Exclusive: Gates Foundation launches new agriculture-focused nonprofit

Farmers at work in a crop field in Kilosa, Tanzania. Photo by: Mitchell Maher / International Food Policy Institute / CC BY-NC-ND

SAN FRANCISCO — The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is creating a new nonprofit to bring scientific breakthroughs to smallholder farmers whose yields are threatened by the effects of climate change.

“In agriculture, time is your biggest enemy.”

— Rodger Voorhies, president, Global Growth & Opportunity division, Gates Foundation

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Agricultural Innovations, or Gates Ag One, will be based in St. Louis, Missouri, and led by Joe Cornelius, who is currently a director within the foundation’s Global Growth & Opportunity division.

The new entity will work with the Gates Foundation’s Agricultural Development Team and other partners across sectors to accelerate the development of innovations that are needed to improve crop productivity and help smallholder farmers, the majority of whom are women, adapt to climate change.

While smallholder farmers are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, the private sector is not incentivized to bring promising early-stage discovery to development in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, said Rodger Voorhies, president at the Gates Foundation’s Global Growth & Opportunity division.

“We didn’t think that research was flowing down to the crops that matter most to smallholder farmers in a timeframe that could reach them,” he said.

Gates Ag One plans to work with partners from the public and private sector to commercialize resilient, yield-enhancing seeds and traits, Voorhies told Devex in an exclusive interview sharing details on the new nonprofit entity.

“We needed to accelerate the access to the kinds of products and services that low-income people and smallholder farmers need in order to protect their livelihoods and enhance their productivity in a different environment,” he said.

Bill Gates, who personally invests in climate change mitigation through efforts such as a clean energy innovation fund called Breakthrough Energy Ventures, asked colleagues at the foundation to explore what more they could be doing on climate change adaptation.

He leads the Global Commission on Adaptation together with Ban Ki-moon, former United Nations secretary-general, and Kristalina Georgieva, managing director at the International Monetary Fund.

Gates Ag One is part of the Gates Foundation’s response to the Year of Action launched by the commission in 2019.

“In agriculture, time is your biggest enemy,” Voorhies said.

Research and development takes years to get from the lab to the field, and while the Agricultural Development team funds the development of new tools and technologies designed to meet the needs of smallholder farmers, there were delays in translating these discoveries to affordable products.

“We didn’t think that research was flowing down to the crops that matter most to smallholder farmers in a timeframe that could reach them,” Voorhies said.

Gates Ag One is a subsidiary of the Gates Foundation, much like the Gates Medical Research Institute, which launched in 2018 to address some of the same issues of translation from the lab to the field in global health. The foundation has a high bar to create new subsidiaries, Voorhies explained.

Staff considered and pursued a number of strategies to address the goal of ensuring research and development can meet the needs of smallholder farmers in a changing climate, for example doubling funding for CGIAR, a network of independent research centers that make up the world’s largest global agricultural research organization.

But ultimately the Gates Foundation did not see another way to ensure that early-stage discoveries, such as water use efficiency for crops that will face extremes of droughts and floods, are made accessible and affordable to smallholder farmers as quickly as possible.

“We decided that setting up a new entity that was tied to values of foundation but has some freedom in the business model might be the right way to approach it,” Voorhies said.  

Some details are still coming together, from the annual operating budget to the product development pipeline, he said, but the Gates Foundation will prioritize affordability for smallholder farmers as they decide what new product development channels to support.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.