C.D. Glin, associate director in The Rockefeller Foundation's East Africa office, during a session at the 2013 Devex International Development Partnerships Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, on Oct. 16. Photo by: Jonathan Kalan / Devex

It’s going to be a big year for The Rockefeller Foundation in Africa.

On the foundation’s to-do list is unlocking tens of thousands of digital jobs for African youth, improving food security by taking a harder look at supply chains and of helping several countries better define universal health care.  

“This year has been a year of refining our understanding of the country landscapes and building the necessary partnerships; I see 2014 as the year of implementation,” said Mamadou Biteye, managing director of the foundation in Africa.

The Rockefeller Foundation has funded research and initiatives that have fueled change in Africa for more than 80 years. A quick look in the archives will show that all yellow fever vaccines manufactured today are based on research funded by the foundation beginning in 1913; the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture can trace its roots to Rockefeller; and Rockefeller-funded studies in the 70s led to policy framework opposing the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Innovation, risk-taking and building strong partnerships have been an integral part of their strategy, and one thing is certain: The foundation’s potential to support change in Africa remains great as long as the continent craves it, said C.D. Glin, associate director based in Rockefeller’s Nairobi office.

Africa is a continent that innovates based upon necessity, Glin said. Mobile technology, unique financial transfer systems and agricultural ingenuity have driven the continent forward, and Africa’s needs aren’t the same as they were 80 or even 10 years ago, Glin said.

“Africans aren’t staying put or staying stagnant,” he said. “And neither is the foundation.”

Supporting digital jobs

Innovation doesn’t have to mean a completely new idea. For The Rockefeller Foundation, it often means supporting research to build on what already works, and pivoting from there to focus in one of its four initiative areas: revalue ecosystems, secure livelihoods, transform cities and advance health.

Rockefeller’s strategy is to capitalize on existing community and implementer interest in an issue. Using that momentum — and knowing when a little support can spur catalytic change — allows the foundation to be more strategic about its work.

“We don’t pretend that we’re going to do everything,” said Eme Essien Lore, associate director in the Africa regional office. “We recognize that there are certain issues that are better addressed by other foundations or NGOs.”

But several years ago, Rockefeller decided it could address the “tinder box of young people who were under or unemployed,” Lore said. Research into untapped employment sectors showed the business process outsourcing sector was a potential engine of growth and jobs in the digital economy could provide young people with a whole suite of skills, from problem solving to conflict management.

So Digital Jobs Africa was born. Officially launched in May 2013, this is an initiative Biteye refers to as one that will see ramped up activity in the next year. To do it, Rockefeller will look for innovative solutions to take the project to scale.

Currently in six African countries, Rockefeller’s work in the future will involve engagement with stakeholders and the private sector to find out what it would take for them to adopt more inclusive hiring practices, she said.

Mainstreaming climate change research in agriculture

The Rockefeller team will also facilitate important conversations in another focus area: agriculture, specifically around post-harvest waste and spoilage in the food value chain.

“We are investing heavily in research and exploration to better figure out the link between smallholder farmers and buyers,” Glin shared, noting the answer might be in supporting more farm or near-farm processing so less food is lost in transportation the way.

The history of Rockfeller’s work in Africa’s agriculture sector is “long and strong,” said Glin, who oversees those initiatives now.

One example is the foundation’s work to mainstream climate change research in African agriculture in the form of index-based weather insurance.

“If you can ensure yourself against drought and heavy rainfall, you can take more risk. But what if smallholder farmers can’t afford insurance?” he asked.

Along with Oxfam, the U.N. World Food Program and several other partners, Rockefeller developed a program for farmers to monetize their own labor — as long as they show quality management of natural resources — to enable them to pay their insurance premiums.

Now called the R4 Rural Resilience Initiative, the project has been scaled from 200 people in a village in Ethiopia to 20,000 people and now replicated in Senegal.

Previous work in the sector culminated in the creation of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, an Africa-based and African-led organization charged with increasing the productivity and profitability of small-scale farms throughout Africa.

Currently a standalone organization, AGRA is the mark of a successful project, Glin said.

Glin puts Rockefeller’s selection of initiatives like this: “If we build it, will people come? If they do, can it change the game?”

Mwihaki Kimura Muraguri, associate director in charge of health programs, added that risk-taking is where Rockefeller really has the ability to stand apart from other funding foundations.

“Because we’re more of an institution that has an appetite for risk, we’re able to invest in elements that a lot of other institutions wont be able to,” she said.

Paving the way for universal health care


In the health sector, the foundation is currently helping build a global measurement framework for countries to decide how they want to measure and pursue universal health care.

Rockefeller’s flexibility and room to learn from failures has been key with this initiative, Muraguri said.

“For a lot of donors, by the time they come to an agreement, everything an implementer is supposed to do is mapped out,” she said.

But Rockefeller operates in a way that recognizes that every country and context is different, she said, and the path that it will take to reach a given result in Tanzania is not going to be the same in Zambia. The flexibility has enabled them to research priorities in making both political and technical choices – should an insurance package cover immunization? What about childhood diseases? – to guide countries who wish to improve their health care.

This flexibility also allowed them to take a new look at the traditional way that disease reporting is done. Instead of reports of H1N1 or bird flu going to the regional office and then headquarters of the World Health Organization, reports can now go straight to a country border in Africa, where residents most urgently need to know.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others are now investing in those networks Rockefeller was able to build at cross border points, she said.

“A measure of success for Rockefeller is when something is sustainable, entrenched in the society and other institutions see it as something worth supporting,” she noted.

In its centennial year, The Rockefeller Foundation is releasing a series of books that document their history in various sectors.

“It’s been humbling learning the tenacity of people who have come before me, what they have been able to do,” Muraguri said. “The potential here is like being in a development candy store.”

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About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.