In their seventh annual letter Bill & Melinda Gates look 15 years into the future to predict the steps needed to improve the lives of poor people faster than in any other time in history. Technology advancements in agriculture, education and global health are key to this vision, with particular reference to the importance of new vaccines, mobile phone technology and online education. “Poverty has been halved because of innovation,” Bill Gates emphasized at the Davos World Economic Forum last week. “Economic miracles start with agriculture, education and then [countries] can participate in the world economy.”
The Gates Foundation has placed their agricultural bets on Africa being able to feed itself in 15 years. This will be achieved through training in crop rotation, no-till farming, fertilizer use and planting techniques. “Investing in extension…is the only way to reap the full benefit of innovation,” Bill and Melinda Gates emphasized. It is predicted this will lead to a 50 percent yield increase across Africa, reducing famines through more nutritious crops and a reduced dependence on imports. Mobile phones will also be a game-changer, giving farmers access to information on improved seed and fertilizer, proper techniques, daily weather reports and market prices.
The notion that scientists should work closely with farmers is central to CIMMYT’s approach. There is a great deal of information out there today and farmers have choices to make. Selecting the right seed varieties and technologies alone is not enough. It is also crucial to combine this knowledge with an understanding of how to develop an integrative agronomic system that connects farmers to a working value chain. In this respect agricultural extension can help farmers achieve their agricultural goals.
Nonetheless, agricultural extension alone will not be sufficient to help African farmers increase agricultural productivity. Extension must go hand in hand with developing new varieties – why use an Altair Basic if you can get a Surface Pro 3? Tanzanian farmer Joyce Sandiya’s success with new drought tolerant maize seed is featured in the annual letter. “That seed made the difference between hunger and prosperity,” she said, eloquently reflecting on the importance of a single seed.
CIMMYT projects in Africa that are funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation show how to develop and deploy new seed varieties. In eastern and southern Africa, up to 2 million farming households have benefited from improved drought tolerant maize seed emerging from joint work by CIMMYT scientists and seed companies, government exten-sion programs and national research organizations.
Research alone is academic, unless it is informed by awareness of problems on-farm and supported by extension. Agricultural research is essential to develop new seed varieties, technologies and innovations, while extension is crucial to ensure that farmers can use these technologies.