Corporate capture of seeds in Africa

by Jana M. Grieb

Pambazuka News | 12 May, 2016

Organic farmers from Machakos, Kenya, say that fertiliser and seed companies even deploy their own extension officers and agro-dealers in the villages, who aggressively advertise the use of their products. When their promises prove false, nobody compensates the farmers for their losses.

The seed is the first link in the food chain […]. If farmers do not have their own seeds or access to open pollinated varieties that they can save, improve and exchange, they have no seed sovereignty – and consequently no food sovereignty. (Shiva 2012)

As long as agriculture has existed, farmers have selected and saved healthy seeds for the next season and bred new varieties that ensure the conservation of agricultural biodiversity. Since scientists began breeding and producing seeds professionally, creating hybrids and genetically modified seeds in specialised laboratories, seed production has become a huge global business. Its aim is to create a harmonised global seed market with uniform products that encourages farmers all over the world to apply the same industrial model of agriculture. This involves buying expensive industrial seeds, fertilisers and chemical pesticides and using irrigation to achieve high yields and a standardised output at the expense of natural balance and in total ignorance of local ecological and climatic conditions.

We have seen this push for the commodification, financialisation and privatisation of nature in the recent surge of land and water grabs in Africa and the rising influence of  large transnational corporations (TNCs), like Monsanto, on African governments to implement their desired seed laws. However, the industrial mode of production puts small-scale farmers in great danger, as they lose control over their own land, soil and seeds, and ultimately over their food. This article draws on the experiences of farmer communities in Gatundu and Machakos, Kenya, who shared how large seed companies and seed policies endanger their livelihoods, and how they have organised themselves to fight back.

A ‘Green Revolution’ for Africa

The abundance of natural resources in Africa is a veritable goldmine for transnational corporations, governments, and development agencies,  that  seek  to  commercialise  and  privatise  whatever resource they can get a hold of: water, minerals, oil, renewable energy sources, forests, seeds. Agricultural land is one of their main targets. Land deals and illegal land grabs in Africa in the past decade cover an area larger than France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined [1] . The new interest in land is not surprising, given the fact that Africa has around 600 million hectares of uncultivated arable land [2] – a spotted opportunity for every international investor. And also the seed system is not yet under corporate control, since more than 80 per cent of all seed in Africa is produced and shared through ‘informal’ farmer-based seed systems (AFSA; GRAIN 2015: 5).

A whole armada of global players from the seed industry, development cooperation ministries, and various initiatives now push to establish a profitable market for private agricultural corporations in Africa and minimise state interference. These include the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the group of eight wealthiest countries (G8), the African Union, the Bill Gates-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and many more [3] . There is a call for a ‘Second Green Revolution’ for Africa that would supposedly ensure food security and foster economic development. But what could a ‘Green Revolution’ for Africa mean, taking into account the devastating effects the first one had on India and other countries?

Introduced in the 1950s by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, the ‘Green Revolution’ was applauded as a strategy to fight global hunger by spreading scientifically ‘improved’ plant varieties in developing countries. Indeed, the planting of these new high yielding crops (HYC) led to extreme yield increases in Asia and South America. Farmers extended the areas to grow rice and wheat at the expense of other crops. As a result, cereal production in Asia more than doubled between 1970 and 1995. The downsides of growing HYCs and other hybrid varieties were the high costs for huge amounts of fertilisers,  chemical  pesticides  and  irrigation  needed,  that  impoverished  the  soils. Farmers who could not afford these additional costs fell in debt over the years and were left with hectares of sterile land. Moreover, the rice and wheat monocultures led to a dramatic loss of biodiversity.  In  1995  the  UN  reported  that  75  per  cent  of  all  agricultural  biodiversity  had disappeared because of the introduction of ‘modern’ varieties [4].

