The War on Africa’s Family Farmers

The opening line in the World Bank’s ‘World Development Report 2008 — Agriculture for Development’ goes like this: ‘An African woman bent under the sun, weeding sorghum in an arid field with a hoe, a child strapped on her back—a vivid image of rural poverty.’[1]

With all due respect to the team of World Bank experts who put together this extensive (and no doubt very expensive) 365-page report, there are problems with this picture. Conspicuously absent are the woman’s family members and other women with whom she may be chatting and laughing as she weeds. And she may be quite happy to have her baby snuggled against her back – where better for both mother and child?

But its lack of context and narrow focus are not the only problems with this World Bank ‘vivid image of rural poverty’. It’s a one-dimensional stereotype concocted to arouse pity rather than inspire the respect that Africa’s farmers deserve. It ignores their intricate knowledge of local resources, the crop varieties they have developed to cope with a wide range of soil and climatic conditions, their complex and resilient agro-ecological family farming systems. It misses the bigger picture, the myriad other crops that the woman undoubtedly cultivates on a very agro-biodiverse family farm, the valuable trees that she and her family depend on for income, food, fibre, medicine, wood and that the soils depend on for fertility and protection. It perpetuates the false notion that Africa’s family farms are inefficient and non-productive.

It ignores the importance of the family unit and the solidarity of the rural community, its advantages over urban slums. It misses the enthusiasm, ingenuity and energy of Africa’s farmers who continue to produce their own dazzling array of crops and the seeds for them. The stereotype doesn’t jive with reality of women’s farming groups like the indefatigable women of Petaka in Mali, the determined ‘Perseverance Women’s Group’ in the village of Bongor in Sierra Leone, the exuberant ‘Rural Housewives’ Group’ in the village of Ngalli II in Cameroon singing and dancing all the way to their agro-forest.

Countless more farmer groups (male and female) across the continent are working tirelessly to increase their incomes, against all the political and economic odds stacked against them, and in the face of increasing hardship of climate change that they are not causing.

But this kind of detail and perspective would spoil the stereotype the World Bank is promoting of the universally hapless, helpless African farmer, unable to do much of anything without the wisdom of World Bank and its corporate friends.

A Vivid Image of Modern Urban Wealth, Hubris and Greed?

Since the World Bank seems comfortable with the business of stereotypes, perhaps we should offer them another one: ‘A clique of very powerful, well-fed and very rich corporate tycoons and bankers clad in expensive suits, meeting around a gleaming Board Room table and deciding how to ‘unlock’ the future of African agriculture – a vivid image of 21st century urban wealth, hubris and greed.’

In late January this year, the World Bank hosted just such a high-level meeting of ‘experts’ at its headquarters in Washington, DC. Their purpose was to ‘unlock Africa’s agriculture,’ ‘assist African smallholder farmers to transition from subsistence to commercial farming’ and to ‘help nurse Africa’s baby agricultural industry to maturity’.[2]

Hosting the confab was the World Bank president himself, Robert Zoellick, formerly vice chairman of the Goldman Sachs Group, one of the most powerful and wealthiest investment banks on earth. And who were these handpicked ‘experts’ that he invited to Washington to decide the fate of millions of African farmers? Unfortunately, we don’t have the complete list because the World Bank has failed to respond to repeated requests for this information. So we have only a short World Bank report on the meeting to give us some idea of which ‘experts’ were present. What is almost certain is that not one of them has ever looked past the stereotype they themselves are developing of Africa’s family farmers – and their farms – as pathetic, immature and unproductive.

Among those represented at the meeting were, for example, the US-based retail giant, Walmart, and the South Africa-based retailer Shoprite, and beer maker SABMiller. The report says that they ‘spoke exciting [sic] about their belief in the African small farmer’.[3] Also present at the meeting were Standard Chartered and Cargill.

It is not obvious that these participants are ‘experts’ on Africa’s family farming or understand the very real problems that they face and therefore, what the solutions would be for them. But proposing grandiose solutions without first diagnosing the causes of what ails Africa and her people has never stopped the World Bank, corporations and the odd billionaire from prescribing the wrong medicine for the continent.

