SEATTLE — The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced plans Thursday to move beyond seeds, fertilizer and agriculture extension services and into politics and public policy in its efforts to bring a green revolution to sub-Saharan Africa.
The foundation announced nine grants totaling nearly $120 million a few hours before Bill Gates was scheduled to give his first major speech on agriculture as the keynote speaker at the World Food Prize event in Des Moines, Iowa.
In the past three years, the Gates Foundation has committed $1.4 billion to help small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia increase their yields and incomes. The foundation got involved in agriculture after years of trying to solve worldwide health problems.
About half of the grants announced Thursday will go toward agriculture research in Africa, including experiments with sorghum, millet, legumes and sweet potatoes. But several unusual projects were included, including proposals to use cell phones and radio programs to educate small farmers.
The foundation gave the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa $15 million to influence agricultural policy in more than a dozen African nations. The alliance won’t be lobbying for policy changes, but they will be doing research on what kinds of policy changes would best stimulate agricultural growth in the region and will be training Africans to advocate for themselves.
AGRA plans to train about 400 agriculture economists at several African universities so they can analyze policies and advocate for change, said Namanga Ngongi, president of the alliance, in a telephone interview from Des Moines on Tuesday.
“Technical solutions can only go so far because there are many blockages to development,” said Ngongi, who is based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Ngongi said many African governments have committed to spend more on agriculture development, but they need help figuring out the most effective ways to spend their money.
“Just spending money and doing the wrong things, won’t help,” he said.
Gates’ speech and the foundation’s grant announcement comes one day after the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned in a report that world hunger is getting worse, and international aid for agriculture continues to plummet.
Asia and the Pacific have the largest number of hungry people — 642 million — followed by sub-Saharan Africa with 265 million. Twenty countries in Africa require emergency food assistance.
The Gates Foundation sees agriculture as the most effective lever against poverty, said Roy Steiner, deputy director of agriculture development, in a recent interview.
“If you care about the poor, you’ve got to care about agriculture,” he said.
Also announced Thursday was a $10 million grant to create educational radio shows to reach farmers in Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, Mali, Ghana and Tanzania during the next four years.
The foundation is putting $12 million in a program to feed school children that would also benefit small farmers. It likely would work in a way similar to the way surplus food programs redistribute dairy products and other food to the poor in the United States.
Another $4.7 million will go toward training an army of community information people, who don’t need to be experts, but will have access by cell phone to people who will be able to answer any questions a local farmer might have.