The ‘Green Revolution’ of the 1970s did not flourish in Africa for various reasons. However, the key players of global capitalism are trying very hard to make up for that now. The Bill and Melinda Gates and  the  Rockefeller  Foundation  founded  the Alliance  for  a  Green  Revolution  in Africa (AGRA) in 2006, with the proclaimed aim to reduce hunger and ensure food security in Africa. Both their rhetoric and their methods are not new: By opening up the agricultural sector to large private investors and TNCs, AGRA aims at establishing high-input-agriculture with ‘improved seeds’ and fertilisers, all in the name of “meeting African farmers’ specific agricultural needs”[5] . AGRA is funded by several development ministries, foundations and programmes and the Government of Kenya.

Corporate control over seeds

The starting point for this new ‘Green Revolution’ are seeds, “the first link in the food chain” (Shiva, 2012). The best way to achieve corporate control over seeds is to push governments to introduce new seed laws. These include intellectual property laws and seed trade regulations, both measures to privatise seed production and ban non-registered farmers’ seeds. AGRA programme officer Jane Ininda emphasises the necessity to “put in place regulatory systems that can quickly test and allow an influx of new commercial varieties.”[6]. These ‘regulatory systems’ are advocated by a number of subregional African  bodies,  like  the  Southern African  Development  Community  (SADC),  the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), or the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO). Their market restrictions and plant variety protection schemes are borrowed directly from the US and Europe (AFSA; GRAIN 2015: 3).

COMESA, for example, set up regulations allowing only authorised seeds to be grown and marketed among  its  20  member  states [7]. Smallholder  farmers,  who  account  for  about  75  per  cent  of agricultural production on the continent,   were not included in the COMESA negotiations. Their farming methods are consequently put under threat. The large majority of farmers in Africa are family farmers, who till an average of 1.6 hectares of land (Salami; Kamara; Brixiova 2010: 21). Very little chemical fertilizers and pesticides are used in most African countries, except South Africa  (ibid.).  Seeds  are  saved  from  the  previous  harvest  and  grown  in  the  next  season. Traditionally,  women  carry(ied)  out  the  important  task  of  seed  selection.  Under  new  seed regulations the farmers’ informal seed exchange systems are criminalised. Their local varieties are not protected, because they don’t fall under PVP [8] criteria. The COMESA treaty prohibits transboundary movement of non-registered varieties.

Another measure is to create monopoles on seed production that dangerously limit the farmers’ choice over which seeds to buy. AGRA already involves more than 100 seed companies, that constitute around a third of the seed market [9]. Instead of their own seeds that have been carefully selected over the years, farmers are pushed to use industrial seeds, that are expensive and often not adapted to the specifics of the region. In Kenya, farmers have been reportedly receiving 6,000 shillings (US$ 92) in vouchers from the government to make them buy ‘improved’ seeds, fertilizers and pesticides [10]. The money comes from AGRA. It remains an open question, how the farmers will sustain the high costs of these inputs, once the donors stop subsidising.

Foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invest huge amounts of money in research [11] that is supposed to show the benefits of hybrid and GMO seeds. The same foundations are closely related to transnational corporations, who launch extensive marketing campaigns to sell their products. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who are supposedly so committed to improve farmers’ lives, own Monsanto shares valued at $23 million. The pressure to liberalise markets, harmonise seed laws and allow genetically modified organisms (GMO) seeds increases on those states, that receive financial aid from these foundations. Kenya for example, is on the verge of lifting its ban on GMOs, after Monsanto, the United States Agency for International Development and the Gates Foundation pushed for approval [12].

Organic farmers from Machakos, Kenya, shared that fertiliser and seed companies even deploy their own extension officers and agro-dealers in the villages, who aggressively advertise the use of their products. When their promises prove false, nobody compensates the farmers for their losses. Joyce Mueti, smallholder farmer from Machkos, explains that “we bought certified seeds and were told that if they do not grow, we send an SMS to the seed company. The crops failed and when we called the companies the calls did not go through!”.

