Let me go to your flagship programme, which is
introducing the second green revolution in Africa.
The tenet of this programme is to introduce
sustainable growth in the agriculture sector by
combining technology, innovation, and skill. But I
understand that many people were not happy with the
Mathews: You may be able to understand that better
Q. I am sure you are aware of these criticisms.
Yes, we are aware, but we always want to hear more.
I think some of the criticisms stemmed from issues
with the initial green revolution. Whereas the
initial green revolution saved millions of lives, it
had some problems related to sustainability defined
by environmental concerns. There is also a valid
criticism on how the water table has been exhausted
in India. We are working on all of those issues. We
are probably the largest single and private donor
for organic farming.
We believe there are a range of solutions for the
smallholder farmer that need to be examined and we
are investing in a variety of them.
A second area that we, as an institution, receive
criticism for is on the agricultural front; namely,
on our engagement with Genetically Modified
Organisms (GMOs). We believe that there are suitable
solutions that farmers need; and when we engage in
breeding, we do everything from conventional
breeding to what is called marker-assisted breeding,
which gives us the ability to understand what things
a plant has to offer.
And then, we do transgenic, which is the part that I
think many people have a problem with, but we
believe it is a part of the solution. We believe it
needs to be safe; that countries need to make their
own decisions; and that these countries need the
regulatory capability to make those decisions. We
have funded Michigan State University, along with
NePAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development), to
provide grants and technical assistance here in the
continent of Africa for those countries which seek
regulatory assistance, so that their scientists have
the capability and equipment to conduct testing.
There is a third, which has to do with the question
of how hybrid seeds relate to corporations and
companies that sell it. But, again, we believe that
choice is up to the farmer.
Q: Don’t you think that it is valid criticism? I
understand that the Trust [Bill and Melinda Gates
Foundation Trust has bought 27 million dollars worth
of shares in a seed breeding company, MONSANTO]. It
has a substantial investment in one of the
corporations which is involved in the seed business
Therefore, while you are promoting this project in
the name of charity, there is another corporation,
where you have a vested financial interest in, which
sells products to farmers you support. Are you not
promoting a corporate interest here?
The intellectual property for all the works that
MONSANTO does on drought-resistant gene is free. The
company is losing money on this effort. We keep our
investments and the work of the Foundation separate.
It is what we choose to do, as we believe, the
Foundation should focus on the issues we are
Q: You have a Trust which manages the Foundation’s
endowment, investing in companies with high returns.
You also have the Foundation, which is going around
the world, trying to support poor people and
overcome poverty. But the criticism comes when the
companies your Trust invests in are doing things
that undermine the wellbeing of the very poor people
the Foundation is trying to help.
In the case of MONSANTO, the investment is very
small relative to our portfolio. But, I do not think
that is actually a relevant point. The more relevant
point is that, I am not sure I understand what
MONSANTO does in undermining the poor. It gave the
intellectual property away for free, a right which
costs an American farmer a tremendous amount of
money, but would not cost an African farmer
anything. How is MONSANTO undermining the poor here?
Q: By making them dependent on the very product that
it is selling?
It is the farmers’ choice whether or not to buy
hybrid. A farmer can use Open Pollinated Variety (OPV),
grow maize, or use a hybrid. That should be the
farmer’s choice; making this choice out of an
economic rationale. Yes, farmers need technology to
understand the extension, but most farmers actually
understand their own economics, the risks they take
when they plant, and they know how many years a
drought lasts. That is why they won’t use other
The idea that farmers become hooked is false. We
believe that putting choice in the farmer’s hand is
a better approach than dictating what the farmer
Q: I read a statement made by one of your officers a
while back; he said he would like to see as many
African companies flourish in the African seed
selling market. Is the Foundation interested in
supporting such companies in Ethiopia, for instance,
by providing financial support? How would it work
Given that we are a large organisation based in
Seattle, most of our work is done through
intermediaries. The biggest intermediary that works
specifically on the issue of both seed production
and sales is the Program for African Seed Systems,
with the Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation
(AGRA), where I sit on the board.
AGRA will be supporting the agro-dealers and the
seed producers that are producing the largest volume
of seed on the continent of Africa; and they are
private. That would be a place where we could add
value, and the support comes in a number of forms.
There are direct grants that AGRA does; it also
provides technical assistance to help these
countries think about a concept known as the
“business development portion.” AGRA will help with
their financial management, set up their books,
business practices, as well as give them direct cash
These seed companies, the agro-dealers and
distributors, are springing up everywhere. In Mali,
I have visited a woman, who has started up a company
that uses smaller seed packs, which is what farmers
need in terms of their ability to pay. She is a
small company owner, who has won a national top
businesswoman award in the country.
And that is the difference between the agro-dealer
versus the seed producer; but they are both
important parts of the value chain.
