What We Do

Agricultural Development

Strategy Overview

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A maize farmer in Tanzania whose crop yields have increased through the use of better seeds.

our goal:

to reduce hunger and poverty for millions of farming families in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia by increasing agricultural productivity in a sustainable way.

The Challenge

At A Glance

Nearly 1 billion people worldwide are affected by severe hunger and poverty. Many are farmers who rely on small plots of land (about one to two acres) for their food and income.

Our goal is to help these farming families produce more food and increase their income, while preserving the land for future generations.

We focus on the crops and livestock that are most important to farming families in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Helping women farmers is one of our top priorities because women do much of the agricultural work and their well-being affects the health, welfare, and education of their children.

Our Agricultural Development strategy, updated in 2011, is led by Pamela Anderson, director, and is part of the foundation’s Global Development Division.

From the 1960s to 1980s, the “Green Revolution” in Asia and Latin America—a sweeping effort to transform farming methods and improve staple crops such as maize, wheat, and rice—helped to double food production and saved hundreds of millions of lives.

Many governments and donors subsequently shifted their attention to other concerns, believing that the problem of inadequate food supply in the developing world had been solved. This was not the case in Sub-Saharan Africa, however, where some Green Revolution approaches were tried but failed.

Meanwhile, in the intervening years, population growth, rising incomes, dwindling natural resources, and a changing climate have caused food prices to rise and agricultural productivity has once again become strained.

Many of those affected are smallholder farmers. Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people get their food and income by farming small plots of land about the size of a football field. Most of them barely get by—struggling with unproductive soil, plant diseases, pests, and drought. Their livestock are frequently weak or sick. Reliable markets for their products and good information about pricing are hard to come by, and government policies rarely serve their interests well.

These factors, in turn, put millions of families at risk for poverty and hunger as well as malnutrition—the world’s most serious health problem and the single biggest contributor to child mortality. At the same time, one consequence of the first Green Revolution—excessive fertilizer use leading to water pollution—underscores the importance of sustainability to safeguard both environmental and human health.

The Opportunity

Helping farming families increase production in a sustainable way, and sell more crops, is the most effective way to reduce hunger and poverty over the long term.

Dairy farmers in Bangladesh are benefiting from programs that help them increase production and improve veterinary care.

When farmers grow more food and earn more income, they are better able feed to their families, send their children to school, provide for their family’s health, and invest in their farms. This makes their communities economically stronger and more stable.

Helping farmers improve their yields requires a comprehensive approach that includes the use of seeds that are more resistant to disease, drought, and flooding; information from trusted local sources about more productive farming techniques and technologies; greater access to markets; and government policies that serve the interests of farming families.

Agricultural development must also address gender disparities. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, women are vital contributors to farm work, but because they have less access to improved seeds, better techniques and technologies, and markets, yields on their plots are typically 20 to 40 percent lower than on plots farmed by men. Addressing this gap can help households become more productive and reduce malnutrition within poor families.

Our Strategy

Agricultural Development is one of the largest initiatives of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. To date, we have committed more than US$2 billion to agricultural development efforts, primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Our approach is based on the following principles:

  • Listening to farmers and addressing their specific needs. We talk to farmers about the crops they want to grow and eat, as well as the unique challenges they face. We partner with organizations that understand and are equipped to address these challenges, and we invest in research to identify relevant and affordable solutions that farmers want and will use. 
  • Increasing farm productivity. We support a comprehensive approach to helping smallholder farmers prosper that includes access to heartier seeds, more effective tools and farm management practices, locally relevant knowledge, emerging digital technologies, and reliable markets. We also advocate for agricultural policies that support farmers in their efforts to better feed themselves and their communities.
  • Fostering sustainable agricultural practices. In an era of increasingly scarce resources and growing impact of climate change, we encourage farmers to embrace and adopt sustainable practices that help them grow more with less land, water, fertilizer, and other costly inputs while preserving natural resources for future generations.
  • Achieving greater impact with partners. We are committed to communicating our strategy more effectively and sharing what we’ve learned with grantees and other partners, including governments, nongovernmental organizations, traditional and emerging donors, and the private sector. Our resources, while significant, represent only a fraction of what is needed. Collaborating effectively with others maximizes our collective impact in helping farming families.

Areas of Focus

We invest in the following strategic areas that we believe will help address the challenges and local realities faced by farming families in the developing world.

Research and Development

Researchers are seeking ways to combat crop disease such as those infecting the cassava plants on this Tanzania farm.

We support research to develop more productive and nutritious varieties of the staple crops grown and consumed by farming families. These include varieties adapted to local conditions that deliver specific benefits farmers seek, such as increased yields, better nutrition, and tolerance to drought, flood, and pests. We fund research to discover ways to better manage soil and water resources and reduce crop loss due to spoilage, weeds, pests, disease, and other threats.

Agricultural Policies

Timely, relevant, and accurate information is crucial to farmers. Policymakers in developing countries also need good data to inform their decision making. We support data collection, research, and policy analysis to help evaluate the impact of various approaches, get accurate information to farmers, and assess the effects of national and international agricultural policies. Our research also includes measuring the progress of our grants to ensure that they are delivering the anticipated benefits to farming families.

Livestock

Livestock is a key part of farming in developing countries and is crucial to the livelihoods of more than 900 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. We support efforts to improve the health and productivity of livestock—particularly chickens, goats, and cows—by improving animal genetics and veterinary care. To ensure that farmers can benefit from animal health and genetics technologies, we test models for providing farmers with the knowledge and tools they need to increase their on-farm production and connect to stable markets. Our work particularly aims to increase income-generating opportunities for women, who may have little control over productive resources such as land but sometimes own and control livestock, especially poultry and goats.

Access and Market Systems

New programs enable farmers to access crop-related information via cell-phone

We support efforts to get new and appropriate tools and farming practices into the hands of farmers. This includes improved seeds and access to better soil, water, and livestock solutions. We look for ways to strengthen knowledge exchange through technologies such as mobile phones and radio. We also work with farmers’ organizations to help farmers hone their business management skills, gain greater purchasing power and marketing leverage, and improve their crop and resource management skills. Additional priorities include helping farmers improve their storage and post-harvest activities, meet quality and quantity commitments, link to large-scale and reliable markets, and establish partnerships with buyers, processors, and farmers’ organizations.

Strategic Partnerships and Advocacy

To achieve the goal of sustainable agricultural productivity, our strategy relies on strong partnerships with donor countries, multilateral institutions, private foundations, and other organizations. While strengthening existing partnerships, we are building new partnerships with countries such as Brazil and China, which have developed their own agricultural sectors through technological and policy innovation and are increasingly important to agricultural growth in the regions where we work. Through our advocacy efforts and investments, we seek innovative solutions to agricultural policy challenges and we work to foster the political will and public support to solve them. Our overall goal is to ensure that donor and developing-country investments and policies support sustainable smallholder farmer productivity.

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