The African Centre for Biodiversity
PO Box 29170, Melville 2109 South Africa
Tel: +27 (0)11 486 1156

Dear friends and colleagues

The ACB has today released a new research report, titled "Farm Input Subsidy Programmes (FISPs): Benefiting or Betraying SADC's Small-Scale Farmers". This report shows that ten African governments have spent more than US$ 1 billion, close on 30% of their agricultural budgets, on large-scale farm input subsidy programmes (FISPs) since 2000. The programmes, which provide between 30-100% subsidies on the price of fertiliser and seed (normally hybrid maize), aim to reduce food insecurity and reduce rural poverty. Of the 15 countries that comprise of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Botswana and Lesotho offer universal input subsidy schemes, and Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe provide targeted, large-scale programmes. The remaining countries, including South Africa, practice ad hoc subsidisation.

The report argues that the FISPs have not achieved their intended goals. In Malawi, for example, there is a net transfer away from rural households using Green Revolution inputs because the additional cost is not always recouped from the sale of the harvest. In Botswana, the introduction of the FISP has actually increased the number of subsistence farmers in the country. The focus on hybrid maize seed tends to increase maize cultivation in order for farmers to access the subsidy, often by expanding cultivation onto marginal or fallow land. This tends to reduce opportunities for farmers to practice sustainable soil fertility management techniques in favour of blanket applications of nitrogen-based fertilisers. These are not appropriate to many of Africa's agro-ecological zones, and have negative implications for soil health.

The FISPs also tend to be used to gain political favour. This is true in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia, and evidence suggests that significant amounts of inputs are diverted or leaked onto secondary markets by politicians or wealthy elites. An estimated 60% of all inputs are lost in this way in Tanzania. Claims that the FISPs have contributed to increasing yields are disputed. In Malawi, the poster child for Green Revolution input subsidies, there is evidence that data has been manipulated and yields overestimated. A government study found that rural poverty levels actually increased after the introduction of Malawi's FISP in 2005. It does not appear that the FISPs help small-scale farmers (particularly the most vulnerable, such as women) in a long-term, supportive and sustainable way. Despite programmes stretching back more than a decade in some cases, rural poverty has not been reduced significantly in any of these countries.

Resources that could be directed towards localising soil science, research and development and improving extension services and rural infrastructure - public goods with lasting benefits - is instead directed increasingly towards better-off farmers with larger landholdings. Input suppliers such as seed and agrochemical companies benefit the most as they are awarded large contracts, with guaranteed markets at public expense.

In short, FISPS do not help build the resilient, sustainable farming and food systems that are necessary in a world facing diverse ecological, economic and social challenges. It is clear that a transition to agro-ecology is required as a matter of urgency, to bring about the sustainable food systems of the future, formed through the collective, inclusive and democratic co-generation of the knowledge held by farmers, consumers and African governments, who are meant to serve the interests of their (farming) populations.

Download the report