Sunday, April 10, 2022

Food or Profit

  The Gates Foundation made headlines earlier this year when it expanded its board of trustees. In spite of an emphasis on diversity, all the new trustees have close financial ties with the Foundation and share a belief that technology will solve the world's problems such as the appointment of Strive Masiyiwa.

Masiyiwa played a central role in the Gates Foundation-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and chaired AGRA from 2013 to 2019, in spite of having, in his own words, "no background in agriculture." After stepping down, he was appointed co-chair of Grow Africa, a platform for private sector investments that are made as part of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.  He is a Zimbabwean billionaire who made his money through telecommunications, he invented an Uber-like app for farmers to rent tractors using mobile money and has advocated for drone use in farming. As is clear in his work and writing, he views African agriculture as a vast and as-yet largely untapped frontier for tech investment and profit,  a narrow, tech-focused perspective positions agriculture as only a business.  Such programs guided by a singular focus on making agriculture function like a business cause immense difficulties to the individual small-scale farmers who are forced to keep up with the costs and competition involved in industrial (and increasingly digital) farming that threatens and invalidates local and Indigenous understandings of agriculture as simultaneously an economic activity, a cultural practice, and a form of environmental stewardship. 

This is not to deny that some digital innovations can be beneficial. For example, extension services are increasingly using text messages to communicate rainfall data and planting advice, with demonstrated positive effects for certain farmers. The question is do they serve small-scale farmers' needs and enhance their work and lives, or do they help companies and start-ups sell ill-suited products and services while increasing debt and inequality among farmers? Masiyiwa's actual and proposed interventions seem more likely to do the latter. Masiyiwa represents African entrepreneurs, but he doesn't represent or serve the hundreds of millions of small-scale farmers who produce most of the continent's food.

Opinion | New Zimbabwean Board Member Will Not Diversify Gates Foundation's Approach to African Agriculture | Ashley Fent (


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