Seeing Green In Africa

Can Gates develop a new operating system for farmers?

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Last week, much of the world was focused on Microsoft's attempt to shape the Internet with its $44.6 billion bid for Yahoo. But just a week earlier, without nearly as much fanfare, Microsoft founder Bill Gates announced his new retirement project that could alter the lives of millions throughout Africa and other parts of the developing world: A multi-million dollar commitment to small farmers, most of whom are women. This is welcomed news and dares to reverse over 20 years of neglect in international investments in agricultural development.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, pledged over $306 million in grants to agricultural development on the continent, increasing by two-fold its investment in the sector. Some 70 percent of the African poor are rural and nearly all of them are in some way involved in the agricultural sector. The funding would be used to improve the quality of seed varieties and affordable small-scale irrigation, enhance fertile soil, and provide new technology to farmers to gain access to local and international markets.

The package comes on the heels of the foundation's partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation to create the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. The original "green revolution" started over forty years ago when scientific innovations in selective plant breeding produced high-yield varieties of wheat, maize and rice. Throughout Latin America and much of Asia, the green revolution doubled food production, improved life expectancies, and led to thriving economies. Unfortunately, the movement bypassed sub-Saharan Africa, the only continent where food production per person has fallen. The reasons for this are many, but primarily because of a dependence on a wide variety of crops, reducing economies of scale, geographically scattered farms, poor roads and lack of major transportation routes. Africa's wrongs are too long to list, but missing the green revolution ranks at the top because it has had such a lasting impact on food security.

As with any great idea, the green revolution has its critics and skeptics. Some say it peddles "suicide seeds", genetically modified crops, while others have concerns about African farmers maintaining control over their own foods. You may even be thinking that a couple hundred million dollars from the well-endowed Gates Foundation is no more than two men tinkering in a garage. Isn't that exactly how Gates started the personal computer revolution? Undoubtedly, these issues should be carefully examined. But forty more years of declining agricultural economies on the continent is unacceptable.

Bill and Melinda Gates represent new breed of entrepreneurial philanthropists with an unprecedented amount of money – an over $38 billion foundation endowment. They have the resources to change incentive structures, leverage financial support and form partnerships with governments, corporations and international organizations. They have a vision to create system-wide and innovative change, and champion measurable results. They have grand ambitions and have made the biggest philanthropic investment in addressing problems in sub-Saharan Africa. People can say what they want, but the international community needs efforts like those backed by the Gates Foundation and others willing to think out of the box and build alliances that are sustained beyond corporate profits and recognition.

Just like Gates and Microsoft created the software for IBM's personal computer nearly 30 years ago, an opportunity exists to create a new operating system for agricultural development in many African countries. The question is will major players come to the table. The World Bank, as outlined in its 2008 World Development Report, is now touting agriculture as central to the development agenda and is stepping up its spending in the sector. Other international development organizations should follow suit. Livelihoods depend on it.

Sundaa Bridgett Jones is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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