The Structural Adjustment Programs, for instance, which were then replaced by Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, have all involved austerity budgets that have slashed health and education budgets, agricultural extension services and support programs for family farmers and rural communities. The Green Revolution supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations emphasises global markets, imported seed, fertilisers and pesticides, and merely threatens the diversity and resilience of agro-ecological family farms.[4] Furthermore, on the advice of so-called ‘donors’, the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund, trade liberalisation has cranked open African doors to the flooding of local markets with cheap and imported – often subsidized – foodstuffs that undermine local economies.[5]

All of this leads to ever-increasing hardship for Africa’s family farmers. Even with all the enormous obstacles in their way – poor roads, lack of access to markets and basic amenities such as schooling, lack of storage and processing equipment, unfair competition from dumped produce from overseas, bad advice from foreign experts, climate change and a serious lack of respect – Africa’s smallholders still manage to produce 80 per cent of the continent’s food.[6]

But now it seems that the World Bank and its corporate friends have yet another even more dangerous plan for Africa and her farmers. This involves taking over Africa’s agriculture so that corporations and wealthy investors will ultimately control the production and sale of food, agrofuels and other commodities grown on the continent. That same old corporate strategy that has already decimated the North American family farms and food system, taking complete control of the food chain with a ‘Corporate Food Crusade’.[7]

They don’t frame it that way, of course. The ‘experts’ at the World Bank meeting spoke of boosting ‘the productivity of Africa’s farm sector, creating jobs, improving livelihoods and alleviating poverty’.[8] You’d swear that they were kind, compassionate people sincerely interested in the welfare of Africa’s family farmers and food security on the continent. Until, that is, you examine who they are and what it is they really have in mind for African agriculture.

Who Are These ‘Experts’ Who Will ‘Unlock’ Africa’s Agriculture?

Walmart is the world’s largest retailer, owned by the Walton family in the US. The net wealth of the four Waltons is about US$90 billion; on the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires they rank 10th, 20th, 21st and 22nd.[9] Walmart is known for its extremely low wages and cutthroat business practises in its global sourcing network, which drive down prices no matter what cost to producers. Walmart has given rise to the term ‘Walmartisation’, synonymous with union-bashing and a race to the bottom.[10] Walmart’s foundation has set aside US$1 billion to ‘invest in agriculture in Africa’.[11] Given its own record of cutting costs and increasing profits on the backs of employees and producers, it is difficult to imagine that Walmart has even a microscopic shred of interest in the welfare of Africa’s farmers.

Another presence at the World Bank meeting was Cargill, the world’s largest agribusiness and food trader, the world’s largest privately owned company.[12] Cargill is not an obvious candidate to be best friend to family farmers in Africa, or to anyone else for that matter. Among other things, the company has been sued on behalf of trafficked children who were abused on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast,[13] has been responsible for food contamination [14] and for causing rampant deforestation.[15]

SAB Miller is a global brewing and bottling giant, a major bottler of Coca Cola.[16] The company, with profits of over 2 billion British pounds a year, has been accused of using tax havens to evade 20 million pounds worth of taxes across Africa and in India.[17] Predictably SAB Miller ‘strongly rejects’ the allegations.[18]

Standard Chartered, also among the ‘experts’ in Washington to ‘unlock’ African agriculture, is a multinational financial services company dating back to colonial times when its profits accrued from British colonies.[19] Its recent history is chequered with scandals, described benignly in business circles as ‘ethical lapses’.[20] Standard Chartered is now heavily into private banking,[21] a euphemism for socking very wealthy people’s money away in tax havens.

So what on earth were representatives of such corporate giants and banks doing meeting behind closed doors with the World Bank president to discuss African agriculture? Their intentions, while shrouded in corporate-speak, can only be understood by reading between the lines of the World Bank report.

First, they appear to be after farmland. The World Bank Group, despite its claim to be promoting ‘responsible agricultural investment’[22] is fully behind the land grabbing in Africa. It helps set up investment promotion agencies and provides consultants to help foreign investors get their hands on massive tracts of land, often with extremely generous tax holidays.[23]

At the Washington meeting, participants said there is a need for more agricultural investment in Africa, where ‘60 percent of all arable land continues to lie fallow’ or is ‘uncultivated’. The implication here is that fallow or ‘uncultivated’ land is somehow unused and available for investors to gobble up. A beginner’s guide to environmental sustainability and agro-ecological agriculture would teach them that fallow land is immensely important. It improves soil fertility, preserves biodiversity, protects precious water and soil resources, acts as a crucial source for firewood and construction materials, for medicines, wild annual crops and tree crops, and straight-from-the-tree delights such as palm wine. Fallow periods are becoming shorter,[24] suggesting that there is not a surplus of arable land in Africa, but increasingly a shortage of it.

