Gates & Rockefeller Foundations Tackle Food Security in Africa

Stephen DeAngelis

September 15, 2006

Nothing breeds success like success. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which earlier attracted billions from investor Warren Buffett, has now teamed with the Rockefeller Foundation to tackle food security in Africa [“Gates, Rockefeller Charities Join to Fight African Hunger,” by Karen DeYoung, Washington Post, 13 September 2006]. As the article points out, this is a new area for the Gates Foundation, which has primarily focused on health issues up to now. This is a natural expansion from the health arena, since good health ultimately begins with proper nourishment. The Rockefeller Foundation was a natural partner in this venture since it has previous experience.

Modeled on the Rockefeller-pioneered “green revolution” that transformed farming methods and staved off widespread famine in much of the developing world nearly a half-century ago, the initiative coincides with a new round of Western concern about the long-intractable problems of the poorest continent. Home to 16 of the 18 most undernourished countries, Africa is the only part of the world where food production has decreased in recent years. At the same time, political upheaval and conflict there are seen as providing fertile ground for extremists. Widespread famine in Africa has spurred high-profile relief efforts over the years, from United Nations programs to celebrity fundraising concerts such as Live Aid in the 1980s and Live 8 last year. Sponsors of the new “Alliance for a Green Revolution” said yesterday they are looking for a more systematic, long-term solution to African hunger.

Another area where health and food challenges will converge is with the availability and quality of water. Perhaps they should engage Dean Kamen, who has a demonstrated interest in water purification techniques, in this new venture. Kamen, probably best known for inventing the Segway (which unfortunately was recalled yesterday), is working on an invention that not only purifies water but generates electricity. Kamen believes that nearly 80 percent of the diseases that plague Gap states could be wiped out if clean water were available. His answer is a machine driven by a Stirling engine that drives a water purifier that makes 1,000 liters of clean water a day and powers a generator that makes a kilowatt of energy regardless of the fuel it burns [“Segway creator unveils his next act“, by Erick Schonfeld, Business 2.0 Magazine, 16 Feb 2006]. An estimated 1.6 billion people live without electricity, which automatically isolates them from the information age. In this venture, Kamen has been joined by Iqbal Quadir, the founder of Grameen Phone, the largest cell phone company in Bangladesh. The economic model that Quadir hopes to employ to distribute this invention will also make an impact on the local economy. It’s a “for profit” venture that encourages local entrepreneurs. The point is that Gates, Kamen, and Quadir are part of a new group of philanthropists and business people coming together in larger communities of practice to tackle poverty and development. Building communities of practice is the best way to address to big problems, especially if they will take years to get under control. Fortunately, there seems to be an understanding that this effort must move slowly but consistently forward:

The new partners are still exploring how to make sure their initial steps do not overwhelm the continent’s capacity to absorb assistance, Rockefeller President Judith Rodin said. Although future investments are likely to “scale up significantly,” she said, “all of us intend to be mindful of really measuring outcomes and learning as we go and then providing the necessary resources.” Nancy Birdsall, president of the Washington-based Center for Global Development, said the mere fact that the world’s biggest philanthropist is joining with the preeminent foundation working in agricultural development is “going to make a difference,” adding: “It’s a real shot in the arm.” … “The first green revolution took a long time,” said Gates program manager Roy Steiner. “It started in the 1940s with investment and made an impact in the 1960s. That takes committed partners that are going to be there for the long term and are willing to focus on what’s going to help small-scale farmers” who produce most of Africa’s food. Program planners readily acknowledged that Africa’s problems today far outstrip even those confronting Asia in the 1960s, including a lack of roads and irrigation, primary food crops that vary widely from region to region, degraded soil, unstable governments and tenuous security. The Rockefeller Foundation, which started shifting the bulk of its development funding from Asia and Latin America to Africa several years ago, recently shut down its program in Zimbabwe because of political strife there.

This initiative is taking a very Development-in-a-Box-like approach to the problem of hunger in Africa. First, it is looking at the problem holistically — considering everything from irrigation to seeds to harvesting to transporting to marketing crops. Second, it is taking a standards-based approach that builds on best practices. Finally, it’s generating a powerful community of practice to ensure that the effort is sustainable.

Following the pattern of its health initiatives, Gates will provide money and results-based expertise, building on existing seed development programs begun by Rockefeller and African agencies, such as a new strain of rice produced in West Africa that promises to increase yields fivefold. A concurrent goal is the expansion of seed and fertilizer distribution networks through small entrepreneurs in rural areas. Both partners hope to prime the pump for participation by both African and donor governments.

This is a very promising start and one worth watching. If successful, this program will have made an enormous contribution to shrinking the Gap.