The Greening of Africa

The Green Revolution happened in most parts of the world back in the middle of the 20th century, but it has not yet reached the continent of Africa. Last week the Rockefeller Foundation, one of America's largest private philanthropies, committed $50 million to a five-year program to increase the productivity of Africa's small farmers, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also put up $100 million. This "Alliance for a Green Revolution" aims to replicate the success of Rockefeller-led programs in Asia and Latin America during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, which helped many nations of the region kick-start a productive agricultural sector. Those earlier programs, critics say, made the mistake of relying too heavily on a rapid modernization of local agriculture, which lead to overuse of pesticides, over reliance on single crops and other problems. This time around, the foundation plans to take a more varied approach in nurturing small farms. NEWSWEEK'S Tony Dokoupil spoke with Judith Rodin, the Rockefeller Foundation's president, about the new initiative. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why is this program important?

Judith Rodin: In development work, there is no example of people being truly lifted out of poverty unless the issues of agriculture are addressed. This is perhaps the most fundamental example our ongoing effort to build [an infrastructure for] economic resilience and tilt the benefits of technology toward the poor and vulnerable.

How many people stand to be affected over the course of the program?

One hundred [million] to 200 million overall, but initially we expect to have an impact on the lives of tens of millions of people. The first phase is focused on reducing starvation by improving the productivity of small farms, but this becomes a basis for poverty reduction. For instance, introducing crops with shorter growth cycles encourages better school attendance because it frees children who work in the fields. It becomes a virtuous cycle that has all sorts of long-term benefits.

Why wasn't Africa part of the original Green Revolution?

At the time, the problem seemed more compelling in Latin America and Asia. Remember Africa is the only continent that has increased in poverty over the last half century.

Critics of the original Green Revolutions claim it hurt the environment with pesticides, hurt wildlife by farming habitat and hurt food security by breeding dependence on a single crop. How will the New Revolution be tailored to avoid these unwanted consequences?

We'll be building disease resistance into crops primarily through breeding, not pesticides. And those pesticides we do use will be in smaller doses. Finally, in Africa the habitat problem is reversed, with infertile land forcing more acres to be farmed; this program should bring a more concentrated land-use situation into play because farmers will be able to use their own land more effectively.

And how will the program be tailored to avoid trampling local tastes—another criticism of the first revolution?

We'll be working around cultural norms and local food preferences—breeding crops to suit—just as we'll be accommodating ecological differences, breeding crops for all weather [conditions].

What are the obstacles to implementing the program?

As the work moves further upstream to the creation of markets, and really far upstream to the governance of trade, the issue of government commitment and infrastructure are potential obstacles. But by demonstrating effectiveness now—with soils and seeds—we hope to build the necessary collective of goodwill among governments and between the private and public sector.

The idea is that better harvests will lead to better markets?

Absolutely—better harvests, better markets and then, ultimately, better politics to support the harvests and markets.