Africa: Small Farmers Merit Support - Gates Foundation

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Arusha — Africa's population – in contrast to other regions – is growing significantly younger. How to employ, educate and feed that youth bulge is the topic of a report presented in Dakar, Senegal this weekend at the Mo Ibrahim Foundation annual forum. South African Minister of Planning Trevor Manuel told the gathering that the three challenges need integrated solutions. Children can't learn, he said, without nutrition. And if they don't learn, they can't get jobs.

"We cannot educate our children without nutrition," said musician Angelique Kidjo. "A child that hasn't been nourished, by the time the child is two years old, its brain is permanently damaged." Alongside notable African progress in several social indicators, food security remains a daunting problem. The Ibrahim report notes that of the 20 countries with the world's lowest life expectancy, 19 are in Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa's under-five death rate and its proportion of undernourished children is the world's highest.

Last month at the African Green Revolution Forum (Agref) in Arusha, Tanzania, smallholder farmers and their role in food production occupied center stage – but only rhetorically. As she shared the platform with six men, Sheila Sisulu, deputy executive director for hunger solutions at the World Food Programme, raised the question many participants were discussing privately: where were the family farmers – most of them women - while their future was being discussed?

AllAfrica's Samantha Nkirote McKenzie discussed these issues with Agref participant Sam Dryden, director of agricultural development for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Global Development Program since 2010. Dryden agrees that policymakers, governments and NGOs can't craft a farmer-focused agenda without listening to the farmers themselves. But he's optimistic that African agriculture is on the verge of something great, and says policy makers and development officials must "seize the moment".

Tell us about your agricultural development program?

Our program focuses on smallholder farmers and tries to give them options for increasing their productivity, which in turn creates an opportunity for them not only to meet their own food needs but to create a surplus they can sell at the market and helps them move out of poverty.

At the last G8 Summit, Bono said it is time to listen to African farmers and learn from them. And in a recent blog , you said the people who often debate the issues, such as leaders of government and the private sector, are rarely involved in what happens on the ground. Is Agref different?

Well, I think it is actually more focused on the smallholder farmer. That is where we think the conversation has to be. We say that the smallholder farmer intersects with not only their family but with the community, with their ecosystem, with governments, with the global community. All those activities have some impact on the smallholder farmer. And the smallholder farmer is very seldom the focus.

Jane Karuku, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), has said that the smallholder farmer is the key for unlocking Africa's agricultural productivity. But there has been some criticism of the Gates Foundation's focus on small producers.

There other people that focus on the other farmers. There are lots of parts of an agricultural economy. The smallholder is only one part of it, but they are a very large part. Someone needs to think of them and look out for them. It's not that we are their benefactor, but we do try to take their point of view and try to understand what is important for them and try and represent that.

The private sector often has little incentive to invest in the type of seeds or other inputs that smallholder farmers need for nutritious crops – such as cassava or sweet potatoes, for example.

It is perfectly understandable that the private sector doesn't invest in those things because there is no profit in it. The private sector is in business to give a return to their shareholders. So for them to gratuitously make long-term investments in those crops, they have to think there will be markets for them in the future or [do it] as some sort of corporate social responsibility, which isn't often very sustainable.

We try to work with national programs – and international programs as well – to focus on those crops that are important to smallholder farmers, that aren't necessarily commercial crops.

In her keynote address and in the press conference at the start of the Agref, Melinda Gates said that a consideration of agriculture cannot be separated from nutrition. But this was not widely addressed during the forum sessions.

I think there is a reason. Agriculture has gotten so abstract. People are so far away from where they get their food and nutrition; they think they get it from a supermarket. But [smallholder farmers] don't really have a sense of what the nutritional content of various crops are. To have a focus that joins nutrition to what they grow – we think that is where there is an important intersection. We think that nutrition education is an important part of what needs to happen as well.

And is that an area where you are investing?

Sure. There are plenty of opportunities to intersect with the farmer. Because that farmer is often the mother; she is the daughter; she is the sister. She has health needs; she has family planning needs; she has financial service needs. She has a lot of needs that we can intersect and have a nutrition message that goes along with it.

Could you name any specific projects?

The Farm Concern program, which is one that Melinda Gates visited, is exactly that. They work not only through the agricultural channels; they work through the health worker channels to communicate nutrition information.

The environmental NGO Friends of the Earth says large donors at the forum, including the Gates Foundation, are representing the interests of the biotechnology corporations. What is your response?

I think it is people misunderstanding our program. We have a very large program, and we haven't done a very good job at communicating our program. We are in the process of trying to address that.

We are working with people like Prince Charles or others that focus on conservation. We have one of the largest sustainable agricultural programs in the world, probably the largest. The idea that we are a vehicle for corporations is kind of funny if you actually understand our program, because that is a very, very small part – five or six percent - of what we do, which is transgenic.

When we use transgenic technology it is for something that we can't address otherwise. And it is for something, usually, that farmers in other countries are using. Part of what we try to do is make sure that smallholder farmers have as many options as they can possibly use and that are safe and productive for them.

So you said that is about five percent of what you do. What is the focus of the other 95 percent?

I would say a good two-thirds is what people would think of as sustainable agriculture. It is various things like conservation agriculture, crop rotation, biological nitrogen fixation; it is a lot of things like that. But we also have a strong focus on women. What is it in agriculture that can be more tailored towards them? We focus on policy issues. So we have a very broad-based program.

Sean de Cleene, senior vice president at the agricultural products firm Yara International, said it is a critical time for African agriculture, and the pressure is on. Kofi Annan's keynote address was titled, 'The Tipping Point'. Do you believe this is the tipping point for African agriculture?

I think in my career of over 30 years, this is the first time I have seen a sustained effort and focus on Africa and agriculture. If we can't make something of this moment, it is our own fault. Someone said, 'We need to seize the moment', and I think we really do; we have to make the most of it. The G8 made certain promises, and we need to hold them to that. We need to hold the countries to their promises. And the foundations and other donors need to be held to theirs.

Regarding keeping people to their promises, one of things that African governments have pledged is that they will put 10 percent of their budgets towards agriculture.

I would repeat what [Tanzanian] President Jakaya Kikwete said, which is there is a great need and we need more. He called on us, the foundation, for more, but the countries need to do more themselves. Everyone needs to do more.

A ubiquitous statement at the conference was: 'Fine words don't produce food'. Do you see anything coming out of the conference?

Yes, I think so. One of the first sessions I sat in was something called 'Vital Signs'. That is a program that we sponsor, where we are trying to monitor the environmental impacts of agricultural programs such as ours. There was a room full of people - we didn't know whether there would be six people or whether there would be 30 people, but there were probably 50 people. And when you get a critical mass like that who have an interest in a subject, then you start to get real, meaningful traction. It is like Prime Minister David Cameron had at the Hunger Summit around the Olympics. That could have just been something around words, but there was a critical mass of people there that, in their own right, are going to follow up on those issues of hunger, nutrition and agriculture.

You have said that people don't really understand the Gates Foundation's involvement in agriculture in Africa. As a parting shot, is there anything you would like us to know?

I would just encourage people to read and listen and learn. If people were to read Bill's Annual Letter or listen to the speeches that Melinda gives, they have real content to them. It is good to actually know what you are criticising before you criticise it.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a major contributor to the development reporting fund of the AllAfrica Foundation. AllAfrica is reporting on nutrition in cooperation with the Institute of Development Studies.