Slightly Off-Topic: The Gates Foundation’s 2015 Letter

In the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2015 Letter, they make a “big bet” that Africa can feed itself through innovations in agriculture.  The Foundation presents statistics about current crop yields and the potential yields if the Foundation’s innovations are accepted and work.  But then the Letter gets to the real problem, almost as an aside:

There are other limitations besides productivity that keep Africa from feeding itself. The lack of infrastructure across the continent, for example, means that it’s almost impossible to move food to the places it needs to go. (The most extreme case: The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the size of Western Europe, with a population of more than 60 million, but it has fewer than 2,000 miles of paved roads—the same amount as any middle-sized Western European town.) Trading within the region can be so difficult that it’s often easier to fly food in from other continents than to drive it a couple hundred miles.

Africa can feed itself.  It just can’t get food and agricultural products from the producers to the consumers because the infrastructure is insufficient and where roads and transport networks exist, they are for export (or impeded by landmines and illegal checkpoints).  I can very easily get Ethiopian coffee, but many Ethiopians cannot get food from their countrymen.

Famine in Africa is not a function of agricultural output; it is the result of deliberate political and development decisions.  Lack of access to markets due to poor infrastructure and absence of markets due to cheaply available food aid prevents agricultural markets in Africa from working efficiently.  The proposed changes in the US Government’s food aid program, which would reduce the amount of food imported from the United States and buy food locally to be distributed locally would create the markets to incentivize increased agricultural production.  This is the kind of change that Africa needs to be able to feed itself.  Would the Foundation’s proposals make a difference?  Yes, but access to markets and consumers would make a bigger difference and likely encourage many of the activities the Foundation is backing.  The answer isn’t more “innovation” but since “innovation” is what the Gates Foundation does, that’s what it will promote.  The answer is much simpler: African farmers need to be able to sell what they grow; if they can do that, Africa will feed itself.

Michael P. Moore

January 22, 2015

moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org