After years of public scrutiny for undemocratic decision-making, the Seattle-based Gates Foundation—one of the wealthiest and most powerful private philanthropies in the world—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. Because of our own work on food and agricultural issues (as a US researcher and Zimbabwean farmer, respectively), we are particularly concerned about what the appointment of Strive Masiyiwa means for the Foundation’s future agricultural development work in Africa and around the world.
This narrow, tech-focused perspective positions agriculture as only a business.
Masiyiwa played a central role in the Gates Foundation-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which promotes a destructive model of US-style industrial agriculture and is opposed by many civil society organizations and farmers’ associations in Africa. Masiyiwa 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. Although both AGRA and Grow Africa claim to benefit small-scale farmers, they actually help corporations like Nestlé, Unilever, and the fertilizer company Yara gain access to new markets, consumers, and profits in Africa.
Masiyiwa, like Bill Gates himself, is fundamentally a tech opportunist. 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. This mirrors how the Gates Foundation itself already thinks about African agriculture, and will do little to diversify the Foundation’s agricultural activities or increase alignment with international recommendations.
This narrow, tech-focused perspective positions agriculture as only a business. This threatens and invalidates local and Indigenous understandings of agriculture as simultaneously an economic activity, a cultural practice, and a form of environmental stewardship. As such, programs guided by a singular focus on making agriculture function like a business cause immense violence to the individual small-scale farmers who are forced to keep up with the costs and competition involved in industrial (and increasingly digital) farming.
Contrary to the IT-influenced “solutions” proposed by Masiyiwa and Gates, the small-scale farmers that both of us have worked with in our respective careers tend to demand more grounded and practical interventions: more resources and support for agroecology (a science-based method of agriculture modeled after ecosystem processes); infrastructural support from national governments; assistance with desalinating soils; and the creation of locally-run processing or preservation facilities and networks to get value-added products to viable markets.
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. But we should be mindful about both the motivations and effects of tech-based interventions: 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 might represent 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, whom he paternalistically claims to be “freeing from the drudgery of the hoe.” The board of the Gates Foundation makes decisions that impact African farmers’ futures and lives—why don’t those farmers have a seat at the table?