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Q&A: Put farmers at heart of ‘adoption revolution’

Copyright: Philippe Lissac/Godong / Panos

Speed read

  • First interview with Gates Foundation agriculture chief

  • Foundation aims to put smallholders at centre of decision-making

  • It invests in GMOs but it’s up to farmers if they want to grow them

Pamela Anderson is director of agricultural development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  Her team works to reduce poverty, improve nutrition and strengthen women’s roles in smallholder farming families in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. 
Anderson, an agricultural entomologist and epidemiologist, joined the foundation in 2014.  Previously, she was director general of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru. One year into her new role, SciDev.Net talks to her about the foundation’s Agricultural Development programme.
Can you begin by explaining the Agricultural Development programme, and why it remains fundamental to the foundation?
This year is the 15th anniversary of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2006, the cochairs added agriculture to the portfolio in a significant manner because they realised it represented pathways out of poverty in Africa and South Asia, with particular emphasis on increasing productivity of staple crops and livestock. The programme is committed to contributing to lifting 75 million people out of poverty by 2030. The only way that will happen is by working with partners across the research and development community, including the private sector. 
You were brought in to implement this programme. What are the challenges you’re seeing?
Our upstream portfolio is, I think, very strong. We will continue to invest around ten per cent of that in agricultural research and development, specifically to improve animal breeds, increase crop yields, improve nutritional value, improve pest and disease resistance, and ‘climate-proof’ the staple crops that are critical to smallholder farmers. In detail, this means looking at initiatives such as those to find crops resilient to drought and flooding, those more resistant to wheat rust and cassava virus epidemics, and modernising the global public sector crop breeding platform. 

“We have strong evidence that when women are empowered to generate and manage household income, nutrition improves.”

Pamela Anderson, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The challenge now is to concentrate on downstream adoption at scale. Part of my plan has been to recruit a leadership team with a combined background in the public and private sector, business and academia, research and development, who are willing and able to take on this challenge. We’re now a team of eight, and have been together since 1 June. So the elements are now in place to implement some serious redesign and to work out how we as a community can make this happen together, particularly if we’re going to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals.
The foundation has huge global influence in different sectors. What is your overarching plan to move adoption of new farming technologies and strategies forward? 
One of the first things we need to do is shift the paradigm to put smallholder farmers at the centre of any design. This means really understanding the constraints and what they need to overcome them. For example, are they linked into markets and commercialising their production, or are they remote subsistence farmers? These are very different types of clients.   
A high proportion of smallholder farmers that need to move out of poverty are women. We have strong evidence that when women are empowered to generate and manage household income, nutrition improves. But we don’t often think of women as explicit customers, or we focus on cooking and processing rather than increasing yield. What do women want from improved staple crop varieties? Can they access inputs and services? We have to design products and delivery systems that target and include women farmers. 
Looking at our own investment portfolio and at what a broader group of partners are doing in the field, we also need a paradigm shift towards integrated delivery. We have been focusing on the components: seeds, fertilisers, agricultural extension, markets. But we seem to get traction on adoption where we have delivery that integrates across the commodity value chains: delivering inputs and services, including financial and extension services — and linking these into markets. 
Given that much of this has been said before, how are you going to make it happen this time?
That’s a good question, and it’s where the biggest challenges and opportunities are. As a community, we tend to use a ‘pilot’ approach and have assumed that somehow, magically, these pilots would scale, and that’s just not happening. 
The underlying approach has been ‘paying for scale’ — an additive approach that honestly doesn’t add up. So the question is how to move to an Integrated Business Model approach. How do we understand the operating structure in target countries to drive down costs and risks, and increase the value of delivering in the last mile? And if that structure is based on a private sector model, then it has to be profitable to deliver in the last mile so that it’s sustainable and will scale. If it’s a public sector model, it has to be effective and sustainable with a clear social return. We have a handful of investments for both crops and livestock that are examples of integrated business models. We want to build on those investments, and experiment with this approach going forward. 
The time is also right. Systems on the ground have changed fundamentally during the past five years. For example information technologies, new commercial players etc. These provide new opportunities to scale.
How do you match what is essentially joint decision-making with complaints about the marginalisation of smallholder farmers?
You start on the ground and define a group of countries, or areas within countries, to focus on. Once you start targeting and understanding the sets of communities you’re working with and what their production systems are, then you get to a level of working with the smallholder farmers. No one investor or organisation is going to do this by themselves, but if we start modelling what this new paradigm looks like, we can start snowballing the successes.
What are your reflections on capacity building for the adoption of new farming technologies and methods?
Capacity building continues to be mission critical for research and development in general, including the adoption revolution. Going forward, we will not directly invest in formal education — giving MSc and PhD degrees. This is very important, but there are many great programmes in developing and developed countries that already invest here. 
Our big conversation is around sustainability. You put money against a project, things look like they’re going well, and then the minute the project ends, things fall apart. To complement individual capacity development, we have focused on institutional capacity strengthening. National programmes need a vibrant R&D capacity. Our biggest investment to model this is in the Agricultural Transformation Agency in Ethiopia. But we are also working with Nigeria, Tanzania, Bangladesh and the BeCA facility in Kenya.
Genetically Modified Organisms remain controversial. How do you plan to negotiate that controversy?
We believe that innovation in agriculture, as in medicine, must be guided by science-based decisions that provide farmers with safe and effective products. We invest in many different technologies, including GMOs — which make up around five per cent of our portfolio — so that countries and farmers can choose the tools that are right for them.
But the bigger issue is whether countries agree on the frameworks to regulate these products. We work closely with countries and their regulatory authorities having those conversations so that the frameworks are there to ensure safe and effective products for farmers. We’re starting to see that in Africa. Ultimately, it is up to individual countries and the farmers themselves to decide what crops they want to grow. 
Q&As are edited for length and clarity.
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