‘Today’s scientific evidence,’ says the UN Special Rapporteur on Food, ‘demonstrates that agro-ecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live — especially in unfavorable environments.’[25] Using agro-ecological methods, family farmers could double food production in critical regions in the next ten years and also improve the situation of the poorest.’[26]

But such evidence seems to have eluded the ‘experts’ meeting at the World Bank. They spoke not of family farms but of ‘private farms’ – undoubtedly mechanised plantations doused with chemicals and heavily irrigated, planted with a handful of seed varieties (including genetically modified ones), which will be in the hands of enormous investors – to ‘satisfy demand from global retail giants like Walmart and Shoprite’.[27] These ‘private farms’ can, they say, ‘provide jobs, help raise farmers’ incomes [as lowly paid farm labourers? tenant farmers?], improve livelihoods in rural communities as well as provide health, education and housing services to rural dwellers’.[28]

These are precisely the fallacious arguments being used by foreign investors – hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds, corporations – that have already grabbed tens of millions of hectares of Africa’s land to transform it into giant plantations that are the anti-thesis of the family farms.[29] These corporations and bankers do not believe in farming as a way of life; they believe in farming as a very profitable business that they control. Their goal is not to improve family farming in Africa, but to eradicate it.

Interestingly, the ‘experts’ from the top end of the private sector, corporations and banks worth billions of dollars, claim that to transform African agriculture, they should be able to access public money. In Washington, they argued that, ‘Success will come if African governments and donors worry less about the public dollar finding its way into the private bottom line.’[30] In their distorted worldview, by turning Africans into labourers on their own land, they will be ‘rendering a public service’ and they ‘should be able to benefit from public funding.’

One wonders how their ‘free market’ ideology, their disdain for the public sector and loathing of taxes reconciles with their desire to suckle from the public teat.

A Global Corporate Assault

The World Bank meeting is just part of a global assault that is being waged on Africa’s farmers by giant corporations and financial interests. The World Economic Forum in Davos is also in on the act, with its report ‘Realizing a New Vision for Agriculture — A Roadmap for Stakeholders.’[31] The stakeholders that ‘championed’ the initiative are 17 giant global corporations, ‘Archer Daniels Midland, BASF, Bunge, Cargill, The Coca-Cola Company, DuPont, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Metro, Monsanto Company, Nestlé, PepsiCo, SABMiller, Syngenta, Unilever, Wal-Mart Stores and Yara International’.[32]

These corporations, about as far removed from Africa’s family farmers as one can get and still be in the same universe, reportedly ‘contributed tremendous leadership and technical expertise’. The report recommends ‘market-based solutions’ but would have us believe their real interest is to help the world’s rural poor.

Across the continent, donors and governments echo the same rhetoric, saying that agriculture must become ‘agribusiness’, that farmers must produce for the global marketplace, that the private sector (with public money?) is the answer, the ‘hoe and cutlass’ are no longer viable; mechanisation on large privately held plots of land are the future.[33] This is coming at a time that the UN Special Rapporteur on Food is warning that farmers around the world need to wean themselves off fossil fuels.[34] Africa’s farmers won’t need to do that, if they are allowed to keep their land and their farms – they’ve never become addicted to fossil fuels.

To soften up the public to accept this massive takeover of Africa’s land, seeds, farms, water resources – this War on Africa’s Family Farmers – the corporate ‘experts’ and bankers start with stereotypes that reduce the African farmer to an object of pity and derision as backwards and dirt-poor. Conjure up that ‘vivid image of rural poverty’.

Once again, it pays to consider an alternative image, one of the wage-earning woman turned labourer on land she once farmed. This one is real and it comes from one of those corporate ‘farms’ in Africa, on a 20,000-hectare lease taken out by Addax Bioenergy of the Addax & Oryx Group on 20,000 hectares of land in Sierra Leone, for the production of sugarcane for ethanol to be exported to Europe. A woman, once a farmer and now a labourer on the Addax plantation, approaches visitors with open arms, begging them to look at her ‘diminished’ body now that she is toiling under the hot sun, carrying sugarcane for a large corporation and earning about US$2 a day.[35] This doesn’t even begin to compensate her for the loss of her farm and the many crops she once grew to feed herself and her family – a vivid image of the truly impoverished life of a lowly paid farm labourer on a corporate plantation in Africa. But this image – of the future they envision for Africa’s farmers – is not one that the World Bank and large corporations wish to visit.

