At a glance
- Agriculture is the main source of income for several hundred million people around the world who struggle with poverty and hunger, most of whom are connected to small-scale, or smallholder, farms—plots of land roughly the size of a soccer pitch or American football field.
- We invest in agriculture across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia because research shows that growth in the agricultural sector is the most effective way to reduce poverty and hunger.
- Smallholder farmers in these regions, who collectively supply most of the population’s food, are incredibly resourceful in the face of challenges but need new options for sustainably producing and selling a wide array of crop and livestock products, especially as climate change rapidly intensifies the stresses they face.
- Evidence shows that with the right kinds of support, smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia can tap the power of food production to create a better life for their families and improve their communities while providing local consumers with reliable access to healthy, affordable food.
- Our investments in agriculture play an important role in the foundation’s broader effort to empower women and girls with economic opportunities.
We support inclusive agricultural development with three main types of investments:
- We invest in tools and technologies that target the specific needs of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. We support innovations that are informed by the unique diversity of crops and livestock they produce and the wide range of soil and climate conditions they encounter. We ensure that the innovations our partners produce—such as climate-smart crop varieties, livestock vaccines, and digital soil maps—are delivered as “global public goods.” This means they are affordable and accessible to all who need them.
- We invest in public- and private-sector efforts to develop more effective systems for delivering products and services to smallholder farmers. We fund government endeavors to develop and implement detailed agricultural development strategies that include clear milestones for progress. In the private sector, we partner with agricultural enterprises, such as socially conscious financial and livestock service providers, that help smallholder farmers operate their farms as sustainable businesses.
- We invest in developing and scaling up innovative support structures for smallholder food producers that provide new options for sustainably earning a reliable income from their hard work. We fund public- and private-sector initiatives such as community self-help groups that assist local farmers and livestock keepers in rural India and farmer cooperatives and village-based advisors that assist farmers in West Africa.
Areas of focus
We look to governments to take the lead in developing strategies and priorities, and our investments seek to strengthen their capacity to implement their action plans. For example, we help them collect evidence to support agricultural programs and policies that have proven to be particularly effective for smallholder farmers in Africa.
In the private sector, we partner with local small and medium-sized businesses to scale up innovative ways to serve the needs of smallholder farmers. We also collaborate with larger firms on new ways of incorporating smallholder farmers into their business models.
We are currently working in India to strengthen government capacity in the states of Bihar, Odisha, and Uttar Pradesh to implement agricultural development programs that serve the needs of smallholder producers. This includes helping government officials generate evidence to guide policy development, resource allocation, and strategies that expand market opportunities for smallholder producers.
A key goal of our investments is to accelerate breeding work that can provide new crop varieties with traits that are aligned with local growing conditions and farmer and consumer preferences. Farmers in many countries can wait 20 to 30 years before a new variety becomes available. Ideally, that process should take five to 10 years—especially as farmers seek to adapt to the surge of challenges caused by climate change.
We fund crop science programs that work in close consultation with local farmers so researchers can pursue targeted innovations that are likely to see widespread adoption.
A key priority is to provide farmers with many options for safely and sustainably adapting to the numerous challenges brought about by climate change, such as an increase in droughts, flooding, high temperatures, and an array of crop pests and diseases.
Our investments also focus on maintaining and expanding crop diversity—ensuring that farmers have what they need to provide consumers with a wider menu of options for eating a healthy, sustainable diet.
We also invest in bold new efforts that could sustainably deliver dramatic improvements in agricultural production. For example, we support research that has the potential to boost crop yields by 30 percent or more simply by improving plant photosynthesis—a crop’s natural ability to harvest energy from the sun.
Building sustainable and resilient food systems that produce nutritious crops and livestock products requires a holistic approach that supports many different actors—including farmers, processors, traders, food companies, and retailers.
For example, our investments are helping farmers sustainably produce a broad range of nutritious crops as well as milk, eggs, and other livestock products that are rich in protein and essential micronutrients. Most individuals in low-income countries eat much less meat, milk, and eggs than consumers in wealthy countries. These nutrient-dense products can play a big role in achieving proper nutrition, especially among children.
