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2015 Gates Annual letter Our Big Bet
for the Future
Bill and Melinda Gates

Forty years ago, Bill and his childhood friend Paul Allen bet that software and personal computers would change the way people around the world worked and played. This bet wasn't exactly a wager. It was an opportunity to make computers personal and empower people through the magic of software. Some people thought they were nuts. But the bet turned out well.

 

Fifteen years ago, the two of us made a similar bet. We started our foundation in 2000 with the idea that by backing innovative work in health and education, we could help dramatically reduce inequity. The progress we've seen so far is very exciting — so exciting that we are doubling down on the bet we made 15 years ago, and picking ambitious goals for what's possible 15 years from now.

 

Our Big Bet

The lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. And their lives will improve more than anyone else's.

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Our Big Bet

We see an opportunity and we want to make the most of it.

We're putting our credibility, time, and money behind this bet — and asking others to join us — because we think there has never been a better time to accelerate progress and have a big impact around the world.

Some will say we're irrational to make this bet too. A skeptic would look at the world's problems and conclude that things are only getting worse. And we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that a handful of the worst-off countries will continue to struggle.

Bill and Melinda Gates in Tanzania
When we travel, we meet with people to learn what they need to live a healthy, productive life. Mapinga, Tanzania, 2011

But we think the next 15 years will see major breakthroughs for most people in poor countries. They will be living longer and in better health. They will have unprecedented opportunities to get an education, eat nutritious food, and benefit from mobile banking. These breakthroughs will be driven by innovation in technology — ranging from new vaccines and hardier crops to much cheaper smartphones and tablets — and by innovations that help deliver those things to more people.

The rich world will keep getting exciting new advances too, but the improvements in the lives of the poor will be far more fundamental — the basics of a healthy, productive life. It's great that more people in rich countries will be able to watch movies on super hi-resolution screens. It's even better that more parents in poor countries will know their children aren't going to die.

A quick overview of the bet we’re making about the next 15 years

A quick overview of the bet we’re making about the next 15 years.

It is fair to ask whether the progress we're predicting will be stifled by climate change. The most dramatic problems caused by climate change are more than 15 years away, but the long-term threat is so serious that the world needs to move much more aggressively — right now — to develop energy sources that are cheaper, can deliver on demand, and emit zero carbon dioxide. The next 15 years are a pivotal time when these energy sources need to be developed so they'll be ready to deploy before the effects of climate change become severe. Bill is investing time in this work personally (not through our foundation) and will continue to speak out about it.

We're excited to see how much better the world will be in 15 years. Here are some of the breakthroughs we see coming.

Farming — Africa will be able to feed itself

Two: Farming Africa will be able to feed itself Bill and Melinda Gates

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Every second Joyce Sandiya isn't tending her crops, she's volunteering at church.

So when Melinda visited Tanzania in 2012, Joyce spoke to her with the zeal of a preacher giving a sermon. That year, for the first time, Joyce had planted a new kind of maize seed, bred to tolerate drought. When drought came, most of her crops withered and died, but her maize was more productive than ever. She sold the surplus to buy beans and vegetables and other nutritious food for her family, and had money left over to pay her children's school fees. "That seed," she said, "made the difference between hunger and prosperity."

Joyce's story, multiplied by hundreds of millions of African farmers like her, is the reason innovation in agriculture is so important.

Melinda explains how mobile phones will transform both farming and banking for people in poor countries.

Melinda explains how mobile phones will transform both farming and banking for people in poor countries.

Seven out of ten people living in sub-Saharan Africa are farmers. (Compare that to the United States, where the ratio is two out of a hundred.) And yet Africa has to rely on imports and food aid to feed itself. Though it's the poorest continent in the world, it spends about $50 billion a year buying food from rich countries.

This is in part because African farmers get just a fraction of the yields that American farmers get. For example, the average maize yield in Africa is about 30 bushels an acre. In the United States, it's more than five times that.

