Gates Foundation Grants to Benefit Africa’s Small Farmers

$120 million will support agriculture development in Sub-Saharan Africa.

by Dani Yokhna

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is donating $120 million to improve agricultural knowledge and methods in Africa
Courtesy the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/ Prashant Panjiar.
Francis Adunoye, agronomist and plot manager for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, shows Bill Gates, founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, various types of grain in Abuja, Nigeria.

Computer guru and philanthropist Bill Gates is taking his entrepreneurial spirit to the agriculture scene to help fight world hunger. According to the Microsoft founder, reducing hunger and poverty starts with helping small farmers in developing countries.

Gates announced at the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa, that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will provide $120 million through nine grants that will focus on improving agricultural methods and increasing agricultural knowledge in Africa.

According to the World Bank, the 750 million small farmers in developing countries face challenging conditions, including depleted soils, pests, drought, diseases and lack of water. Many of the grants will help combat these problems. In Sub-Saharan Africa, two-thirds of the population work in agriculture with only about 4 percent of federal budgets allocated to that industry, according to Gates Foundation research. 

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa has already received significant aid from the Gates Foundation through grants to support its Soil Health and Africa’s Seed Systems programs. In its most recent reward, AGRA will focus on creating policies to support farmers in different agricultural arenas, including seeds, soil health and environmental sustainability.

“Many of [Africa’s] parliaments do not have the capacity to effectively advocate for critical public investments in African agriculture,” said Akin Adesina, AGRA’s vice president for policy and partnerships. “There is a lack of evidence on which to base policy and a shortage of highly trained African policy experts.”

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He said AGRA will facilitate the establishment of policy hubs at leading think tanks and government agencies. In these hubs, the organization will work with the various African governments to in develop sound policies to support small farmers and sustainable agricultural development.

“As smallholder farmers prosper, their farms will become self-sustaining engines of economic growth that can end widespread hunger and poverty,” Adesina said.

Other grants will be used for improving agricultural methods.

The International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics, which has worked for 25 years in Africa, is using its $18 million grant to increase the production of sorghum, pearl millet and finger millet—three cereals commonly consumed in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The crops are used to make flatbread and porridge, health food for pregnant and nursing women, and grain in alcohol, said William Dar, director general for ICRISAT. The stalks and leaves of the plants are also used as livestock fodder.
“By working on these crops, ICRISAT hopes to touch at the very heart of semi-arid tropical food sources of both humans and livestock,” he said.

The organization has been working to develop varieties of the crops that are resistant to pests, disease and drought.
“ICRISAT developed maturing varieties that escaped terminal drought and varieties that needed shorter growing periods thus giving farmers a chance to increase the number of harvests per year,” Dar said.

Other organizations will use the grants to increase other crops’ yields. The International Potato Center is using its $21 million to develop stress-tolerant sweet potatoes, with the intention of distributing the new varieties to up to one million families in the next five years. In The Netherlands, Wageningen University aims to use its $19 million to help 225,000 farmers in seven African countries increase legume productivity by improving soil’s nitrogen fixation.

Food security has been a major concern among international leaders. With a recent $22 million pledge from the G20 group, a focus is shifting toward supporting small farmers. Gates encourages these world players involved in eliminating world hunger to draw inspiration from the Green Revolution—the agricultural transformation in Latin America and Asia in the 1960s to the 1980s—but also warns them against repeating mistakes such as the overuse of fertilizer and irrigation.

“The next Green Revolution has to be greener than the first,” Gates said. “It must be guided by small farmers, adapted to local circumstances, and sustainable for the economy and the environment.”

The Gates Foundation took its first steps in agricultural development in 2006 when it established the Global Development Program, aimed at eliminating poverty in developing countries. Its mission is to help 150 million farming families by 2025, and it has provided $1.4 billion to support agricultural development thus far.

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