Program to help poorest farmers faces challenge

September 17, 2006|By Kristi Heim and Sandi Doughton | Kristi Heim and Sandi Doughton,Seattle Times

Hoping to reduce hunger and poverty by sparking a "green revolution" in Africa, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced a new partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation aimed at dramatically increasing productivity of small farms in the poorest region of the world.

The project faces a challenge to succeed in a region characterized by harsh and highly varied conditions, while avoiding pitfalls of earlier efforts that poisoned some ecosystems with fertilizers and pesticides and drained rivers and wetlands for irrigation.

The partnership, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), will initially invest $150 million to improve seed technology and produce higher yields in sub-Saharan Africa. The Gates Foundation will contribute $100 million and the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation $50 million.

The effort builds on work the Rockefeller Foundation began in the 1940s that created the first so-called Green Revolution, boosting the output of farms in Latin America and Asia and relieving widespread famine. That effort moved many of the world's poorest countries and people out of extreme poverty.

But the effort largely bypassed Africa. Over the past 15 years, the number of Africans living on less than a dollar a day has grown to exceed the population of the United States. If the trend continues, sub-Saharan Africa will be the only place in the world where the number of poor people will be higher in 2015 than it was in 1990.

"No major region around the world has been able to make sustained economic gains without first making significant improvements in agricultural productivity," said Bill Gates, co-chairman of the Gates Foundation. "These strategies have the potential to transform the lives and health of millions of families."

The goals over the next decade are ambitious: Introduce 400 new and improved crop varieties, work in 20 as-yet-unspecified African countries to eliminate hunger among 30 million people and move 15 million more out of poverty, said Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin.

Based in Nairobi, Kenya, AGRA will address soil fertility and irrigation, farm-management practices and access to markets and financing.

But the foundation's critics and even many of its admirers have long urged the Gateses to address the underlying roots of poverty, rather than just focusing on technological fixes for specific maladies.

"Several of us have been telling them they should get into agriculture," said Pedro Sanchez, a MacArthur "genius" grant recipient and director of Columbia University's Tropical Agriculture Program. "What's the point of having people free of malaria if they're just going to die of malnutrition?"

Africa presents a greater challenge than Asia or Latin America, where a few dominant crops like rice and wheat can be grown almost anywhere.

"In Africa, you've got many different crops and many different environments," said Gary Toenniessen, director of The Rockefeller Foundation's food-security program, who will become AGRA's interim president.

Growing conditions can vary so much that two different strains of maize are grown in regions of Kenya less than 15 miles apart. That means researchers will have to develop multiple varieties of Africa's eight to 10 major food crops.

And unlike rice and wheat, which readily produce seeds that can be shared from farmer to farmer, most African staples are hard to breed. Only a handful of labs in the world are able to do the complex cross-breeding required to produce plants for propagation.

The original green revolution, built around strains of crops that require fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation, has been criticized for causing environmental degradation and favoring larger farms.

The Gates-Rockefeller collaboration hopes to avoid past mistakes by focusing on plants that are resistant to insects and disease, Toenniessen said.

Bill Gates acknowledged that Africa faces a host of other problems, such as ongoing civil strife and lack of basic infrastructure.

"This program doesn't fund road building, nor can it overcome political situations," he said. But increasing agricultural productivity "starts a virtuous cycle that we've seen in many countries. There's no doubt there's parts of Africa where this will be successful."

Kristi Heim and Sandi Doughton write for the Seattle Times.

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