FINALLY! The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in Gates’s 2012 annual letter, acknowledged that we need to focus on and invest in orphan and staple crops in Africa (cassava, millet, sorghum, and yams, albeit in addition to his favorite row crop: maize). Good news, coming from the world’s largest private foundation and considering how stubbornly ignorant they were on this point two years ago.
One thing Gates stressed in his letter was the decreasing proportion of farmers in industrializing countries. Can we afford for the entire world to make this transition to mechanized agriculture and lose our agricultural intuition as the last generations of farmers leave us?
I was lucky enough to go to Stanford’s Conference on Global Underdevelopment today, and have so, so many thoughts I’d want to discuss. Firstly, (and not surprisingly) I had a bone to pick with Jeff Raikes (or more precisely, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which he represents as its CEO)… Last year, I was frustrated that the Gates Foundation completely failed to consider staple/orphan crops like cassava, yams, and tef as a funding priority; they were (and still appear to be) more interested in funding corn and other row crops, which have higher rates of return, than crops that actually have direct linkages to food security in developing countries.
This year, I was ecstatic because another audience member, a photographer at National Geographic, brought up the issue of slums to Raikes. Having just returned from Kibera, one of the biggest slums in the world, the photographer wondered why such places aren’t receiving more aid and international attention (including none from the Gates Foundation). I wonder the same thing. When I’d asked others before, their answer was always that NGOs are already serving slums. If that were the case–if NGOS could really have enough prowess and funding to fully provide for hundreds of thousands of chronically poor and malnourished people [per slum!]–I would be impressed.
And yet, these kinds of places represent the perfect opportunity for change: they are highly concentrated, so relatively small investments in infrastructure, education, basic sanitation, health services, and agricultural support would go a long way. Markets for goods already exist, simply due to the number of people living in the area. Credit would be easier to disseminate (and perhaps even easier to enforce), and people are likely to be more entrepreneurial if they can survive under such harsh conditions. What would it take to incentivize philanthropists to invest in slums, if these are not reasons enough?