Africa Farms Get Massive Pledge to Spur "Green Revolution"

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About $37 million will go to developing a network of at least 10,000 small agriculture dealers to spread seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, and advice; $26 million and $20 million—the remainder—will go, respectively, to support an oversight organization and to educate graduate-level agricultural scientists.

Gates said the foundations will reassess after five years and "look at what level makes sense based on how well we've done during that time." But he stressed the commitment is long-term.

Banking on Success

The foundations are also working on programs separately. Both are funding research into improving grain storage techniques and expanding access to markets and financing, for example.

Steiner says the Gates Foundation, which recently received a $30 billion donation from investor Warren Buffett, is working to develop financing systems, because the vast majority of African farmers don't use banks.

"You wouldn't consider doing agriculture in the West without tremendous financial support such as preferential credit," he said.

The Rockefeller Foundation, which has spent $150 million in Africa over the last seven years in Africa, is striving to put small farmers in better touch with markets.

Gary Toenniessen, the group's director of food security, says the group has helped develop information systems at commodity exchanges in countries such as Kenya and Malawi. It has also helped start kiosks in rural areas where farmers can pay a small fee to use cell-phone-based computer systems to receive price information and bids on commodities

"The idea is to get market information to farmers so they know the prices of some 40 different commodities in 50 locations every day," Toenniessen said.

Keeping It Clean

The alliance says it is mindful of criticisms that the previous Green Revolution program caused water quality problems and pesticide overuse.

Toenniessen says the foundations consider pesticide overuse to be one of their biggest potential problems. The alliance is putting a high priority on designing insect-resistant seeds as insurance, he adds. (Related: "Stockpiled Pesticides Harming African People, Environment" [November 2005])

Other experts say the Green Revolution's large-scale irrigation systems caused fields to become waterlogged and heavily salinized.

The alliance says it will avoid large-scale irrigation systems in Africa, instead using small pumps if ground water is available or capturing rainwater.

The Gates Foundation has already begun work on small-scale irrigation systems costing around $50 that can irrigate a large garden to produce food for an entire family with spare yield for sale, Steiner says.

"What we are going for with these systems is radical affordability," he said.

Some researchers say the initiative could make a difference. But they warn that Africa's seemingly intractable political, scientific, and economic problems could derail efforts.

Peter Trimmer, a fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington D.C., points out, for example, that Africa—unlike Asia—has hundreds of microclimates to which seed varieties must be adapted.

Others point to broader economic problems.

"I guess not even Bill Gates can do much about the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's agricultural and trade policies, which systematically sabotage the efforts of African farmers to produce more and better food," said Gran Djurfeldt, an agriculture expert at Sweden's Lund University.

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