Please mr. Bill Gates. Can we talk?

My compliments go to Bill Gates and his foundation for all their efforts for the benefit of smallholder farmers. I, however, think a slightly different approach would bring his respectable intentions closer. With this open letter, I want to invite him for a journey to smallholder heroes. Or at least a talk.

Dear Mr. Bill Gates,

Climate in Ethiopia (letter to Bill Gates) © Marc van der Sterren, Farming Africa

Since many years I have been following your foundation. You seem truly motivated to support smallholder farmers. The most recent example is this press release, in which your Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announces to spend over €250 million to help smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia cope with climate change.

I admire your vision on smallholder farmers. Too little people in this world acknowledge the gravity of the matter, and the important role small scale family farmers play in alleviating hunger and tackling climate change.

It’s highly commendable to focus on three areas, as your message mentions: Crop Improvement, Crop Protection, and Crop Management.

However, in my humble opinion, I think the draft and results of your plan will deviate a bit from your focus and vision and your respectable intentions. I would suggest to ad a fourth area: empowerment of smallholder farmers through knowledge.

When you, for example, mention that poor farmers need ‘the most innovative tools and technologies to adapt to the effects of climate change’, you are absolutely right. But you forget to mention those tools and technologies need to be comprehensible and accessible for smallholder farmers.

Genetic Engineering

You talk about ‘Crop Improvement’ and ‘Crop Protection’ by ‘producing breakthrough varieties’. But you don’t mention the local varieties and even local crops that are adapted already to the local situation. Crops that already use water and nutrients efficiently and are already improved with traditional breeding technics.

Yes, also genetic engineering can solve those problems. But not without expensive scientific knowledge which increases the costs of production and with that the prices of food and the dependency of smallholder farmers to an agricultural system led by agro-multinationals.

And when you talk about ‘combining big data with robotics to scan large fields of crops’ you seem to forget completely the interests of smallholder farmers.

Carbon Emissions

Climate solutions in Ethiopia (letter to Bill Gates) © Marc van der Sterren, Farming Africa

Your press release mentions correctly that smallholder farmers play a negligible role in generating carbon emissions while they suffer some of the harshest effects of climate change. The agribusiness and big agricultural companies on the other hand, totally dependent on fossil fuels. With that, they are one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Therefore, an approach more directly focussed on the smallholder family farmer and his (or more often: her) needs will be more effective, so I think.

Somehow, I can totally understand your decisions. As one of the wealthiest people on this planet, you must be constantly approached by professionals with a lot of knowledge and influence and moreover: who know how to approach and convince you.

Those people will not be the small scale family farmers. They will not be the hungry people or the children who suffer from malnutrition. And if you reach them, it will be through scientists or lobbyists who do have good intentions, but intentions that go with their own interests.

Let me tell you: the interests of smallholder farmers and big agribusinesses are not the same. The interest of the farmer lies in making an income with growing food, while the interest of the agribusiness lies in making money by making farmers produce food.


The interest of big agricultural companies lies in producing as much food as possible. The hungry people, however, cannot afford to buy this food. The interest of smallholder farmers, in contrary, lies more in the line of the hungry people, because they are for an important part the same people. As your press release mentions: Roughly 800 million of the poorest people in Africa and Asia rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.

Smarter Farmers
Read and join the interactive essay SMARTER FARMERS

A focus directly on those smallholder farmers should be a focus on empowerment. Empowerment through knowledge. Or, as I describe in my essay Smarter Farmers:

With the empowerment of smallholder family farmers through providing them access to independent information we can end hunger, reach all 17 Sustainable Development Goals and Africa can become the world’s breadbasket.


Please Mr. Gates. I want to draw your attention to this essay. But I also would like to have a talk with you and discuss this thesis and especially your plans.

Agricultural heroes

Small scale family farmers produce food for the poor in Ethiopia (letter to Bill Gates) © Marc van der Sterren, Farming Africa

And now we are talking freely: let me invite you to some African friends of mine. Some real smallholder farmers and some demonstration farms empowering those smallholder farmers. I would love to introduce you to some agricultural heroes in Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, and South-Africa who work on this empowerment on grassroots level and who bring the latest innovations and technologies directly to those smallholder farmers.

Please, Mr. Gates. I want to invite you on a journey to places where the future of healthy food, the future of a flourishing countryside and the future of a healthy planet gets created by wise, educated, modern smallholder farmers.

© Farming Africa, Marc van der Sterren

Please read my essay Smarter Farmers
And read more about agricultural heroes:
Yinka Adesola: ‘Farming is also marketing’
Simon Wachieni: ‘Cities need Small Farmers’
Harald Peeters: ‘Local Seed slows down development’
Melesse Temesgen: Ethiopian plow wins 25.000 US Dollar


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