High quality seeds help farmers increase their income in Uganda. Photo by: USAID / CC BY-NC

DES MOINES, Iowa — For U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green, investments in agriculture are something of a no brainer — in part because he has seen what it’s like for the U.S. to operate in countries without a clear strategy on agriculture and food security.

As ambassador to Tanzania, he experienced operating in the absence of Feed the Future, USAID’s flagship agriculture and food security program, he told Devex in an interview on Thursday. It meant that there were no agriculture officers — and as a result, the work of the U.S. government wasn’t relevant to large parts of the country, he said.

Green describes it as having an “irreplaceable importance” in dealing with the challenges affecting communities and economies, particularly in Africa, and is committed to its future and continued USAID investment in agriculture and food security. He began to outline his priorities and next steps for the initiative in a speech at the Borlaug Dialogue in Iowa on Thursday, and in an interview with Devex.

Green is drawn to Feed the Future because it’s driven by the private sector, which is in line with his priorities to have USAID work more closely, but also differently, with companies moving forward.

To that end, Green announced two new private sector collaborations in his speech. USAID will work with the Syngenta Foundation to get “state of the art” seed varieties to smallholder farmers in Africa. The partnership will help local African agribusinesses secure access to high quality seeds so they can sell them at affordable prices in an effort to “bridge the gap between the labs that develop cutting edge seed varieties and remote farmers and communities so desperate for a high-yielding harvest.”

Green also announced a collaboration with Keurig Green Mountain and Root Capital to support small scale coffee farmers get greater access to credit, learn new business concepts and strategic planning, and connect to markets.

“At USAID, we want to move beyond grantmaking, beyond contracting, and embrace collaboration, co-design, and co-financing,” he said in his speech. Later, in an interview, he added that grantmaking and contracting will still have a place in USAID’s work.

One of the ways USAID will look to engage differently with the private sector is by working with them much earlier in the process. Many companies told Green that they’re not doing more, even when they want to, because they are often approached after a program has been designed, typically in a way that doesn’t work for them.

USAID will launch more calls to action and challenges, while listening and seeing what works. Green told Devex that there are many tools available, and that the U.S. needs to reach out to the whole community to source ideas before designing programs and contracting the work.

Some of those tools have been developed as part of the U.S. Global Development Lab. USAID will look to take the “principles of the lab” across the organization, but Green said he wasn’t sure yet what the lab’s future would be: “We want to take it further,” Green said. “We’re always going to look at how to improve.”

Earlier this year, Green announced the latest evolution in Feed the Future, namely that there will now be 12 target countries, down from the 19 focus countries previously. Those countries were chosen “based objectively on need and opportunity,” Green said. The evaluation measured countries on the level of need, the potential for agricultural-led growth, opportunities for partnerships, opportunities for regional economic integration, U.S. government resource availability and a government commitment to food security investment and policy reform. USAID built indicators around those criteria and chose the 12 countries as a result, although investment in other target countries will also continue.

One of the reasons Feed the Future is narrowing the number of focus countries, Green said, is due to lessons learned from the President’s Malaria Initiative, where a similar effort to focus on specific countries allowed the U.S. government to “double down” where it can have the greatest impact.

One area where the U.S. will also take action is in battling the Fall Armyworm, a pest that Green described as “truly a great challenge to the survival of agriculture in Africa.” The agency is already mobilizing, starting conversations and convenings, and is ready to move forward, Green said.

While he doesn’t have complete certainty about how much the U.S. might invest in eliminating the pest — it originated in North America, and has been controlled effectively in the U.S. — or when the funding will come through, Green said he is “confident that Feed the Future will be adequately resourced and will find resources to play our role in the Fall Armyworm challenge.”

He acknowledged, however, that despite bipartisan support for this work, the uncertain budget environment will continue to create roadblocks.

“We’re anxious to get things going, there are pressing challenges,” he said. “When you have uncertainty, the money doesn’t reach us as early or as quickly as it would, and it has consequences.”

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About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.