Centre-stage with Bill Gates. If You Care About the Poorest, You Care About Agriculture

By Rima Alcadi

Today, the 23rd of February at 10.00 am, we had the pleasure of having Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as our guest. The session was moderated by the international broadcaster Isha Sesay.
The tent was bubbling with excitement. When Bill Gates enters, there is a moment of silence, the music stopped, the lights went off. Everything froze, except for the flickering of the camera flashes and our twitter wall, which had tweets flowing incessantly throughout the entire event (indeed, I suggest you look at these, tweeters did a fantastic job at capturing the gist). Isha Sesay is originally from Sierra Leone –small scale farming is very close to her heart, a very personal interest, she says. And indeed, she was a great moderator.
Mr Gates started off by announcing that IFAD’s President Kanayo Nwanze and he had just signed a new partnership agreement - to fund projects jointly - the type of projects that IFAD and BMGF were both funding in the past, but independently. He warmly welcomed FAO DG, José Graziano da Silva, and WFP Executive Director, Josette Sheeran.

Mr Gates said that investment in agriculture is the best weapon against hunger and poverty. He said “if you care about the poorest, you care about agriculture.” He reminded us that we do not have a strong awareness of what works and what does not. We are not putting enough pressure on improvement. His suggestion is to introduce a public scorecard. He says that this would ensure that we are all rowing in the same direction and that we are results-based.

Another key point was the need to verify where digital empowerment can help in poverty reduction. He refers to seeds, for instance breeding and sequencing information to reduce the breeding cycle. But this needs to be developed for the people that need these systems the most, the smallholder farmers. Also technologies such as video cameras can help smallholder farmers share information on best practices with other smallholder farmers, to complement the work of extensionists. He mentions the work of programme Digital Green in India. Digital empowerment can also help to collect better data. So he says it is a shame that people are still going around with pen and paper, as this makes information difficult to store, share and analyse. However, he cautions that it takes a lot of specific effort to deal with the issues of rural digital empowerment, as he learnt from his experience in Microsoft. So do not expect it to happen thanks to market forces.

Another strong message that he had for us Rome-Based Agencies (FAO, IFAD and WFP) was to strengthen our partnership. He cites the Purchase 4 Progress programme as an example. He finds that although this has had a good impact, it would have been even better if it had been coordinated in a better way – with guidance from FAO and funding from IFAD. There are real efficiencies to be gained by spelling out a division of labour among the agencies. Our ability to improve coordination will determine whether smallholder farmers can overcome poverty.

What were some of the questions?
How would Mr Gates assess his performance in the score card? Although the BMGF has been operating for 6 years only, they have been building on the strength of what others have done. The BMGF typically focuses more on upstream funding, to the CGIAR, and on specific crops only. So that if other development organizations also want to work on these, then they will partner.

How about climate change? According to Mr Gates, weather variability has always been a problem for smallholder farmers, yes climate change will make the weather more variable, but they will need the same strategies as always. The climate has never been benign for rural poor.

How about strengthening the capacity of Farmers’ Organizations (FOs)? FOs are a key element, and there is a need to bring farmers and ensure they have a greater voice with governments – to signal when policies are not adequate for smallholder farmers, or advise on issues that need to be addressed. There are lots of good FOs in Africa and the path to success is to have more. The involvement of grassroots organisations would be part of the scorecard.

What is the role of the private sector ? the private sector has a very important role – but we should bear in mind market failure, risks inherent in innovation, and the public good nature of these investments. These characteristics of investments in agricultural research imply that markets will always fall short. However, once an innovation is available, it is important to understand why the private sector does not buy in. Mr Gates is willing to have the private sector critique their work because he considers the private sector the acid test and the benchmark on sustainability.

My take?
I have a lot of questions related to the concept of the scorecard – perhaps because I am wary of the infamous “number game” which is typically associated with such systems. Also, what would be on this scorecard and who should decide? How and by whom will it be updated/amended if required?
I could not agree more with the need to partner with the private sector – especially considering the win-win case studies described in Prahalad’s “Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.” I would however want to see some focus on biodiversity as well - in agriculture and in our diets – for the sake of increasing resilience to climate change and improving nutrition (i.e., the quality aspect of our food) – and also because biodiversity is a resource that poor rural farmers already have.