January 15

Scott Anderson / Kyle Poplin / James Militzer

Weekly Roundup: Big Upside of Small Farmers; Using the Bully Pulpit to Fight a Bully; It’s Good to Be Ultra-Rich

Competing for Farmers’ (Eyeballs)

What if some of the most marginalized people on the planet – the proverbial “smallholder farmers” with a small plot and an even smaller number of livestock – could command the attention of powerful telecom and technology players?

Here’s another question: What if it’s already happening?

Perhaps you saw this week’s post from Kenny Ewan, the founder and CEO of WeFarm, a social enterprise that uses an SMS-based platform for farmers to ask questions and receive crowdsourced answers from other farmers around the world.

Marketing SMS notifications to farmers is a growing business. Last month, Ignitia, which provides GPS-specific weather forecasts to mostly smallholder farmers, announced it had joined the Business Call to Action, a multilateral alliance of development organizations. Like WeFarm, Ignitia also harnesses SMS texting. It sends out two-day, monthly and seasonal forecasts to customers who are charged the equivalent of U.S. 4 cents per day for the service. The company has committed to providing tropical weather forecasts to 1.2 million small-scale farmers in West Africa by the end of 2017. Each “iska” forecast, as the company markets it, is specifically geared to a farmer’s location through an automated application that grabs the GPS coordinates for each subscriber. iska is delivered through a partnership with telecom giant MTN in Ghana and with other telecommunications partners across West Africa.

According to Ignitia, the fee typically adds up to less than 2 percent of a farmer’s total expenditure on inputs over the course of a season. That may not sound like much, either to the farmer or as revenue for the company, for that matter. But when you consider there are about half a billion smallholder farmers worldwide, vying for their clicks is very much a scalable business.

There is strength in numbers, and with those kinds of numbers, there’s also plenty of market power.

– Scott Anderson


challenge might be just what the doctor ordered


U.S. President Barack Obama set tongues wagging in the world of global health on Tuesday with his final State of the Union address.

Of course, since it involved politics, the speech was controversial. The president gave too much credit, said many, to the role the U.S. played in stopping the spread of Ebola in West Africa. He talked about ”our military, our doctors and our development workers,” drastically underselling the efforts of many others around the world – including West Africans themselves, who endured a disease that killed 11,000 people over two years.

But, bragging aside, at least he used his bully pulpit to shine a spotlight on global health. And he didn’t stop at Ebola. He committed the U.S. to a “moonshot” against cancer that could have a dramatic impact in developing countries. (An ugly truth via The Economist: “Cancer kills more people in poor countries than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.”)

Moonshots recall those days when the U.S. and Russia were in a space race. That competition led to a remarkable result: The U.S. put a man on the moon. It was a masterstroke by Obama to cast the fight against cancer in terms of moonshots and competition – those are concepts any market-based enterprise can understand and use as motivation. We’re optimistically envisioning a sudden surge in innovations surrounding a disease that is expected to kill 13 million people a year by 2030.

– Kyle Poplin


Are mega-philanthropists too powerful?


It seems that every week brings headlines about major new philanthropic efforts from the ultra-rich – the latest involve a $31 million gift from Sheryl Sandberg and a $100 million donation from Netflix founder Reed Hastings. And the largesse is likely to keep flowing: According to The Guardian, the world’s 27 largest foundations give around $15 billion to charitable causes each year, and 137 billionaires from 14 countries have pledged to give significant parts of their fortunes to philanthropic causes. On first blush, this seems like a reason to tip your hat in gratitude to the billionaires among us – they could certainly use some cheering up.

But a major report released late last year complicates the picture. According to “Philanthropic Power and Development: Who shapes the agenda?,” a report from the independent Global Policy Forumall this money raises serious questions. As the report puts it, “Through the sheer size of their grant-making, personal networking and active advocacy, large global foundations, most notably the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have played an increasingly active role in shaping the agenda-setting and funding priorities of international organizations and governments.”

This influence has skewed priorities in poor countries, the report says, pushing NGOs and even governments toward more “market-based, techno-fix solutions” to complex global problems like hunger and health care, while weakening the UN and undermining national development strategies. It even highlights a darker accusation: that “under the guise of eliminating hunger in Africa, (the Gates/Rockefeller-led agriculture initiative) AGRA is a tool to open African markets to U.S. agro-business.”

The report certainly raises some valuable points, and it’s essential to have a transparent discussion of the benefits and potential conflicts of interest of major philanthropists’ growing influence – Mark Zuckerberg’s efforts to bring free Internet to developing countries being just one problematic example. Yet it’s also clear that few people approach global development issues from an entirely neutral standpoint, and even fewer give away large sums of money without some underlying agenda. In fact, the Global Policy Forum report was financed by two German church groups – entities that likely have their own reasons for objecting to the priorities of donors like the Gates Foundation. Even if their money comes with strings attached, it still seems like a net positive that the world’s billionaires are shelling out.

– James Militzer


Photos courtesy of WeFarm.

Health Care, Technology
philanthropy, telecommunications