Q: Who could be eligible for the programme?
It is all done through AGRA and there are other
conditions in relation to the capacity of the
organisation and the ability to show stability. As
far as the amount of grants we process, AGRA sets
Q: There are also programmes on water efficient
maize as well as the support of companies which deal
with marketing seeds. Are you hoping to introduce
them to the Ethiopian market?
Yes. Whether it is an AIDS vaccine or a drought
resistance breed, it can spread. It is a little more
complicated with seeds because even if it is bred
with much research, done in Kenya, it will have to
come to Ethiopia through the national research
centre to ensure that the product fits the Ethiopian
agroecology, its soils, the rain, and everything
here. The idea is that, it would be used all over
Q: I understand the laws of Ethiopia prohibit the
import and use of genetically modified food [GMO],
which I see you are passionate about.
Only six per cent of our financing goes to GMOs. The
project has transgenic and non transgenic
components. The benefits of these products are to
the farmers. The changing lives of the poor will
determine how people think about the laws. We
respect the laws of the countries and that will
determine what they want and where they want to be
on the GMO issue. But as I said, countries will make
their own choices on what is good for them.
On the importation of seeds and the ability to move
products across countries, we will probably be
working on our policy. For instance, eight new
breeds of pigeon pea have come out from Uganda. In
the next two months, they will move to South Sudan
because they do not have a law prohibiting it. For
South Sudan, right now, the top quality pigeon pea
breeding seeds will make a very big difference.
Q: Are you a grant providing agency or are you also
involved in the actual operations that you support?
We are a grant making agency, but we have active
partners. I am sure some of our grantees would say
we may be more active than they want us to be as a
For instance, an example of our deep engagement is
with AGRA. Separately, everyone from our measurement
and evaluation personnel work directly with the
measurement and evaluation personnel of our
partners. As they put together a new health
strategy, our team would be involved in helping,
supporting, and putting their strategy together.
Some of it we fund, and some of it we would not
fund. But, we will be partners in that sense. Our
work involves having deep conversations.
Q: You gave me the impression that you have a little
more involvement in the projects, that you provide
funds to grantees while maintaining a certain level
Interestingly, we have actually conducted a survey
on this issue. And probably, a limited number of our
grantees did not like our engagement. For some of
the grantees, our level of engagement is off the
chart. Some grantees find our engagement more
important than the money. In terms of technical
capability, we have the best employees in the United
States. That kind of staff makes a real difference.
There are some grantees that might not like that.
Q: What underlies and characterises your philosophy
at the Foundation?
In short, catalytic change at scale. We think it is
not our role to simply fund delivery of existing
solutions on the ground. We respect that it is
incredibly important and we play some role in that.
But, we think the unique contribution that we can
make is to find places and things that we can take
to the next level.
Whether our contributions are in breeding, or in
building capacity on the ground for things like
finance and extension, what we do is to catalyse and
stimulate that change. Some of what we do with the
Ethiopian government in agricultural transformation
is part of that catalytic change. We are making
plans together and are developing implementation
tools to realise the catalytic change. That will
move and speed the change, which this country is
Q: On your official website, I saw a phrase that
reads, “defeating hunger and poverty is not just
possible, but it is happening.” Isn’t it too early
to declare victory, considering the present nature
of the problem?
I think, we are trying to be very careful on two
matters. Firstly, half the people recognise the
magnitude of the problems, and the importance, as
well as the urgency, of working towards it.
Secondly, this is not the time to have a sense of
hopelessness. In the most recent anniversary, there
was a real sense that the Millennium Development
Goals (MDGs) was going to be a talk of failure. And
that kind of failure-talk was not necessary. The
statement implies progress is being made.
Q: Can you give me an example?
Absolutely! If you look at the [MDGs], the actual
numbers of people living under poverty in the world
has declined. The progress that has been made in the
past 20 years is greater than it has been in any
It is not only a matter of looking at gross numbers,
considering the global population increase; you also
have a reduction in percentage (or relative) terms.
In the global context, much of that progress, when
you dive into the numbers, comes from China. In
terms of poverty, we do think of poverty all over
the world and there actually has been progress made
in countries such as Ghana. In cutting hunger by
half, progress has been made, too.
There are also a number of countries that are
Yet, maintaining the energy and momentum behind
success is an important thing, both in terms of the
donor community, the developed world, as well as
here on the ground, where the countries are working
hard to make progress.
Q: There are two issues about measurements of
progress when it comes to statistics on the
macroeconomic front and MDGs. International
organisations depend on nation states to get their
data; the nation states have an interest to portray
themselves in a much more positive manner than the
reality on the ground. This basically means that
governments cook-up the data. On the other hand, you
may have all the correct statistics, stating the
increased number of kids attending school, compared
to the low rates of the past years. But in the
quality of whatever social service is being
provided, there is a huge gap. Yes, indeed,
countries may report that they have made progress in
terms of statistics, but on the ground there can be
a huge gap.
