Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Putting Women Farmers in Africa at the Center

September 21, 2012

Next week in Arusha, Tanzania, government leaders, private sector companies, NGOs, scientists and others will come together to help farmers with small plots of land secure healthier futures for their families.  I will join Melinda Gates and AGRA Chairman, Kofi Annan, for the African Green Revolution Forum.  This special conference is an African-led, African-owned initiative with the potential to deliver real change on the continent.

These days, agriculture has become an abstract concept for many.  To be a farmer is to be part of a complex system of biological, environmental, cultural, and economic inter-dependence.  Today, very few if any of those who passionately debate the issues have actually worked on a farm, let alone depended on it for a living.  To think about helping farming families in developing countries grow more food, you need a point of view.  At the foundation, our point of view begins and ends with the woman farmer and her 1-2 acres of land.  Always.

We start with her local context and try to understand what matters most to her and her family.  That family is part of a community and an environmental ecosystem which heavily influences what, when, and how she grows her crops. The ecosystem is both within a particular country and crosses political boundaries.  Her country is on the continent, which is part of our world.  She is connected at every level.  My colleague Rodger Voorhies, Director of our Financial Services for the Poor strategy, calls these connections “circles of trust”.  I like to visualize it with a simple drawing:

As each circle gets bigger, her trust lessens bit by bit and often doesn’t reach beyond her community or ecosystem.  She needs reliable information and supplies from sources she trusts – best practices from neighboring farmers and other mothers in the community who can share what works where she lives

I’m often asked how a foundation based in Seattle can really understand all of this – the needs, preferences, hopes, and challenges of farmers on the other side of the world.  It is a legitimate question and an enormous challenge.  Putting the woman farmer at the center of our work best positions us to address it.  We listen and learn from farmers themselves as much as we can and then work with partners who know the situation on the ground and have built strong relationships there based on trust and reliability. 

Partners like AGRA bring us closer to the center of the circles.  We rely on their expertise and knowledge of local farming practices and culture to help our grants have meaningful and lasting impact.  AGRA, in turn, works with local on-the-ground organizations across Africa (such as Farm Concern International or African Farm Radio Research Initiative ) who help us take another step closer to understanding the real needs and challenges farmers face.  

Other partners like Digital Green have been extremely successful reaching millions of farmers using innovative technology to connect neighboring farmers to share what works in their community.  Cellular phones are yet another example of how farmers establish trust with the world beyond their village.   

So, next week, when we come together in Tanzania to debate the big questions in agriculture, we will do our best to make the connections between each circle, with the farmer at the center.  Always.

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