Farmers resist

Fortunately many of the farmers reject the corporate seeds. Studies show that farmers in Uganda, Ghana, Benin, Kenya and Tanzania generally prefer their local varieties instead of varieties developed by ITA (International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria) [13]. Resistance against the seed industry grows and civil society organisations, like the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), are raising awareness for this subject.

In workshops organised by Fahamu Networks for Social Justice, organic farmers from Gatundu, Kenya, educated fellow farmers about the benefits of organic farming. They explained, that organic farming  is  very sustainable,  because  the variety of  crops  grown  ensure soil  fertility,  preserve biodiversity, and are less vulnerable to climate change. It is also cheaper, because they are not dependent on external inputs.

Farmers in Gatundu and Machakos in Kenya are committed to revive their traditional practices of seed  saving,  storing  and  selection.  They  are  determined  to  organise  themselves  to  spread information on how seed laws give agribusinesses control over farmers’ lives and ultimately over all of our lives, by determining what to plant and what to eat. Joyce Mueti from Machakos Samll Scale Farmers Association suggested: “Every farmer who has a farm near the road should from now put up a demo farm with billboard indicating indigenous seeds, this is the best way to counter the seed companies.”

* Jana M. Grieb is a political activist for refugee and migrant rights in Berlin. She studied Social Sciences and is currently doing an internship with Fahamu in Nairobi, Kenya.

End notes

[1] According to a CNN article Africa saw about 948 land deals between 2000 and 2011, covering an area of 124 million hectares, that is larger than France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined (Obasanja 2012).

[2] The figure of 600 million hectares arable land, which is approximately 60 percent of the global total, comes from an influential McKinsey Global Institute report (McKinsey Global Intitute 2010: 22).

[3] For a detailed overview of these key players, see AFSA; GRAIN 2015.

[4] Shiva 2012.


[6] GRAIN 2007: 2.

[7] COMESA member States: Burundi, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sudan, South Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe (GRAIN 2015: 16).

[8] “Plant variety protection (PVP) laws are specialised intellectual property rules designed to establish and protect monopoly rights for plant breeders over the plants types (varieties) they have developed.“ (AFSA; GRAIN 2015: 13).

[9] AGRA 2016.

[10] GRAIN 2007: 2.

[11] The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded  CGIAR, a consortium of 15 international research centres that promote the Green Revolution across the world, between 2013 and 2014 with around $720 million.

[12] Ecowatch 2016.

[13] GRAIN 2007: 4.


AGRA (2016): “A Green Evolution”, 12 March, URL: (retrieved 19/04/2016).

AFSA and GRAIN Report (2015): “Land and Seed Laws under Attack. Who is Pushing Changes in Africa?”, January, URL: attack-who-is-pushing-changes-in-africa (retrieved 14/04/2016).

Ecowatch (2016): “Monsanto and Gates Foundation Pressure Kenya to Lift Ban on GMOs”, 7 January, URL: (retrieved 20/04/2016).

GRAIN   Briefing   (2007):   “A   new   Green   Revolution   for   Africa?”,   November,   URL: (retrieved 14/04/2016).

Hazell, Peter (2003): „Green Revolution. Curse or Blessing. International Food Policy Research.“, (retrieved 15/10/2012).

Kästler, European Seed Laws

McKinsey Global Intitute, (2010): „Lions on the move: The progress and potential of African economies“, June, URL: the-move (retrieved 14/04/2016).

Obasanjo,  Olusegun (2012):  „How Africa  could  feed  the  world.“,  6  November,  CNN,  URL:      (retrieved 14/04/2016).

Salami, A.; Kamara, A.B.; Brixiova, Z. (2010): “Smallholder Agriculture in East Africa: Trends, Constraints and Opportunities”, Working Paper Series N. 105, Tunis: African Development Bank Group.

Shiva, Vandana (2012): „The seed emergency. The threat to food and democracy“, 6 February, Al Jazeera, URL: (retrieved 14/04/2016).



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