Photo depicting a large group of individuals gathered on a lawn with fists raised at a summit in Senegal.

OPINION: Bill Gates — Do Better, and Listen to African Civil Society

by Community Alliance for Global Justice/AGRA Watch

Earlier this year, multiple news outlets ran alarming headlines about Bill Gates’ status as the single largest private owner of farmland in the U.S. What has still remained fairly underreported is Gates’ outsized influence on agriculture globally — especially in Africa through his foundation’s support for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). African civil society organizations have spoken out against AGRA’s industrial agricultural model for over a decade, and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), the largest civil society network on the continent, recently asked wealthy donors to “stop telling Africans what kind of agriculture Africans need.” So how does the Gates Foundation’s agricultural development still seem positive to so many in the U.S.? 

First, Gates has spent millions of dollars financing media outlets. A 2019 analysis, along with our own examinations, suggest that, Al Jazeera, the Guardian, Le Monde, National Public Radio, and Public Radio International are among the outlets that have received large grants from the Gates Foundation to expand their coverage of development and public health issues. Some journalists at Gates-funded outlets have suggested that this “philanthro-journalism” stymies public criticism of the Foundation, encouraging reporters to cover development aid “success stories” rather than failures.

Second, the Gates Foundation claims that its interventions are backed by “science.” By extension, critics of their work are cast as “anti-science” — a serious charge in this era of “alternative truths” and disinformation campaigns. The Foundation only supports certain forms of science — namely, genetically modified seeds, increased use of chemical fertilizers, and other inputs that farmers have to purchase from large agribusiness corporations and their African subsidiaries. They have also funded programs, like the Cornell Alliance for Science, that train communications professionals to write convincing pro-biotech and anti-agroecology propaganda. 

Yet agroecology is also scientific. It has been defined as “the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems,” and it emerges from an appreciation of Indigenous and non-Eurocentric agricultural practices and knowledge.

A 2009 report co-authored by scientists from around the world suggested a role for both biotechnology and agroecology in producing food in the future. Specifically, the report identified a need for increased public and private investments to build capacity for agroecological research and extension services. In spite of this, a tiny minority of Gates Foundation grants go toward agroecological research and partnerships, while a majority of their agricultural development grants go toward industrial agriculture and biotechnology development. What’s more, the Foundation funds programs that attack agroecology rather than working with communities to develop holistic, integrated, and participatory approaches to truly sustainable agriculture.

The Gates Foundation has been able to put a positive spin on what the available evidence suggests is actually an embarrassing record of failure in agricultural development: 

  1. In spite of Bill Gates’ own emphasis on data, until recently the Foundation did not engage in comprehensive assessments of some of its key agricultural development programs. An assessment completed in 2020 found that while grantees collected data, they had not done so in a methodical way; as a result, reliable conclusions could not be drawn about program outcomes. 
  2. AGRA and the Gates Foundation’s wider agricultural development funding have also failed to fulfill their promises to reach tens of millions of smallholder farmers, increase crop yields, and increase farmer incomes. Although yields of some crops have marginally increased, many of the gains have been limited to demonstration plots, as higher-yielding seed varieties cost more money and require more chemical inputs than farmers could afford. And the yields of many other important staple crops in Africa, like millet and sorghum, have in fact decreased under AGRA.
  3. Finally, AGRA has not reduced hunger. In Kenya, for example, the number of food insecure people increased by 4.2 million since AGRA’s programs began, with hunger rates remaining at the same level, proportional to population size.

As recent reports have highlighted, Bill Gates’ model of “catalytic philanthropy” is based on giving money to the wealthy to “help” the needy. A large amount of the Foundation’s agricultural development funding goes to research institutions, corporations, and NGOs located in the Global North. Meanwhile, AGRA’s board exclusively represents governmental and/or private sector interests. There is not a single board member who represents civil society or farming organizations. The model of industrial agriculture that AGRA promotes, which benefits corporations far more than actual farmers, is gaining even more traction on the global level through the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), which AGRA President Agnes Kalibata oversees as the special envoy. The controversial UNFSS has sidelined civil society and has given greater voice and decision-making power to corporate interests. 

There are many aspects of the Gates Foundation (and other philanthropic foundations) that are profoundly undemocratic. The Gates Foundation’s board has long been composed primarily of family members and founders. Although the Foundation receives enormous public tax subsidies, there is also no democratic mechanism for the wider public to have any say in how the Foundation’s assets are disbursed toward public ends. Yet even in the context of these highly problematic structures, Gates can do better. 

At the very least, Bill Gates should engage with his critics and fund solutions that are demanded by and relevant to the African farmers and communities he claims to want to help. Since June of this year, African civil society organizations and farmer associations have written letters to the Gates Foundation (and other AGRA donors), asking for dialogue and encouraging a shift in funding priorities, away from industrial agriculture and toward agroecology. The Gates Foundation still has not responded. 

As Ijeoma Oluo writes in her new book, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, “somehow we agreed that wealthy white men are the best group to bring the rest of us prosperity, when their wealth was stolen from our labor.” Bill Gates epitomizes this white male mediocrity, and we need to stop buying into the idea that he is somehow more of an expert on African agriculture than actual farmers and Africa-based community organizations, simply because he is wealthy.

Community Alliance for Global Justice (CAGJ) is a grassroots, membership-based organization in Seattle dedicated to strengthening the global food sovereignty movement. CAGJ’s AGRA Watch campaign challenges the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s questionable agricultural programs in Africa, including its Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). You can find out more about CAGJ and AGRA Watch’s work at

📸 Featured Image: Community Alliance for Global Justice (CAGJ)/AGRA Watch members celebrate with Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa at the 2018 African Food Systems Summit in Senegal. Photo courtesy of Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa.

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