PR professionals at RePlanet Africa and the Alliance for Science claim to speak for Africa. By Jonathan Matthews
Last month RePlanet Africa held small pro-GMO demonstrations in the capitals of both Uganda and Kenya in support of the widely opposed lifting by Kenya’s President of his country’s GMO ban. RePlanet Africa describes itself as “a grassroots movement” and Mark Lynas hailed this event as “Africa’s first pro-GMO peoples’ march”. But as Lynas previously misrepresented a pro-GMO protest in India by well-funded free market fundamentalists as “Ghandi-style civil disobedience” and “very grass roots”, it’s worth taking a closer look at RePlanet Africa and their “peoples’ march”.
Until very recently RePlanet described itself as a “pan-European” organisation and had no presence in Africa. Its African offshoot only surfaced shortly before the February 10 “peoples’ march”, with RePlanet Africa’s Twitter account and its Facebook page, which currently has just 26 followers, becoming active towards the end of January. And its website shows signs of having been hastily put together with generic text. For instance, RePlanet Africa’s “About Us” page refers to “a young European” organisation.
“Uganda’s ag biotech communications queen”
If RePlanet Africa is a new kid on the block, the “executive director” of this “grassroots movement”, Patricia Nanteza, is a seasoned PR professional. Nanteza has been promoting GM crops since 2015, when she left her job as a newsroom sub-editor in Kampala to plunge into “the world of corporate communications” and soon became the communications officer for the GMO banana project of the Uganda Banana Research Program. That same year she joined the inaugural Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows at Cornell in Ithaca, New York, on a 12-week intensive training course in the uncritical promotion of GM crops. The course is aimed at journalists and other young professionals from the Global South and particularly Africa.
Nanteza went on to become the director of training at the Alliance for Science, where she trains “up-and-coming champions for biotechnology on how to communicate in a way that causes changes in behaviour”. It has even been claimed that in her work at the Alliance ”she helped build a global pro-science movement” - “pro-science”, of course, being code for pro-GMO. As the Alliance’s director for Africa, she has also helped run local PR training courses in Kenya for scientists and “science writers” on the best ways to promote GM crops.
Her work has been so successful that an Alliance for Science blog calls Nanteza “Uganda’s ag biotech communications queen”, while CropLife International - the farm chemical and biotech industry trade body - named her one of its “Female FoodHeroes” for being such “a huge advocate for biotech crops”.
Comms professionals leading the self-interested
Nanteza was almost certainly recruited to head RePlanet Africa and organise the “peoples’ march” by Mark Lynas, RePlanet’s co-founder and “senior strategist”. Like Nanteza, Lynas is employed by the Alliance for Science, which is primarily funded by the Gates Foundation to promote GM crops, especially in Africa. His job descriptions at the Alliance have included “political director” and “communications strategist”.
As this “grassroots movement” is directed by comms professionals paid to promote GMOs, you won't be surprised to learn that employees of the Alliance for Science Kenya were among the “tens” of people that the local press said participated in RePlanet Africa’s #Walk4GMOs in the capital. Some of the employees of the other pro-GMO lobby groups clustered in Nairobi, such as the Open Forum for Biotechnology (OFAB) Kenya, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications’ (ISAAA’s) AfriCenter, and Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International, may also have taken part. Their big dollar funders include the Gates Foundation, USAID, and the biotech corporations.
Meanwhile in the Ugandan capital, according to local TV coverage, the protesters that Patricia Nanteza led on the streets of Kampala were “Students of biotechnology and biosciences and agricultural scientists” who “converged at Makerere University and thereafter took to the streets”. In other words, many of the careers of the marchers in Kenya and Uganda depend pretty directly on the promotion or adoption of GM crops. That doesn’t undercut their right as a special interest lobby to take to the streets, but comms professionals leading the self-interested amounts to something very different from a “peoples’ march”.
Who speaks for Africa?
In Patricia Nanteza’s bio at the Alliance for Science, she speaks about “the need for Africa to decide whether she needs this technology — not foreigners deciding the continent’s fate”. And the word “foreigners” is linked to a video titled “Let Africa speak for herself”, in which “Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellow Patricia Nanteza of Uganda tells how US/European anti-GMO scaremongering impacts people around the world”. The implication of the video is that any concerns raised in Africa about GMOs can be dismissed out of hand as inauthentic and “anti-science” messaging that has seeped into Africa from overseas via well-heeled foreigners.
That these claims of foreign influence come from a comms professional trained up in New York by an organisation given multi-million dollar funding by the Seattle-based Gates Foundation to support its technological choices in Africa, is beyond ironic – not least given that Gates’ development choices for Africa’s millions of small farmers just happen to suit the business and public relations agenda of extremely powerful US and European seed and chemical corporations.
Equally ironic is the fact that Patricia “Let Africa speak for herself” Nanteza’s other hat, RePlanet Africa, is not a genuinely African organisation keen to set its own agenda for agricultural development but merely the offshoot of one set up by a bunch of European ecomodernists strategically led by Nanteza’s British boss at the New York-based Alliance for Science.
Groups based in Africa have criticised Mark Lynas, the Alliance for Science and the Gates Foundation at length. The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), a coalition of more than 40 food and farming groups across Africa, says of Lynas: “The fly-in pundit’s contempt for African people, custom and tradition is unmistakeable. The patronising Mr Lynas showed no interest in Africa until he joined the multi-million dollar funded Alliance for Science biotech PR machine where he is now a communications and policy lead.” Million Belay, the director of AFSA, bluntly calls Lynas “a racist who is pushing a narrative that only industrial agriculture can save Africa. Get off our neck. African farmers know what is best for them. Your narrative has done so much damage to Africa.”
But don’t expect the Alliance for Science or RePlanet Africa to stop speaking for Africa any time soon, whether in the ears of decision makers or out on the streets.