Bill Gates vows to defeat hunger & diseases in Ethiopia: Could entrenched political interests allow him? — PART III BY KEFFYALEW GEBREMEDHIN
Up until now, we have been in conversation the size of a half-marathon, prompted by the two articles under this title. The constructive criticisms received, most of all my compatriots’ guarded optimisms that have been punctuated by strong distrusts of politics, power and riches have been, have sufficient justifications and are, therefore, extremely instructive.
In general, representative comments of the majority of views can be filtered into three streams. The first one is brief, precise and categorical and, as one of them summed it up, “The root cause of famine or poverty in Ethiopia is poor governance.”
Feeling for the indignities suffered by a proud nation because of the interminable cycle of hunger and famine, the second stream cautions against this unfortunate situation being exploited to turn the country into the largest experiment in the developing world in genetically modified organisms (GMO) via improved seeds developed in laboratories.
In this context, citing the example of Mexican farmers, I presume in the 1970s, one of them compressed everyone’s concerns stating that once GMO contaminates “the natural crops or seeds, the local farmers will never be able to use or grow their  GMO free seeds, without buying GMO seeds.”
If this question is about the so-called ‘terminator gene’ and if I have understood him correctly, I heard on December 18, 2011 on the BBC our illustrious native son Prof. Gebisa Ejeta strongly disagreeing with that assumption in AC Graylings’ Conversation with Gebisa Ejeta .
The third stream has rather reduced the whole exercise to a swordfight between Meles Zenawi and Bill Gates, portraying both men as well practiced in getting their ways. Even then, it wanted to see reforms to go through to enable the country take advantage of new technologies, to help it, combined with its innate endowments, to ensure its food security.
It means that, therefore, we essentially would have to stick together for a while longer until we bring this conversation to its logical conclusion. The above issues need to be discussed, if we are lucky the concerned officials and experts, among others — Mr. Bill Gates, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Prof. Gebisa Ejeta and etc.— chipping in their perspectives.
I invite them through this article to seize the opportunity to respond in some form to the above three concerns, comments or questions. I do believe that these are not only Ethiopian concerns, but also issues on the minds of people the world over. One only needs to take the pressure already building on the United Nations, as it is preparing for the RIO+20 Conference next June. Civil Society Organizations are demanding banning of GMOs altogether, which goes a long was as an example of a world divided on the issue.
I included the illustrious native son Prof. Gebisa here possibly to help with making the sciences that are going into agricultural reform in Ethiopia understandable by ordinary people.
Still the question is what could Bill Gates’ motive be in doing what he is doing? Money? Arm-twist developing country leaders and have them pursue his strategy of transforming agriculture so that seed companies could make more money and his share in their companies grow? Power? His motivation goes beyond that! Already in his Annual Letter 2012, this is the hint he gives:
The world faces a clear choice. If we invest relatively modest amounts, many more poor farmers will be able to feed their families. If we don’t, one in seven people will continue living needlessly on the edge of starvation. My annual letter this year is an argument for making the choice to keep on helping extremely poor people build self-sufficiency.
For now, we should be content with what we know about he science of “philantrocapitalism”, as Addis Fortune referred to it in August 2011. Instead, we need to turn our attention to what is happening on the ground in Ethiopia, in response to the measures recommended by Bill Gates, i.e., the creation of the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA). As we discussed in the previous two articles under this title, its stated objective is to help transform Ethiopian agriculture.
A year in the life of ATA
For the last one year, ATA has been busy trying both to find its feet on the ground and also carry out its tasks. Its mandate of ATA is consistent with government’s five-year plan (FYGTP), at least, according to what the ATA has put on its webpage.
At the ATA, they say they take a systemic approach to the Agency’s mandate and address constraints to the productivity of Ethiopian smallholder farmers as its high priority program area, for which its approach would be simply problem solving . This means:
• Firstly, it develops a vision and roadmap for each sub-sector, and identifies and prioritizes the solutions with the aim of unlocking the bottlenecks.
• The second task has been to put in place implementation support. This means that partners play a major role in the realization of ATA’s mandate. Its supports and coordinates the activities to be implemented through the partner bodies.
In this context, the ATA team has been working for a little over a year now on interventions in:
• Teff testing and demonstrating productivity enhancing technologies. They have not specified what technologies these are;
• Seed interventions: Building efficient and well-regulated seed sector that provides farmers with affordable, high quality seeds of improved varieties for all key crops through multiple production and distribution channels. This involves testing and demonstrating the use of complex fertilizers to ensure that they respond to the different agro-ecological conditions and soil types; and,
• Creation of network of primary cooperatives: Up to now ATA has selected “50 representative leaders from government promotion agencies, federations, unions and primary cooperatives from four regions that shared their experiences in cooperative development.”