We also support efforts to develop policies and practices that more efficiently connect farmers to markets, to ensure that consumers have consistent access to an assortment of healthy and affordable foods.
Our work on nutritious food systems is significantly co-financed by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development.
Our medium-term priorities in global policy and advocacy are twofold: 1) to ensure that resources from bilateral donors and the global agricultural financing architecture are aligned with the roadmap for achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and 2) to ensure that donor resources are directed toward generating global public goods and supporting national agricultural development plans that will contribute to achieving SDG 2 (ending hunger) and SDG 2.3 (doubling smallholder productivity and incomes).
For hundreds of millions of families across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, livestock are the most valuable household asset and an irreplaceable source of a nutritious diet, especially for children.
With regional demand for livestock products rapidly growing, access to better feed, breeds, and veterinary services will be critical to managing sustainable production on smallholder farms—as well as ensuring that smallholder livestock can increase household income, improve nutrition, and expand economic opportunities for women.
Our work in this area focuses on animal health, animal production, and animal systems. Our approach to livestock development seeks more effective engagement by global and regional technical entities, more progressive and effective national policies, and a more vibrant private sector that can reliably deliver affordable products and services to smallholder producers.
Digital services can provide new options in the public and private sectors and ensure that subsistence producers can more reliably transition to earning a stable income. Among other things, these services can provide farmers with detailed insights into local soil conditions and crop performance, expand access to financial services and market opportunities, and provide technical support for farm planning and field operations.
Digital farmer services can also be integrated into platforms that generate a steady stream of insights that allow public- and private-sector initiatives to greatly improve their efficacy and efficiency.
Our goal is to ensure that over the next 10 years, at least half of the smallholder famers in our focus geographies have access to and are benefiting from digitally enabled services. Our investments can play a role in advancing cost-effective business models and supporting national and state-level platforms that serve the interests of the public sector, private sector, and smallholder farming communities.
For agricultural transformation to be truly inclusive, women must have equitable opportunities to participate and prosper. Around the world, women play important roles in agriculture, including growing crops and tending livestock. But despite high levels of participation, women have consistently lower productivity than men. The gap is significant—as much as 23 percent in Tanzania and 66 percent in Niger, for example.
While this gap is partly due to cultural circumstances, evidence shows that systemic barriers affect the ability of women farmers to control productive resources and access information, credit, and markets. The consequences include lower farm yields and lower household incomes, as well as less potential to improve family welfare, given that women tend to invest more readily than men in their family’s well-being. Our efforts to empower women farmers therefore magnify our contributions to improving productivity, income, and nutrition outcomes for vulnerable households.
We make two kinds of investments in women’s empowerment, which together help close systematic gender gaps in productivity and access to services, markets, and entrepreneurial opportunities. One is to integrate a gender focus into all of the foundation’s agricultural investment initiatives, and the other is to seek better data to inform government policies and priorities that target the needs of women in agriculture. The latter includes supporting the development of project-level Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (pro-WEAI) metrics to help our grantees rigorously track whether agricultural interventions are effective at empowering women.
Why focus on agricultural development?
Our foundation is driven by the belief that all lives have equal value and that everyone has a right to live a healthy, productive life. We invest in agriculture because around the world, agriculture has a strong track record of providing an effective pathway out of poverty—of giving poor people an opportunity to live a healthy, productive life.
To succeed, smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia don’t need their farms to get big, but they do need to become more productive, using sustainable approaches that respect limits on natural resources and the need to preserve biodiversity and fragile ecosystems. Their crops and livestock are often far less productive than those in other developing regions, and they frequently lack access to market opportunities that can support investments in better inputs, tools, and farming practices. Climate change is steadily adding new challenges.
But the potential for farmer-led progress is substantial. Because agriculture is so pervasive, especially in poor rural areas, growth in this sector is more than twice as effective at reducing poverty as growth in any other sector. Over the past 10 years, agricultural development has played a pivotal role in historic reductions in poverty in Rwanda, Ghana, and Ethiopia. In Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria, every percentage point added to the annual growth of the agriculture sector lifts 6 million people out of poverty. We support smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia because we believe doing so can help them create a better life for their families and benefit their communities and countries.