When you are Bill Gates -- directing a foundation with assets larger than the GDP of 104 countries -- your enthusiasms get amplified on a global scale. Six or seven years ago, Gates read a book by Gordon Conway, "The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the Twenty-First Century," which argued for a second green revolution, this time in Africa. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has since devoted several hundred million dollars to this cause. It is now on the policy agenda of the president, the secretary of state and the G-20, which recently pledged $22 billion to help poor farmers increase their productivity.
During a recent conversation, Gates described himself as a "city boy," but spoke with typical, wonkish intensity about wheat rust, marker-assisted selection and finger millet outputs. "The world moved away from a focus on seeds and plant disease in a dangerous way for 20 years," he told me. Gates is determined to push a revival.
His reasons are strategic. Approximately three-quarters of Africans are employed in agriculture, but about 30 percent of people on the continent suffer from hunger and malnutrition. Over the next few decades, African farmers will need to feed a growing population without expanding into ecologically important lands, while adapting to climate disruptions that make drought, pests and floods more common. They will need Gates' help, and more.
There is a precedent. The first green revolution -- driven by the use of better seeds, fertilizers and pesticides -- was arguably the greatest humanitarian achievement in history, saving the lives of an estimated 1 billion people worldwide. Starting in the 1960s, farmers doubled, tripled, even quadrupled their productivity. But the revolution missed Africa.
In Africa, says Gates, "it won't happen as quickly as late-'60s India, or early-'80s China. ... Africa is not just missing seeds, which is the coolest thing." It also requires less-cool things such as "roads and markets ... extension services and education about best practices."