Gates Foundation to Aid African Farmers

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The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation plans to help Africa produce food. In the 1960s, advances in crop breeding and farming technology sparked a green revolution. But, for a variety of reasons, most of Africa was left out. The new initiative hopes to succeed where past efforts have failed.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation says it wants to bring a revolution to farming in Africa, and it's joined forces with the Rockefeller Foundation to do it. Together, the foundations say they will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to put new technology in the hands of African farmers and help those farmers get better prices for their harvests.

Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES: Annette Namiyanja(ph) works with bean plants at the National Agricultural Research Organization in Kampala, Uganda. In March this year she got a special invitation from the Rockefeller Foundation, which helps fund her research. Would she travel to Kenya to present her work to visitors from America's wealthiest foundation? That's where Namiyanja met Melinda Gates.

Ms. ANNETTE NAMIYANJA (Researcher, National Agricultural Research Organization, Kampala, Uganda): (Unintelligible) at first we're going to meet Bill Gates, then (unintelligible) realize we're meeting the wife. Then we're like, wow, this is very interesting opportunity for some of us.

CHARLES: Namiyanja told Gates how, through careful selection and cross-pollination, she'd created two hardy varieties of beans. These plants fend off a disease that rots away the roots of most other plants.

And another plant breeder, Jane Ininda(ph) from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute showed Gates some new varieties of corn that produce good harvests even when there's not much rain.

Ms. JANE ININDA (Researcher, Agricultural Research Institute, Kenya): One of the questions I remember she asked me was how do you get the product that you have to the farmer? Because you know you can have the product on the station, but how does it get to the farmer?

CHARLES: Melinda Gates must have liked the answer. During a conference call announcing the new initiative, she called Jane Ininda a shining example of people she met on that trip who are bringing new energy to agriculture in Africa.

Ms. MELINDA GATES (Co-Chair, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation): And I came away convinced that they hold the potential to significantly improve the lives of the people of Africa.

CHARLES: Bill Gates said their foundation decided to launch a program on agriculture in Africa because of the simple fact that most Africans live and work on small farms. Give them the tools to increase their harvest and make more money, and it will transform their lives.

Mr. BILL GATES (Co-Chair, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation): So I want to stress that this is a long-term effort and one that we hope will not only dramatically increase agricultural productivity but also move millions of people out of extreme poverty and reduce hunger.

CHARLES: The foundations are calling it an alliance for a green revolution in Africa. The Rockefeller Foundation played a big role in the original green revolution, which started 40 years ago. It funded plant breeders who created new, highly productive kinds of wheat and rice. Asian governments distributed those seeds to farmers across the most fertile parts of the continent, provided irrigation, and made sure farmers had access to cheap fertilizer. Food production in Asia doubled, and one of the plant breeders, Norman Borlaug, won a Nobel Peace Prize.

But the green revolution never happened in Africa despite 40 years of trying. It's the only continent where food production per person has actually been falling. There's a long list of reasons.

Karen Brooks(ph), who manages the World Bank's work on agriculture in East Africa, says to start with, African farmers don't depend on just a few crops like wheat and rice.

Ms. KAREN BROOKS (East Africa Agricultural Manager, World Bank): You've got bananas. You've got sweet potatoes, cassava. You've got livestock.

CHARLES: Geography creates other problems. Michael Morris(ph), an agricultural economist at the World Bank, says African farmers are scattered across vast areas, often far from decent roads. That makes it difficult for them to get fertilizer, which fueled the green revolution in Asia.

Mr. MICHAEL MORRIS (Agricultural Economist, World Bank): By the time fertilizer reaches farmers in Africa, they're paying prices for it that are often multiples of the prices that farmers in other parts of the world would pay.

CHARLES: That isolation also means when farmers do get a bumper crop, they often don't get much money for it. They have to sell their harvest at local markets for rock-bottom prices even though it might fetch much more just 50 miles away.

Because of all those problems, Morris says many people lost patience. Funding for agriculture in Africa stagnated during the 1990s. But now, he says people are realizing there's no way around it. Prosperity in Africa will have to start where most people live - on the farm. And now the Gates Foundation is onboard.

Mr. MORRIS: People are coming back to the realization that we maybe neglected agriculture a bit for a while and we really need to figure out how to solve some of these problems.

CHARLES: The two foundations will spend $150 million just on seeds over the next five years. They expect plant breeders to develop hundreds of new, better varieties of corn, cassava and chickpeas, and they'll help get those seeds to farmers. Down the road they'll try to jumpstart fertilizer distribution.

And in a slightly high-tech experiment, they'll expand small programs in Kenya and Malawi that use cell phones to exchange information about prices in different villages. That way, farmers will have a better idea where they can earn the most money.

The foundations wouldn't say how much they intend to spend on all those efforts. Bill Gates said it will depend on their results.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles.

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