Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)
Haddis: “In the agricultural sector, there has been some progress, but we still have a long way to go. Ethiopia is now becoming a very important country, globally, for various reasons. But I think that until you get to being a completely food-secure country, I am not sure you can say progress has been made. Again, it is too early to claim victory but I think we are in the right path and we need to be smarter about our investments.”
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s leading philanthropic organisation operating in Africa, has been instrumental in financing development programmes, particularly in the critical sectors of agriculture and health. The Foundation takes pride in its catalytic interventions to reduce poverty and ensure food security, not without criticism or challenges but with passion and strong commitment grounded in the philosophy that all lives are equal. As the international community prepares to fine tune the sustainable development goals and as Ethiopia readies itself for implementing the second Growth and Transformation Plan, FORTUNE’S EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, YONATHAN ABEBE conducts an exclusive interview with the Foundation’s first official representative in Ethiopia, Haddis Tadesse.
FORTUNE: Your foundation has a number of focus areas, eradicating poverty and fighting diseases, such as malaria. Would it not be better to have one or two focus areas?
Haddis Taddese: The foundation is interested in a few areas. For example, in the United States, the principles that guide the foundation are that all lives, no matter where they are, have equal value. So in the United States, for example, education is where we think we can make a big difference.
Globally, we started out having observed enormous inequities in health. Children were dying and the maternal mortality rate was much higher; we wanted to target that.
In the first phase of the foundation, may be the first six or seven years, we focused primarily on health; and then when Warren Buffett gave a chunk of his wealth to the foundation, we had additional resources to be able to focus on other things and we thought food security, both as a means to ensure food security and as an engine for economic growth, was something that we should invest in.
Health and agriculture really became the pillars of our investments in developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. I would say that it is quite a lot, but it is also fairly narrow.
Q: You said that education is your focus area in the United States. Where does education sit in your list of priorities in sub-Saharan Africa?
We have now focused on health and agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. We do care deeply about education. Within health and agriculture, we work in education; we support the training and education of agricultural extension workers or women agricultural scientists. But education is not a topic area of investment for us at the current stage.
Q: Bill Gates, one of the founders and Co-Chair of the Foundation, has stated that the Foundation had underestimated the effort required to implement all the technologies in countries, because of lack of basic services in those countries, especially the sub-Saharan countries, where there is no clean water or reasonable health care facilities. Now that the problem has been realised, what is being done to solve it?
At the outset, the foundation focused on upstream research. We thought that if we could focus on investments and research, and discover vaccines or seeds that can positively affect the people we could somehow serve the people. We, therefore, focused our investments on upstream research.
What we have learnt is that delivery of those technologies is actually not as easy as we thought it would be. We thought that if we could have those technologies, we could reach the people, but for various reasons, including infrastructure challenges, management challenges and just skepticism of technologies, the delivery of those technologies was made tough. That has been a good learning experience for the foundation. We are spending a bit more time and resources on the delivery side of things as opposed to just the research.
Q: How to you respond to the naysayers that state that you have a technological approach to major issues, especially diseases. They say that your methods are failing.
Technology actually has a big role to play. Of course, technology is not the solution for everything, but whether it is in health or agriculture, technology actually plays a significant role.
Vaccines are outputs of technological advances and to the extent that vaccines save lives of children, we will invest in that. If the technological approach is to better seeds, fertilisers or farm management to help smallholder farmers, we will invest in that. Our bet is not technology for the sake of technology, but we have to actually support the people we are trying to support.
I am not sure if I agree that we have a technology bent that is detrimental to the people. I think that technology, when appropriately used, is actually a good thing. Not everything we do is technology but we believe in technology and like I said, to the extent they can be helpful to people, we will invest in them.
Q: Your founder and co-chair, Bill Gates, is a big proponent of aid, but how effective has aid been in Africa so far?
Our belief is that aid, when appropriately used, is absolutely the right thing to do. And there are times when it is not appropriate or the methodologies and usages are inappropriate. If it creates total dependency; and if it is not filling a gap, then it is not good. If governments are not able to find a solution for some things, then aid is the right thing to do.
Ethiopia is a good example. The majority of investments in Ethiopia is done by government, the private sector and the people themselves. Hence, aid plays some role. But it does not have the majority or the biggest share of development in this country.
To the extent to which there are gaps, and those gaps for financial, management or other reasons cannot be filled by the government or markets, I think that aid has a significant place. And history has shown that aid has played an important role in the development of countries.
Q: There was an interview that was conducted with Sylvia Mathews, former president of Global Development Programme. She was asked if it was too early to declare victory considering the overall poverty and hunger problem that was there at the time and is still there now. She had stated that talk of failure is not proper and that “progress is being made”. This was in 2011. Do you agree with her assessment?