Certainly, the question of accurate statistics is
critical. One way to try to address that problem is
by having surveys, which are done, and have been
done over many years, by independent bodies. We, as
an institution, use actual surveys that we find
ourselves from the World Bank, IFAD, and other
organisations. Still, we cannot fully take care of
it. But you can address it to some degree.
Q: Let me give you an example. The Ethiopian
government may report that it has built this number
of clinics and increased health provision by
whatever percentage. You go to one of the actual
clinics and there is only a structure that is not
equipped by medical supplies or even personnel.
True, on the MDGs' score card, it could be reported
that there is an improvement, but in reality there
is not much.
We support the MDGs because they focus peoples’
minds and they do have measures. They are imperfect
and it is a question of not “throwing a baby out
with the bath water,” as we would say, in terms of
these imperfections. We believe what they did was
energise the effort and focus around the world the
key things that need improvement. There are
problems, as you have reflected.
Yet, I think, we have to think through the next step
which is quality. Similarly, I would be at the
Africa Sanitation Conference, which is the largest
gathering of sanitation officials in the world, to
emphasise on leadership for tomorrow. Taking the
MDGs beyond access is something that we have to be
The whole issue is; is it really working for the
people? Are we really helping individuals?
I think there is a serious development of
weaknesses, and the question we ask ourselves is on
whether our staff members struggle to provide us
with the correct picture. This should involve
crosschecking whether progresses made are good
enough. Sometimes portraits of the progresses might
not be directionally correct as compared to the key
assumption that you are making, although progress
has been made.
Q: Much of the allegations from your critics come as
a result of their ideological worldview. They see
the alignment of forces coming together against what
they say is an imposition of a neo-liberal agenda on
Africa. You have International Financing
Organizations (IFO) such as the IMF and the World
Bank imposing policies. You have foundations, which
are somehow in line with these international
financing institutions. You have corporations, which
are part of the whole foundation network, because
the foundations come from these corporations. The
concern is that for the first time, there is an
alignment of these three groups imposing the
interests of the West on Asia, Africa and the
underdeveloped world, in order to control resources.
We are hopeful that our role is for more forces to
come together within the country. I think Ethiopia
is a very good example of what we hope can happen in
the agriculture sector. We hope to contribute
support to the government in developing the sector.
Both the strategy and the implementation are
nationally owned and our job is to provide support
in developing the strategy, helping get the
transformation off the ground, and bring other
partners to the table to fund the Ethiopian plan. We
see ourselves as part of that triangle. But, what
drives off the relationship is what a country needs.
Then, the process would be on how you drag resources
against that, and support the country with tools,
technologies and funding to try and make
I appreciate the Washington Consensus problems, in
terms of how the IMF and other agencies were driving
certain standards and certain change. I also
appreciate the concerns when corporations, or other
parties, come in with certain view on resources.
Q: How do you feel when you come with funds to
support projects, and yet, at the same time, you are
subjected to these criticisms?
Criticisms usually make you stronger and better if
you stop and listen. It will make you more
effective. You have to come with the mindset of
pausing and listening to what the criticism is all
about. Even in their exaggerated forms; criticisms
are words of some kind. So we stop, listen and try
to get to the core of the issue.
Q: You seem to give a lot of emphasis on the
individual farmer’s choice; on whether or not to
embrace what you are trying to introduce and your
interest to improve their lives. But in a situation
where they may have a state that is not accountable,
or refuses to be accountable, and in a situation
where the governance issue has a lot more to do with
the inability to make individual choices, how
concerned are you with the governance issue and a
government’s lack of accountability in countries
where you work, including Ethiopia?
There are places where there is not enough
governance, at any level. There are places that are
completely unstable, and those are places where we
do not do much work. We do not work in the
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for instance. We
actually have great sympathy, but we are not engaged
in the kind of work we do with Ethiopia.
Yes, we are concerned about it in a sense that one
of the things we believe about our work is creating
broad ownership. It is not that government
leadership is central; however it is a necessary
component, but it is not a sufficient component.
I think, what we do is try to make sure that we
consistently have our eyes open and embed the work
with people as much as possible. We fundamentally
believe that when you empower people economically,
you empower change because their knowledge, desires
and everything moves. That is an important part of
an evolving process, one that we can contribute to
Q: Do you believe there is a kind of political
setting in Ethiopia that allows you to make a
difference towards your goals?
We feel it is sufficient, or we would not be working
here. We hope we are a part of long-term positive
change for the individual on the ground in this
country, that we can support them in the change,
because they are the change agents, not us.