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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the world's largest donors to international agricultural research for development, has announced tighter priorities for its funding for Africa and South Asia, concentrating on key target countries and crops.

In Africa the focus will be on Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda. These countries will benefit from significant investment "to translate the movement [of research and development (R&D)] from the lab to farmers' fields," said Prabhu Pingali, deputy director of the foundation's Agriculture Development Division.  

In India work will focus on the two poorest states, Bihar and Orissa, and there will be a separate programme in Bangladesh.

"This doesn't mean that we don't care about other countries but it certainly means that these are the areas where we would see significant investments from our side and see spill-over benefits to other countries," Pingali told a seminar on the foundation's agricultural policies portfolio at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in the United States, last week (2 November).

Pingali said the country focus was part of a two-pronged approach, with the second prong concentrating on international research, policy and advocacy, and stepping up global funding for improvements in collecting and analysing data on agricultural production and improvements.

Funding for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme and some other agencies will also be strengthened.

The Gates Foundation's US$1.7 billion of agriculture research funding until 2010 had been geared towards smallholder agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. But Pingali said there was a need to be more targeted. In particular, he said, the foundation wants to understand the entire value chain "from molecule to mouth" and work out what are the necessary investments.

Within the selected countries, work on R&D, agriculture policy, and access to markets will be more closely interlinked on a crop by crop basis, he said. Grants made to these countries will be based not just on technological interventions to reduce productivity gaps in certain crops but also the infrastructures, institutional reforms and policy changes required to improve productivity.

"It's a much more proactive, bottom-up approach to grant-making," Pingali said.

Pingali said the foundation would be putting more money into country policy work, particularly in the target countries to improve agricultural productivity; in capacity-building, such as analytical capacity and overall capacity to manage and run large scale agricultural transformation; and in analysis and data, such as better metrics to analyse environmental consequences and the connection between agriculture and nutrition in poor communities and better post-harvest data.  

But he stressed that funding would be based on the countries' own priorities and plans.  

Pingali said the foundation had needed to 'recalibrate' its funding for agricultural research because of the entry of many new donors and players into the sector in the wake of the world food crisis in 2008.

"We also felt that countries themselves are beginning to have much sharper visions of what they wanted to see in their agriculture sectors and we wanted to make sure that our work complements the visions of the countries and supports their efforts."

But he admitted that many African countries had been excluded "because of governance issues".

"Governance did come into it as a criteria, initially at least, in excluding certain countries," he said. And some middle-income countries had been included as "you could be in middle income country status and still have enormously high levels of poverty".  

He added that middle-income countries were important because of "spill-over benefits to other countries, which you would not be able to get if you targeted only the least developed and the low-income countries".