms that create incentives for increased private sector participation in smallholder value chains.

AGRA’s interventions are farmer-centric, and the overall goal is to ensure the delivery of sustainable benefits to smallholder farmers. Farmers are reached by these interventions directly through the increased uptake of high-quality seeds and fertilizers, and improved access to technological innovations and better access to remunerative markets. Indirectly, farmers also benefit from technological spill-overs through farmer-to-farmer peer learning, as well as improved farm gate prices, and strengthened market linkages that create positive economic incentives for improved agricultural productivity and better farmer incomes.

We have  worked with and supported the continental agenda, namely the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP), to ensure that the continental framework adds value and strengthens government efforts. Our investments  have contributed to progress in countries like Rwanda, Uganda, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Ghana as well as provided data and analytics to improve the performance review process at the continental level, helping countries to have a better understanding of gaps and develop clear plans of action to drive investments and increase the allocation towards the 10% CAADP commitment to government expenditure inin agriculture.