Brought to You By Pambazuka News

* Joan Baxter is a journalist, development researcher and award-winning author. Her book ‘ Dust From Our Eyes – An Unblinkered Look at Africa’ is published by Pambazuka Press.

Photo from Flickr by ILRI


[1] World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development. 2007. Washington, DC: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank. p 1
[2] World Bank. 29 January 2011. Concessional funding key to unlock Africa’s agriculture. Washington, DC: The World Bank.
[3] Ibid
[4] Food First Institute for Food and Development Policy. Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA) Fact Sheet.
[5] Christian Aid. June 2005. The economics of failure: the real cost of ‘free’ trade for poor countries
[6] See: Steering Committee of the Pan-African Campaign: We Are the Solution: Celebrating African Family Farming. 7 February 2011. Dakar Declaration. Available at: AND: Altieri, Miguel A. 2009. Agroecology, small farms and food sovereignty. Monthly Review.
[7] Food First Institute for Food and Development Policy. 3 February 2011. Onward Corporate Soldiers: colonizing the poor for their own good.

[8] World Bank. 29 January 2011. Op. cit.
[9] Forbes. 9 March 2011. The World’ Billionaires.

[10] Colin McGranahan, analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein & Company, cited in: Stohlman, Joseph. 4 March 2011. Walmart enters Africa. Think Africa Press.
[11] World Bank. 29 January 2011. Op. cit.
[12] Forbes. Andrea Murphy, Private Eye. 8 February 2011. Private companies: 2011’s top spot?

[13] Keating, Gina. 16 July 2005. ADM, Nestle and Cargill sued to end trafficking, torture and forced labor on African cocoa farms. Reuters. Available at:
[14] United States Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service. 6 October 2007. Wisconsin Firm Recalls Ground Beef Products Due to Possible E. coli O157:H7 Contamination.
[15] Astor, Michael. 19 July 2006. Amazon port in stormy waters
U.S. company finds resistance by environmentalists. Associated Press. Available at:

[16] SABMiller, Overview.
[17] ActionAid. November 2010. Calling Time — Why SABMiller should stop dodging taxes in Africa.
[18] SABMiller News. 26 November 2010. SABMiller reacts to ActionAid’s report on tax in developing markets.

[19] Standard Chartered. History.

[20] Lee, Yoolim and Menon, Jon. 4 November 2009. Standard Chartered 79% return overtakes HSBC with Asian rebound. Bloomberg.
[21] 29 May 2007. Standard Chartered Bank sets up private banking HQ in Singapore.

[22] Deininger, Klaus and Byerlee, Derek. 2011. Rising global interest in farmland: can it yield sustainable and equitable benefits? Washington, DC: The World Bank. p xiv
[23] Baxter, Joan. 6 May 2010. Protecting the investors — but what about the people? Pambazuka News.

[24] Franzel, S. 1999. Socioeconomic factors affecting the adoption potential of improved tree fallows in Africa. Agroforestry Systems: 47: 305–321
[25] United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner. 8 March 2011. Eco-Farming Can Double Food Production in 10 Years, says new UN report.
[26] ‘Agroecology and the Right to Food’, Report presented at the 16th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. 8 March 2011.

[27] World Bank. 29 January 2011. Op. cit.
[28] Ibid
[29] For a collection of articles on the ‘farmland grab’ worldwide and in Africa, see the special website created by GRAIN:

[30] World Bank. 29 January 2011. Op. cit.
[31] World Economic Forum. 2010. Realizing a New Vision for Agriculture — A Roadmap for Stakeholders, prepared in collaboration with McKinsey & Company. Davos, Switzerland: World Economic Forum.

[32] Ibid. p 3
[33] Interviews conducted in Mali and Sierra Leone in 2010.
[34] Henshaw, Caroline. 8 March 2011. Farmers must be weaned off using oil, days U.N. expert. Wall Street Journal.

[35] Interview conducted in Sierra Leone in December 2010.