The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has long been a major player in the nonprofit world, serving as a grant-making foundation to tackle global challenges. But while much of its work has been praised internationally, there are also several controversial areas in which the Gates Foundation has been involved. Here are 12 things you didn’t know about the Gates Foundation in Africa.
Sources: GatesFoundation.org, BusinessInsider.com, Independent.co.uk, ReCode.net, NYTimes.com, Economist.com
When the they first traveled to Africa in 1993, Bill was working at Microsoft but had not yet reached the lofty position he is in today. They realized that the cutting-edge technology they were developing in the U.S. was not available in Africa, but that technological innovation was wholly applicable to fighting the unique challenges on the continent.
Bill Gates has said, “The principal focus of our foundation is on health. We believe that if children are healthy, they can learn, become educated, start businesses, improve their farms, and help their families prosper.”
The Gates Foundation became one of the biggest organizations donating to fight the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, giving tens of millions of dollars to accelerate the evaluation of treatments. The organization also used the Ebola epidemic to reaffirm its commitment to ensuring primary health care access for everyone, the absence of which proved critical for the massive spread of the Ebola outbreak.
One of the foundation’s grantees is the Coffee Initiative, implemented by TechnoServe, which works to empower smallholder coffee farmers in East Africa. The initiative helps farmers earn higher incomes by entering the supply chain for specialty coffee. Under the initiative, farmers receive premiums on what they harvest, earning more for their families with the aim of eventually lifting themselves out of poverty.
Beyond its grant-making capacity, the Gates Foundation has directly invested in CureVac, taking a stake in the company. CureVac is a biopharmaceutical company that works on technology to produce vaccines quickly, cheaply, and more effectively. The Gates Foundation has made vaccines one of its highest focal points since its inception.
CureVac is developing technology that allows the body to create its own proteins to fight cancer and infectious diseases through biomolecule mRNA. At the moment, the company has a prostate cancer therapy in phase 2 of development, and it’s moving more into infectious disease work, especially with the support from the Gates Foundation.
CureVac is not the only direct investment the Gates Foundation has made in recent years – the foundation has made more than a dozen direct equity investments in companies under the umbrella of program-related investing. In this way, they are able to gain access to technology and direct its usage towards needy populations. Companies are often accused of bypassing the needs of the poor in favor of higher profits.
HIV was always a major area of concentration for the Gates Foundation, and the high prevalence of the infection in sub-Saharan Africa made the region the primary focus. The foundation is attempting to develop new tools to fight the pandemic – especially to develop a safe and effective vaccine to reduce the global incidence of AIDS.
In Uganda, the Gates Foundation has supported a genetically modified food project to create a new version of the matooke, a starchy variety of banana that serves as a major staple crop in the region. The matooke has been the victim of devastating banana leaf wilt that destroyed a critical mass of the crop. The GM project aims to create a modified version that cannot be killed by the disease.
Though the goal of the Gates Foundation’s GM project is supported, many people are extremely opposed to GM crops for a variety of reasons. Some groups believe that GM crops are unsafe and have not undergone sufficient testing, and that there are other, more proven methods to combat banana leaf wilt. Others believe that the project is a “Trojan horse” for multinational companies to enter the African agricultural markets under the pretense of charity.
Many see the banana project as an entry point for GM companies to get a piece of the African market. They are suspicious of the Gates Foundation’s support. Bridget Mugambe, a leader from the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, said, “I see the banana as an entry point for other GMOs that are intended to make money – like cotton. But they need an entry and they feel the banana is that kind of entry….(Nonprofit organizations) put money into something where they expect to reap some kind of profit.”
The Gates Foundation’s project in Uganda remains heavily restricted. The plantation where the genetically modified crops are being grown are surrounded by seven-foot steel fences topped with barbed wire. The security is partly to protect the technology, but more to prevent the crops from entering the wild. Those opposed to GM are lobbying the Ugandan parliament to refuse legislation that would allow the fences to be removed and the crops made available for farmers to grow freely.
The Gates Foundation has country representatives based in Ethiopia, Nigeria, and South Africa to deepen their relationships with non-government organizations on the ground in both the public and private sectors.