Pause: Why we decided to hold our AGRA board meeting at Stanford University

__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.

Fast forward:

“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!

#Asante sana.

END

by 9 Replies

About Strive Masiyiwa

Strive Masiyiwa is the Founder and Executive Chairman of Econet, a diversified global telecommunications group with operations and investments in over 15 countries. His business interests also include renewable energy, financial services, media and hospitality. Masiyiwa serves on a number of international boards, including Unilever, Rockefeller Foundation, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Advisory Board, the Africa Progress Panel, the UN Secretary General's Advisory Board for Sustainable Energy, Morehouse College, Hilton Foundation's Humanitarian Prize Jury and the Kenjin-Tatsujin International Advisory Council. He is one of the founders, with Sir Richard Branson, of the global think tank, the Carbon War Room, and a founding member of the Global Business Coalition on Education. Masiyiwa took over the Chairmanship of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) from Kofi Annan. He is also Chair of the Micronutrient Initiative, a global organization focused on ending child hunger and improving nutrition. In 2012, Masiyiwa was invited by President Obama to address leaders at the Camp David G-8 Summit on how to increase food production and end hunger in parts of Africa. In 2014, Masiyiwa was selected to Fortune Magazine’s list of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders”. As a philanthropist, he is a member of the Giving Pledge, and his contributions to education, health and development have been widely recognized. Masiyiwa and his wife finance the Higher Life Foundation, which provides scholarships to over 42,000 African orphans. In 2015, he was the recipient of the International Rescue Committee’s Freedom Award and was presented with a UN Foundation Global Leadership Award for the work of the Africa Against Ebola Solidarity Trust, which he chairs and helped establish to fund the deployment of African healthcare workers to combat the outbreak in West Africa.

9 thoughts on “Pause: Why we decided to hold our AGRA board meeting at Stanford University

  1. Strive Masiyiwa Post author

    Afterthought 1.
    “When you grow up on a farm, every farm kid wants to drive the tractor. That’s the cool thing to do. What I learned is that some days you drive the tractor and some days you scoop hog manure. That’s work balance. Throughout my career, I have been able to take the bad with the good,” said Jeff Raikes in a recent interview. Food for thought!

    Reply
  2. Strive Masiyiwa Post author

    Afterthought 2.
    Whilst some things take generations to resolve, I have no doubt we are well on our way. We are already seeing dramatic increases in food production throughout the continent, as our farmers are increasingly getting support. It’s a generational fight you must finish! We need some of you who started on the farm like Jeff Raikes to remember where you started, and go back to build modern farms!

    Reply
  3. Strive Masiyiwa Post author

    Afterthought 3.
    When I visited Jeff Raikes’ remarkable farm, one of the thoughts that came to my mind was this: Imagine what would happen if all of us who started out on the farm were to go back with our modern ideas, and radically change agriculture like Jeff and his late brother did.

    I know someone will quickly say to me that their rural family farm of two acres is too small for anything. You should see what the Dutch and the Israelis do with just two acres! You can do anything if you allow your imagination to take a hold of the possibilities.

    Reply
  4. Strive Masiyiwa Post author

    Afterthought 4.
    We must feel ashamed when we allow our grandmothers, mothers, and sisters (or anyone at all) to work the land with that ancient tool called a hoe! I want to see the hoe become a museum relic during my life time. Will you join this fight?

    Reply
  5. Strive Masiyiwa Post author

    Afterthought 5.
    Agriculture probably offers the greatest opportunities of any industry, even today. Don’t just look at it in terms of ploughing a field and growing something. Look at it as a business and a vast industry that can absorb any type of skill. When we visited Stanford, we met young tech entrepreneurs who are working with satellites and big data from California to predict agriculture production in any African village, without ever going there. It’s like “Google Maps” from space! Soon if someone claims to have produced food when instead they pocketed the money, these guys will be able to tell you!

    Reply
  6. Strive Masiyiwa Post author

    Afterthought 6.
    One of my fastest-growing businesses uses mobile phones to supply micro-insurance to farmers. We are making good money, I tell you! It’s time for you to look at your business or career in the city and ask yourself, what am I doing in agriculture?

    Reply
  7. Strive Masiyiwa Post author

    Afterthought 7.
    We have to end this concept which some people have, which is that a farm is a place to retire at the end of your career. I hear so many people say, “When I retire as a civil servant, I will go back to the village and become a farmer.” I’m sorry, but that is the wrong mindset. If you have a burning passion for agriculture, go there now, at the height of your strength! And if you think there is no money in it, then I guess you are admitting you’re not an entrepreneur?

    Reply
  8. Strive Masiyiwa Post author

    Rahila writes,

    This is a very good idea, but how do I convince my village people,on the use of mechanised farming. when it’s hard for them to get fertilizer at affordable price.They sell their farm produce at a very low price to middle men and have to buy fertilizer at a very high price

    My reply,
    Rahila, President Obama once said “hard things are hard”. These are all problems we have to solve using smart solutions. They will not be solved until you yourself begin to see yourself as having a duty to find such solutions, either alone or with others. I don’t know where your journey will take you.
    It is now 15 years since I began my own journey to be part of the process of finding solutions to this kind of problem.
    Join us!

    Reply
    • Thabitha Moyo

      Agriculture is my passion and l am convinced that l will will penetrate the agricultural industry and make a difference. My journey has begun.

      Reply

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