Philanthropist Howard Buffett backs brown revolution in Africa

Foundation could spend upward of $500 million to support agricultural development in Rwanda

WILLCOX, Ariz. — Dressed in a padded jacket against the high desert chill of a southern Arizona winter, philanthropist Howard Buffett got fired up about one of his favorite subjects, soil.

“This is a very similar environment to South Africa,” he said of the sandy earth shot through with clay that hardens to rock when it dries out after the annual rainy season. “There’s lots of soils in Africa that have that problem.”

He was on a 1,500-acre test farm on a broad plain between the rugged Chiricahua and Dragoon mountains of southeastern Arizona that is part of a research archipelago on two continents where Buffett’s cash-flush charitable foundation is gambling an ambitious plan to beat global hunger and is poised to sink upward of $500 million on his big idea in Rwanda.

“There are hundreds of soil types in Africa, so you’re never going to be able to say this is, like, the perfect place. But as long as it provides some of the challenges that you would have typically in different places in Africa, that’s what we’re looking for, and we get that here,” he said.

Having built one of the world’s biggest fortunes, through the Berkshire Hathaway investment conglomerate — current market capitalization, $364 billion — investor Warren Buffett gave his eldest son, Howard Buffett, and two other children stock in the firm in 1999 to be used for charitable ends.

Drawing on his experience as a farmer in Nebraska and Illinois, Howard Buffett set himself the goal of bettering the living standards of the world’s poorest through improved food and water security. His Howard G. Buffett Foundation has an endowment worth at least $7 billion, according to current Berkshire stock prices.

Tucked in this remote corner of Arizona — the fields dotted with barns and tractor sheds, water pumps and pivot irrigation systems — Buffet funds research into conservation-based, no-till farming that seeks to create healthier soils and produce high yields from fewer inputs.

The farm experiments with rotations of maize and bean crops, flattening the residue with roller crimpers — giant rolling pins wrapped with raised chevrons. The practice reduces erosion, fixes moisture and organic nutrients in the soil and, over time, lessens the need for nitrogen fertilizers. Runoff laced with fertilizer can create algae blooms, resulting in dead zones in lakes and oceans, such as in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi.

Two oxen used for research into animal traction at a Howard G. Buffett Foundation test farm in Arizona.

Buffett took delivery in January of the second-largest roller crimper in the world at the Willcox facility (the biggest, he gleefully notes, is at another of his farms in Illinois.) The project has a fleet of hulking John Deere tractors to work the land and has experimented with a pair of oxen to explore the capacity of animal traction, which is frequently used on small family-run farms in Africa.

Partnering with researchers at Penn State and Purdue universities, the foundation hopes to find the most efficient forms of irrigation, comparing yield results from pivot systems (which douse precious water in an arc across fields) and drip irrigation from buried lines and to develop, through conventional breeding, drought-resistant crop varieties that are able to produce higher yields from poorer soils.

‘Once we have a plant that’s drought tolerant here, it’s likely that those same mechanisms are going to give us drought tolerance in Rwanda or anywhere else.’

Jonathan Lynch

professor of plant nutrition, Penn State

“The site in Arizona is useful for us because it is a high desert environment, where we can reproduce heat and drought as stresses,” Jonathan Lynch, a professor of plant nutrition at Penn State, said of the program in Willcox. “Once we have a plant that’s drought tolerant here, it’s likely that those same mechanisms are going to give us drought tolerance in Rwanda or anywhere else.”

The scale of the farm’s experiments and the impact of the foundation’s largesse can be gauged through a gift it made last year to the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. The donation of 50 tons of pinto beans — grown as a rotation crop at the farm  –— was than distributed to many of the organization’s 190,000 clients in southern Arizona, where rural poverty is pervasive.

“These are families that have to make tough choices … ‘Do I feed my child tonight, or do we save our home?’ So every time that we have a donation that’s helping to alleviate that choice … it’s critical,” said Melissa Wieters, the food bank’s chief philanthropy officer. “It’s impressive to me the impact that one person and one gift can make on an individual life and a family.”

The Howard G. Buffet Foundation’s stated aim is to look for opportunities where its funding is the “catalytic capital that seeds sustainable, transformational change.” After an evaluation of numerous countries to identify where best to apply its research and considerable assets, Buffett reached a decision last year, jotting down his 10-year strategic plan on a sheet of paper with the headings “The big idea” and “Rwanda.”

Under the plan, the foundation could spend $100 million this year and upward of $500 million over the term of the project to support agricultural development in the central African nation of Rwanda, which emerged from civil war and genocide two decades ago to become a development standout, characterized by strong economic growth and good governance.

The charity will use its experience and funds to support a government project to irrigate more than 380 square miles of land held by small farmers, Buffett said. In partnership with the Rwandan government, it also plans to establish an agricultural training institute in the country, similar in concept to U.S. land grant universities, which would apply some of the lessons in conservation agriculture learned at the research farm in Arizona and sister projects in Illinois and South Africa by Buffett’s Sequoia Farm Foundation.

“We would have an institution in place that would continue to support agriculture for years to come, and we would have a model that other countries could look at and say, ‘OK, this is where the investments were made. These are the outcomes. This is what we can do.’ The point is it has to be done at scale. It has to be done big,” said Buffett, chatting animatedly as he sipped a Dr Pepper in a meeting room at the farm.

More than half the countries in Africa support climate-smart agricultural practices, including crop rotation and reduced-tillage farming. Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, the head of mission at the Africa-wide Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network in South Africa, said the foundation’s push is “very relevant” to Rwanda, which “is one of the most progressive African countries when it comes to modernizing agriculture.”

She said the government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame was the first to sign the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program in 2007, which aims to eliminate hunger and reduce poverty and is committed to putting 10 percent of the government’s initial budget into agriculture and to growing the sector by 6 percent per year.

“Once you have the right policy framework that Rwanda has, any new program of this nature and scale is set up for success,” she said. “The biggest challenge we’ve always had is trickle investment on small projects. What I like about this is that this is complementing government efforts … and it is long term.” 

Buffett’s foundation is set up to go out of business in 2045, with all its assets dissolved. While it is not clear what degree of success Buffett will have in boosting agriculture in Rwanda or persuading farmers around the world to join the brown revolution in soil management, he believes it is only appropriate that he should take risks.

“We have not succeeded in reducing hunger. We’ve not succeeded in increasing productivity in [any] African country the way we need to. So we’re not getting it right. How do you figure out why you’re not getting it right? You try something different,” he said, setting out how a risk strategy as a philanthropist differs from the assiduous management style at Berkshire Hathaway, where he serves on the board. “I don’t have to go to anybody and say, ‘Well, we had another huge success this year. We did this and this, and everything worked.’ … When you have money like we have and a foundation like we have, that should be the risk capital of philanthropy.”

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