By Sam Dryden
Sam Dryden, director of the Agricultural Development initiative, oversees the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's efforts to help millions of the world’s poorest farming families boost their productivity and incomes. This commentary originally appeared on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Impatient Optimists Blog.
Today, President Obama as chair of the G8 announced a new global effort to help small farmers in the developing world lift themselves out of hunger and poverty.
The foundation welcomed today’s announcement, and Bill Gates issued a statement supporting these efforts stating “These are exactly the kind of smart, innovative partnerships with African governments we need to accelerate progress."
The challenges smallholder farmers in the developing world face are considerable yet not insurmountable. As Bono said today, we need to take the time to listen to African farmers and learn how best to help them so they can build better lives for themselves, and their families. And now more than ever, they are not alone. The global community, led by the United States government and in partnership with African governments and the private sector, is behind them.
At the Chicago Council of Global Affairs Symposium on Global Agriculture where President Obama made his announcement, I spoke on a panel with private sector leaders from Africa, the United States and Europe. We discussed how public and private agricultural research, innovation, and technology can increase food production and improve nutrition for people in the developing world.
At the Gates Foundation, our agriculture program focuses on the needs of smallholder farmers, and on the crops they grow. Often, the private sector lacks incentives to invest in these crops what are often called orphan crops like cassava, sweet potatoes, and sorghum. Research to improve these crops – which is typically funded by donors and managed by the public sector – is essential.
Global institutions and systems must also be strong and coordinated for scalable impact. Institutions and systems at the national level need to be robust, too, so researchers can adapt crops to local conditions, and government can activate the right policy environment to empower the private sector to play a stronger role in delivering these tools.
We know it can work. For example, AGRA, a leading African-based and led organization working to transform African agriculture for smallholder farmers, has delivered more than 150 localized varieties to smallholder farmers on the continent.
And strong leadership from African countries is making a difference. In Ethiopia, an agency designed to accelerate progress in the agriculture sector is fundamentally reinvigorating the sector with exemplary leadership from the government and the donor community.
When Bill Gates welcomed President Obama’s commitment today, he also gave this advice: the G8 needs to “put in place clear, actionable targets and accountability mechanisms to ensure these efforts are meaningful.”
This last point is critical. We need to make sure all these efforts add up to address the needs of smallholder farmers. When we work together to give them the tools they need, that’s when we’ll see real impact.