Gates to give millions for small farmers

Microsoft founder Bill Gates talks during a session about the "Gates Foundation Agricultural Development Update" at today's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

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KAI RYSSDAL: Somehow, the World Economic Forum just wouldn't be the same without Bono and Bill Gates. And, as it happens, the two were on a panel today in Davos, Switzerland. They said leaders of the big Western economies aren't doing enough to help developing countries deal with things like AIDS and substandard education.

Gates also announced his foundation is going to back small farmers in Africa and other parts of the developing world -- $306 million to help them work their way out of poverty. Gretchen Wilson reports from Johannesburg.


GRETCHEN WILSON: Small-scale farmers in the town of Newcastle use picks to turn the soil for a new food garden. But this one is in a school playground. A lack of good farm land in this area means the school yard is now their best option to grow cabbages, carrots and beets.

Soil across sub-Saharan Africa has been farmed for generation upon generation, leaving it depleted of essential nutrients for healthy crops. But most farmers are too poor to afford fertilizer at market prices. The result? Most farmers in sub-Saharan Africa don't use it. Angolan farmers use less than a half a pound of fertilizer per acre. Ireland uses more than 1,000 times that amount.

So without the nitrogen and phosphorus needed to make things grow, it's made farming here an exercise in futility.

JAMES BREEN: It is impossible to farm properly without fertilizer.

James Breen is a farming expert with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

BREEN: The soil is like a bank. If you keep drawing from your bank account, eventually you get a phone call from your manager. And that phone has been ringing incessantly in Africa for the last 15 to 20 years, with the decline in soil fertility.

The Gates Foundation put $164 million towards fertilizers via the African Soil Health Program.

Gates says helping rural farmers is the key to moving massive amounts of people out of poverty. The vast majority of the 1.1 billion people who survive on less than a dollar a day live in the world's rural areas, especially in Africa.

Rajiv Shah is head of agricultural development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

RAJIV SHAH: In fact, sub-Saharan Africa is the only continent, the only area, where the actual number of people who suffer from chronic hunger has gone up and not down in the past 15 years and today exceeds 200 million people.

When Gates made the announcement, he was flanked by World Bank President Robert Zoellick. And that's significant.

For decades, Western donors -- including the World Bank -- have demanded that African countries put their faith in private markets and eliminate government-sponsored fertilizer subsidies.

But in recent years Malawi defied the World Bank and slashed fertilizer prices. Now, it's exporting food. In October, the World Bank reviewed its own record and admitted that removing fertilizer subsidies in Africa had sent fertilizer prices sky high.

Small-scale farmers won't be the only beneficiaries of today's grant. Much of the organic, inorganic and chemical fertilizer will be imported from major producers in the United States and other Western countries.

In Johannesburg, I'm Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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