I should point out here that, according to recent media reports, ATA, in coordination with the ministry of agriculture, has drafted regulations governing seed distribution and the draft is before the council of ministers.
Also, I should point out that I couldn’t say with certainty what criteria were used for the selection of these 50 ‘representative leaders’, referred to above. It would be a disaster all over again, if those they chose are the very agents of the ruling party, who would only act as spies and affect with fear and suspicion the independence of other farmers to freely express their concerns and ask for help or raise systemic problems.
If that is the case regarding the election of these ’50 representatives’, one needs to restrain expectations about meaningful rural/agricultural reforms being realized. This is simply because, it would be regurgitation all over again of failed policies and dysfunctions of the present and the past.
Is everything about ATA as novel as they make it sound?
These activities in which the ATA has now been engaged are hardly new innovations for those Ethiopian scientists and agricultural experts still in the country. In this connection, recall what Sweden had experimented for more than a decade in integrated agricultural development known as ARDU & WADU. There was also the extension program largely supported by the United Nations and the United States.
ARDU for Arussi Rural Development Unit and WADU for Wolaytta Agricultural Development Unit experimented with the technologies of the time in respect of seeds and soil conservation. The two were developed as demonstration stations for the wider neighborhoods now in parts of Oromia and SNNPR to catalyze agricultural development in central and southern Ethiopia. Both projects were terminated almost around the onset of the revolution in 1974.
Impressive about ATA now is the resources muscle it is flexing, including the latest technologies, especially the seeds technology and the expertise it could mobilize at any time.
Before they were compelled to leave the country, many Ethiopian scientists—most of them products of the Alemaya University hugely benefitting in further education with US scholarships in cooperation with Oklahoma University—had similar objectives and approaches for the country’s development. In post-1974 and post 1991 Ethiopia, they felt their skills were unwanted, when the excessively ideological and politically overdosed state could find no time for their skills or resources to support their work.
At the height of their frustration, in September 2, 2011 some agricultural scientists organized a seminar presumably for Ethiopian journalists. It was entitled Media People Sensitization Workshop on the Generic Seed Issues, Ecological Agriculture and Farmers’ Rights. I dare say it was an attempt to get government’s attention, in vain though.
If not that, it was an attempt to send message to ATA of sharing similar views, while at the same time giving a reminder about the importance of preserving traditional knowledge, especially about seeds and biodiversity, the farming population has maintained for generations.
Amongst the many such scientists, a few of them with such concerns were:
• Dr. Melaku Worede, an internationally acclaimed Ethiopian scientist who has been recognized for the work he has done in plant genetic resources. He is also winner of Right Livelihood Award, commonly referred to as Alternative Nobel Prize, the Herman Warsh Memorial Award, USC Canada’s Seeds of Survival award, etc.,
• Agricultural research scientist Regassa Feyissa and Director of EOSA;
• Dr. Bayush Tsegaye, a crop genetic researcher in the Ethiopian Organic Seed Action (EOSA),
• Dr. Gemedo Dalle of the Ethiopian Institute of Biological Conservation; and,
• Ato Ayele Kebede HBF program manager.
At the seminar, Dr. Bayush Tsegaye stressed:
Poor farmers face challenges to meet the demands of high input varieties. In addition, loss of time-tested traditional knowledge and practices of farmers is getting more and more serious over time.
She said that farmers are told to get better harvests and ensure the country’s food security using improved seeds. Unfortunately, she remarked about the emptiness of this message because of the wide gap that exists between the amount of improved seeds that government could supply and the huge demand out there.
This is because of the lack of capacity of state enterprises, which are in charge of developing and disseminating improved seeds. They could not even meet the demands of 15 percent of Ethiopian farmers, as this webpage this matter in an earlier article.
On his part, Dr. Melaku Worede said that the issue of protecting and properly using farmers’ variety seeds is currently becoming a crucial issue in the field of agriculture, in which the media could contribute their part in the process of bringing about a resilient and sustainable agricultural system in the country.
The lesson of that seminar is sharing information with the public, much as it is about the rights of farmers, to point out the need for a roll back by the system that imposes control measures on farmers, instead of empowering them by allowing them to participate freely along with experts working on their side. This is also a lesson that needs some advocacy, if the Bill Gates and his team of experts are to make a difference.
Of course, there is optimism now, because in the past it was not only poverty being an obstacle. The problem was also in the nature of government in Ethiopia, past and present, who have little persuasion to give incentives, such as free seeds and other inputs, costly as it could be. In fact, for some odd reasons, farmers or other individuals, who had won awards usually, end up in prison the following year.
Anyways, with the huge support behind it, one can assume that, including substantial resources, ATA and its partners, could be capable of doing better and achieving more.
(To be continued)