Africa food import costs: $50 billion annually Source: The World Bank

There's a related problem, which is that the food most Africans eat isn't nutritious or varied enough to make up a healthy diet. For example, many Africans consume starchy staples — maize, rice, or cassava — almost exclusively. As a result, malnutrition runs rampant across a continent of farmers, affecting children's cognitive and physical development and therefore everything from child mortality to how much they can learn in school to the productivity of laborers in the cities.

American farmers get FIVE TIMES as much maize from their land as African farmers do.

Graph showing U.S. production of corn in 2015 at more than 150 bushels per acre as compared to African corn yield at about 30.

In the next 15 years, however, innovations in farming will erase these brutal ironies. The world has already developed better fertilizer and crops that are more productive, nutritious, and drought- and disease-resistant; with access to these and other existing technologies, African farmers could theoretically double their yields. With greater productivity, farmers will also grow a greater variety of food, and they'll be able to sell their surpluses to supplement their family's diet with vegetables, eggs, milk, and meat. With the right investments, we can deliver innovation and information to enough farmers in Africa to increase productivity by 50 percent for the continent overall.

An infographic showing the four keys to agricultural productivity: the proper use of fertilizer, crop rotation, timing and planting techniques.

Agricultural extension, the process by which farmers get information — what seeds to plant, how to rotate crops to protect their soil, how to get the best prices at market — is complicated and expensive. Traditionally, it requires highly trained agricultural experts who know the local language and local crops in every region of vast countries. Agricultural extension also tends to be geared toward male farmers (for example, it may focus on the crops that men tend to grow), even though women do at least half of the farm labor in Africa. This is one reason women farmers are kept from being as productive as men, even when they have equal access to seeds and fertilizer. Investing in extension so that it helps more farmers in more places — women as well as men, smallholders as well as more commercial farmers — is the only way to reap the full benefit of innovation. One promising trend is that, as more farmers have access to mobile phones, they will be able to receive all sorts of information, from weather reports to current market prices — via text messages.

We need to reach as many farmers as possible, because the challenges farmers face are growing more difficult. Population growth in Africa means they'll have 200 million more people to feed. And over time, climate change will make farming more difficult, with more droughts and more floods. Bigger variations in the weather will mean both more bumper crops and more poor harvests — which makes raising productivity and improving food storage crucial. If farmers can grow and store more food, they'll be in a better position to ride out the lean years.

There are other limitations besides productivity that keep Africa from feeding itself. The lack of infrastructure across the continent, for example, means that it's almost impossible to move food to the places it needs to go. (The most extreme case: The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the size of Western Europe, with a population of more than 60 million, but it has fewer than 2,000 miles of paved roads — the same amount as any middle-sized Western European town.) Trading within the region can be so difficult that it's often easier to fly food in from other continents than to drive it a couple hundred miles.

But countries are building better roads. Ghana has recently cut travel time through its interior by two thirds, simply by widening the highway that connects its agricultural heartland to the airport and seaports. Countries like Senegal are removing the constant checkpoints that make overland transportation so burdensome.

In the next 15 years, innovations in farming could enable African farmers to increase their yields by half

Vegetables for sale near Morogoro, Tanzania /Frederic Courbet Graph showing African corn yield projections from 29 bushels per acre in 2000 to 48.9 bushels per acre in 2030.

By growing more varied and nutritious food and getting it to the people who need it at the right time, Africa can achieve food security by 2030. It will still import food when it makes sense to do so, but it will also export much more, eventually achieving a net positive trade balance. Famine will strike less often — and when it does, it will be African countries that take care of the response.

One of the current memes in development is "Africa Rising." Improving agriculture, the backbone of the African economy, can drive massive poverty reduction and improve life across the continent.

By 2030, farmers in Africa will get 50 percent more food from their land. Here’s how.

By 2030, farmers in Africa will get 50 percent more food from their land. Here’s how.