The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation says it is investing $48 million and private corporations are chipping in another $42 million to help small-scale farmers in Africa work themselves out of poverty and hunger by improving the way they grow cocoa and cashews.
The foundation's director of agricultural development cited the importance of the effort because the majority of people who live in extreme poverty depend on agriculture for both food and income.
"We hope to move more than 1.5 million people out of poverty in a relatively short time frame," Dr. Rajiv Shah said Wednesday.
Among the companies giving cash and in-kind contributions to help with the cocoa and cashew project are The Hershey Co., Kraft Foods Inc., Mars Inc., Archer Daniels Midland Co., Cargill Inc., Armajaro, Olam International Ltd., and Starbucks Corp.
Cocoa is West Africa's largest agricultural export and accounts for 70 percent of the world's supply.
The Gates Foundation has committed $23 million to the World Cocoa Foundation to administer the cocoa project. It will hire local scientists, agriculture outreach workers and educators to help the farmers.
"We have learned that African farmers will listen to other Africans," Shah said. "Even corporate sponsors with Western names hire local people to work on the ground."
The cocoa project hopes to increase farmers' income by improving their knowledge and productivity, cocoa quality, crop diversification and supply chain efficiency.
Improving their growing and processing technology, including getting access to fertilizer and knowing how to use it, could significantly impact cocoa farm production in West Africa, Shah said.
Most African farmers have little or no contact with people who can help them grow more efficiently, like agriculture extension workers in the United States.
"We're talking about millions of farm households," Shah said. "Their level of contact with experts is very minimal. Those types of systems we take for granted in the United States and (in) the developing world don't exist."
The foundation also will assist the farmers in forming cooperatives to help them get a better price for their product.
The new grants are aimed at helping about 200,000 cocoa farmers in Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria in West Africa over the next five years, Shah said. The foundation hopes to help those farmers double their income by 2013.
A grant of $25 million to the German development organization Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit will support the cashew project, which aims to help 150,000 small-scale cashew farmers in Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Mozambique increase their incomes by 50 percent by 2012.
Africa produces about a third of the world's cashews, but most of the nuts are shipped to Vietnam or India for processing, said Richard Rogers, a foundation program manager in the area of global development.
Although the plan to move processing back to Africa may result in a loss of jobs in Asia, Rogers said the people in those countries are on the path out of poverty due to growth in many industries.
"Africa is caught in a cycle of poverty they are unable to break out of," he said.
African farmers pay the price for this market inefficiency in the form of lower prices for their crops. Building African processing capacity will help farmers and create jobs.
Shah said the underlying goal of the projects is to increase the amount of money farmers are reinvesting in their children, through education and nutrition.
Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, lead the nation's largest charitable foundation, which focuses most of its donations on global health, agriculture development and education. Since 1994, the foundation has committed to $19.9 billion in grants.
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