I definitely agree and I think that progress still stands. If you look at the areas that we have invested in – health and agriculture – tremendous progress has been made. It is absolutely too early to call victory, because we are not there yet, but we are making progress.
Q: You have in the past, and still continue, to provide grants as partners working to improve the agricultural sector in terms of productivity. Do you think that it is perhaps time and even more important that you begin to support the manufacturing sector, which by all accounts is in its infancy?
You are absolutely right. It is in its infancy. But Ethiopia seems to be heading in the right direction, really expanding the manufacturing base. It makes sense.
You have got a very large labour force in the agricultural market and over time you want to shift that to industries. At this stage in time, we still see agriculture as the key driver to industries. If you look at Ethiopia’s gross domestic product (GDP), a significant portion of it, maybe 45pc, is still dependent on agriculture. Employment is entirely dependent on agriculture. If you look at exports, they are still dependent on the agricultural sector.
Thus, leaving the agricultural sector and transitioning into something else at this stage does not really make sense. I think that increasing productivity of the agricultural sector to be able to feed into the industry is really the strategy in this medium term. Over time we can shift to industries.
Q: There has been a lot of support from the foundation to the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA). It has been a major focus area in the Ethiopian agricultural scene. But there is not a big change on the ground. How do you evaluate that so far?
The ATA is a government agency which is tasked with supporting the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) and the agriculture sector as a whole, to find solutions to the systemic bottlenecks of the agriculture sector. The Agency has only been around for a few years.
If your task is to look at systemic problems that have been endemic for generations in our agricultural sector, you would expect that to be resolved in two to three years. It takes a long time to really transform an agricultural sector that plays such a dominant role in the economy. I think it is early to say we have not seen changes on the ground. If you are in the business of transformation, I think that is a long-term play and I think you have to judge that 10 to 20 year period as opposed to just a two or three year period.
Q: Your foundation, especially your co-chair, Bill Gates, has been vocal on liberalisation of seed markets. Now with the government approving the GMOs a couple of months ago, do you still stand by your resolve?
Ethiopia has had some debates, internal debates between the government research institutions, academics and others about how we can increase the productivity of the agriculture system and make it more robust and modernise it. And you can really have different choices within that space.
Some of them require technology, and some do not. Within technology, there is biotechnology and even within biotechnology, there are very different aspects of biotechnology, all the way to GMOs. Our position is that farmers and governments should decide what is needed or what they prefer to use under these circumstances.
We are saying let the decisions be made by others. To the extent that we think technology, particularly high yielding varieties of seeds or GM products, could be helpful to governments or to farmers, we will be happy to explore what to do with them and see if we can give them technical support. Again, ultimately, the decision is for others to make.
Q: There are these ownership issues that sometimes arise. Sometimes foundations begin projects and when those projects are completed, there is no one to overtake them. How does your foundation intend to treat these ownership issues?
That is a very good point. We have seen the pitfalls of development where a lot of well-meaning, well-intended projects go through a phase and when that funding stops, things do not progress. We, as a learning institution, have only been around for 15 years. One of the advantages of being new is that you can learn a lot from the mistakes of others.
We have paid attention to that. If you look at our investments, they are primarily around capacity building and sustainable solutions to problems. We believe in the role of the private sector, and in the role of the markets; for example, we can support smallholder farmers to connect to larger domestic or international markets, we think that is a solution. Because even when we step out, that value chain continues to thrive.
We want our role to be limited. Our role is to fill a small gap, make it sustainable and exit so that the government or markets can take over.
Q: There are many philanthropic foundations engaged in various activities. But rarely, if ever, do we actually see these groups come together to tackle certain issues. It is always a very partitioned way of working. What is holding that collaboration back?
Partly, it is because of the topic areas that we have chosen. If the particular foundation chooses to be in the education space and we do not do education, it would be difficult to collaborate. But I think that we are starting to.
For example, we work very closely with the Clinton Foundation in our health work. We also work closely with the Packard Foundation in specific projects we co-fund. In some cases, other foundations are implementing and we support them financially in order to implement the projects. Hence, we have seen a few collaborations but in general, I think you are right.
The philanthropic community, or I should say the aid community, tends to be very narrow in their business for different reasons. There is some collaboration but I think we can do more. But I also think this is where country ownership becomes important. And Ethiopia understands that well.
Q: How would you rate the progress of Ethiopia in the areas that you have engaged in it?
The growth and change that has occured in Ethiopia for the last 10 years is actually impressive. The country has done quite well in the health sector. In fact, it is now referred to by many African countries as an example of how to do health or how to support the health sector in developing countries.
In the agricultural sector, there has been some progress, but we still have a long way to go. Ethiopia is now becoming a very important country, globally, for various reasons. But I think that until you get to being a completely food-secure country, I am not sure you can say progress has been made. Again, it is too early to claim victory but I think we are in the right path and we need to be smarter about our investments.