Shoo Fly! Gates Gives Big to End Whitefly Pandemics in Africa

The Gates Foundation has been investing in Africa’s agriculture for some time with the dual goals of increasing food security and lifting millions of people out of poverty. The foundation has developed relationships with key allies in its African agro work over those years. One of those allies is the University of Greenwich, which has received millions of dollars in Gates support to fight the cassava virus pandemics caused by the tiny but powerful whitefly. This problem is especially acute in Uganda, Tanzania, and Malawi.

The latest Gates grant to the university along these lines is for over $1.4 million. The university will also conduct research into what is driving these flies to become "super-abundant" in parts of Africa.

Related: Seed Money: Behind the Gates Foundation’s Big Agricultural Grant to Cornell

Africa is home to some of the top cassava-producing countries in the world. As one can imagine, a scourge of diseased and blighted plants caused by the whitefly can have overwhelmingly devastating effects on families who rely on this tuber as a staple food crop, and for their livelihoods as well. Additionally, once a major crop like cassava suffers from widespread failure, local and even national economies can be dramatically impacted. In fact, production losses in nine cassava-producing countries in Africa have increased to an estimated 47 percent, resulting in economic losses of over $125 billion.

Though most of us have likely never even heard of the whitefly, the Gates Foundation has been pouring millions in grant dollars into fighting the spread of the whitefly-borne cassava virus for a few years, now.

Related: Moo! The Gates Foundation Helps CARE Create Sustainable Livelihoods for Dairy Farmers

Beginning in 2012, the Gates Foundation stepped rather tentatively into its whitefly eradication work, awarding just two $100,000 grants. One was awarded to the University of Greenwich for its biocontrol agent work. The other grant went to the John Innes Centre for its work studying genes that target whitefly survival and reproduction. The following year, Gates upped the ante, investing over $920,000—of which over $880,000 went to the University of Greenwich—in whitefly-related research work.

It wasn’t until 2014 that the foundation became really serious about reducing the spread of whitefly-borne cassava virus pandemics. That year, Gates awarded the University of Greenwich a grant for over $17 million in support of its research work.

This may seem like an odd focus for significant Gates grantmaking, but it isn’t, since there hasn’t been a whole lot of study conducted on the whitefly. Breakthroughs in controlling whitefly-borne cassava virus could lead to increased food and economic security for the millions of people who rely on cassava crops to feed their families and pay their bills. Which means that Gates money could turn out to be extremely well spent, here. These whitefly studies are exactly the type of projects that the foundation likes to support.