News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Gates Foundation, Calestous Juma Bet on Huge Progress in African Agriculture

January 22, 2015

Coinciding with the conclusion of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, Bill and Melinda Gates talk about their “big bets” for the next 15 years in their Annual Letter this year. Among the questions they ask: How do we feed Africa, and ultimately the world? Their big bet is that Africa will feed itself and will be on the way to helping feed the world by 2030.

Calestous Juma, who heads the Belfer Center’s Agricultural Innovation in Africa project, supported by the Gates Foundation, agrees with the Gates’ bet. In his 2011 book The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, he provides details on how Africa can feed itself in a generation.

See this video clip and the Q&A below for Calestous Juma’s answers to what is needed for Africa to make huge strides in agriculture in the next 15 years.


Q: What are the critical barriers to Africa being able to feed itself?

A: One of the most important barriers to agricultural production in Africa is poor infrastructure (especially lack of rural transportation, energy and irrigation). It is easier to increase production by giving farmers better seed, fertilizer and pesticides. But it is much harder to transport the produce and process it for storage.

Q: What can be done to address the infrastructure shortfalls?

A: Two of the most important solutions are financial and educational. Infrastructure projects tend to be costly so there is a need to find creative ways to solve the challenge. This involves innovation in financing as well as the design of low-cost infrastructure projects. One option to reduce the cost of financing is to leverage the expertise in public institutions such as the military. On the educational side, Africa needs to expand engineering education to build up the capacity needed to build, maintain and manage infrastructure projects.

Q: What new technologies, in addition to telecommunication, can be deployed in African agriculture?

A: There are many emerging technologies that could play key roles in improving African agriculture. Recent advances in genomics offer unique possibilities to adapt crops to diverse ecosystems. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are already being deployed in countries such as Rwanda for resource mapping and crop estimates. Their applications will continue to expand in providing critical data and even possibly for transportation of produce. Other emerging technologies that could promote sustainable agriculture include encapsulation of fertilizers, pesticides and water in smart biopolymer material. We explore these and other technologies in the revised version of The New Harvest; Agricultural Innovation in Africa that will be issued later this year.

Q: What can be done to enable institutions of higher learning to contribute more effectively to African agricultural innovation?

A: In African agricultural research, teaching and extension work is carried out in different institutions. There are two ways to improve the situation. The first is to increase research support in universities. This is problematic because most universities tend to be located in urban areas. Another strategy is to add teaching and entrepreneurship to research stations, many of which are located close to farming communities. The latter approach could serve as the seed for new agricultural research universities in Africa.

Q: What new roles can African presidents and prime ministers play to promote agricultural production?

A: There are two important roles that governments can play. The first is high-level coordination provided by offices of presidents and prime ministers. This is important because of the need to coordinate across a wide range of government, private and academic actors. The second is spending political capital on bold reforms such as creating agricultural research universities.

Please join the conversation with Bill and Melinda and Calestous by giving us your thoughts and solutions to feeding the world. How? Post a video or tweet to @calestous, and be sure to use hashtag #GatesLetter.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Gates Foundation, Calestous Juma Bet on Huge Progress in African Agriculture.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, January 22, 2015.