__Asante sana to a true friend of the African smallholder farmer.
Until last week, one of the board members of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was an American commercial farmer called Jeff Raikes. Jeff grew up on a farm in the American state of Nebraska where his family have farmed for generations.
Like many smart young Americans (even today), Jeff left his family farm to go to college and ended up studying engineering at one of the top universities in America called Stanford (where I held my most recent town hall meeting). There he developed a passion for the then new field of computer engineering and ended up joining a “start-up” called Microsoft, as one of its very first employees!
Jeff went on to be one of the senior guys that helped Bill Gates build one of the greatest companies in history. When Bill Gates decided to retire and focus his time with his wife, Melinda, on giving more than $80bn (the largest amount in history) to help the poor around the world, guess who he asked to come and run the giant Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as its second president?
You guessed correctly… the farm boy from Nebraska!
Fast forward: When I joined the board of the Rockefeller Foundation in 2003, I was privileged to help recruit one of the smartest people I have ever met as its new president, Dr Judith Rodin.
As she prepared her new strategy for the organization, she confided in me one day that she wanted to help catalyze a “green revolution” in Africa, just like one of her predecessors had done several decades earlier in Asia. I could not contain my excitement. Even though I knew nothing about agriculture, I just knew we must ensure food security and help end perennial famines and hunger.
“We cannot do it alone. We need to work with others, and Africans themselves must be at the forefront…” This was the view of our entire board as Judith presented her bold vision, supported by her staff who included a young Nigerian scientist, Dr Akin Adesina, and some leading experts on food Security who had spent their careers waiting for this moment, men like Dr Gary Tonnessen and Dr Joe De Vries.
“Did you hear the speech that outgoing UN Secretary General Kofi Annan recently made?” someone asked.
“We all heard what he said. It is time for Africa to have a green revolution and end famines for good.”
“Where is Africa leadership on this?” someone else quizzed, adding: “There is just no point if the African leaders are not interested, as has happened before.”
“There is a new generation of African leaders who are also agitating for a continental response,” said someone else.
“Let’s create an alliance of the willing which is all-inclusive with farmers, governments, civil society, farmers’ organizations, donors, and foundations like us.”
“Kofi Annan has been consulted and he insists we must focus on smallholder farmers, otherwise he will not lend his name to the effort.”
The debate continued…
“Bill Gates is interested, and he has already pulled together some of the best brains to help drive this.”
“Why don’t we bring all their people and our people into one organization, and put the whole thing in Africa under an African leadership?”
“The Gates people would like that, but Kofi Annan must chair the board. Our own people, like Akin Adesina who works for Rockefeller Foundation in Harare, will move to Nairobi as part of the team.” (This is the same Akin Adesina who later joined the Nigerian government as the most successful agriculture minister in the country’s history. He is now President of the African Development Bank).
“Let’s not make the mistake of telling Africans what to do,” warned another board member. “Our job as philanthropists is to help catalyze!”
“There is unprecedented interest in Africa. Really we are just there to help. A new generation of African leaders like Paul Kagame in Rwanda and (now late) Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia are already well ahead in implementing some really radical transformation strategies,” someone assured.
“This is so exciting, Strive!” Akin said to me later. “I’m ready brother, but you must be on the board,” he insisted.
“Don’t worry, of course I will join as long as you teach me about agriculture!” I quipped.
“And all the stars began to line up!”
In 2003 African governments made the historic decision in Maputo to launch an African Green Revolution. Here’s the link to that historic decision: http://www.nepad.org/resource/au-2003-maputo-declaration-agriculture-and-food-security
It more than any other decision brought donors and philanthropists to step in and begin to help.
Kofi Annan agreed to chair the board of the new organization which would soon be called “Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa” (AGRA). You can go to https://agra.org to learn more.
The board was made up of African leaders such as Dr Mamphela Ramphele and Dr Mo Ibrahim, to name a few, and included leaders in agriculture, as well as representatives from the US, India and Europe who helped share their own experiences. So AGRA was born…
Bill Gates flew to Nairobi and symbolically sat in on one of the inaugural board meetings as an observer. He committed hundreds of millions of dollars.
He brought his people, many of whom, like Dr Raj Shah and Dr Sylvia Matthews Burwell, would become cabinet secretaries in the Obama administration.
From their perch within the Obama administration, now joined by other colleagues with a passion for Africa like Gayle Smith, it was not long before President Obama himself was pushing for assistance to African agriculture.
Bill Gates also brought the farm boy from Nebraska, Jeff Raikes. And, despite being the head of the entire $80bn Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he decided to personally sit on the board of the AGRA!
“Why are you interested in joining the board personally?” I asked when I first met him with Bill Gates.
“I’m a farmer, Strive,” he said quietly, in his self-effacing humble style.
At some point he even invited us to the family farm where he grew up. It is one of the most modern farms you can imagine.
Fast forward: Jeff Raikes retired from running the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2014, but agreed stay on the board of AGRA at my request, as I had taken over the chairmanship from Kofi Annan, after he also retired.
Last week Jeff Raikes finally retired from the board of AGRA, and to honor him we agreed to hold our board meeting at old university. You guessed it, the farm boy from Nebraska who helped build Microsoft is now chairman of the Board of Trustees at Stanford University.
Now what was it the Apostle Paul said?
“We hold such men in high esteem!”
Thank you Jeff, a true friend of the African smallholder farmer!