A Test Case in Africa: Howard G. Buffett’s $500 Million Commitment to Rwandan Farmers

Howard G. Buffett, the eldest son of Warren Buffett, is famously on a mission to help the poorest countries of the world feed themselves. Lately, he's been upping the pace of these efforts, along with his financial commitments, and his Sequoia Farm Foundation is a vehicle in that effort. 

An offshoot of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Sequoia, says that it “invests in applied research to improve production practices for smallholder farmers in developing countries in Latin America and Rwanda.”

Sequoia does this work in partnership with agricultural research Universities on several research farms—two in the U.S. and one in South Africa.  

Rwanda is a growing focal point of Sequoia's work. Last year, the foundation announced a 10-year plan to help smallholder farmers in Rwanda. At the time, he attached no monetary promises to the plan. Howard Buffett is pretty well known for making good on his philanthropic promises and true to form, he recently announced that he would be investing $500 million (roughly 350 billion Rwandan francs) in the project.

There are only a few names in the world that can throw around numbers like half-a-billion dollars. Buffett, of course, is one of them.

Related: Howard G. Buffett Plans to Spend $3 billion in Three Decades. But How?

Howard Buffett’s $500 million is the largest investment in Rwanda’s agriculture sector ever. Last year, total investments topped out at just under $18 million, and the sector has attracted around $50 million per year in private investments over the past decade.

The Sequoia Farm Foundation will dole out Buffett’s big give, which is to be used for an irrigation project that will cover over 380 square miles, and to establish an agriculture training institute that is similar to those at U.S.-based universities. Once the institute is established, the hope is that the lessons learned in conservation agriculture at Sequoia’s partner research farms in Arizona and Illinois will be applied to the Rwanda institute.

Related: Howard G. Buffett Foundation: Grants for Global Development

So why Rwanda? Buffett is close to Rwandan president Paul Kagame and considers Rwanda to have one of the “best business environments” in all of Africa, a view shared by others. It's also long been committed to bolstering its agricultural practices, and was the first African country to sign the Africa Agriculture Development Programme. So there's definitely some energy in Rwanda behind efforts to take agriculture to the next level. 

Still, this effort is definitely a risk. But, as we've noted in the past, Buffett is a funder who is comfortable embracing risk. As he's said: 

We have not succeeded in reducing hunger. We’ve not succeeded in increasing productivity in [any] African country the way we need to. So we’re not getting it right. How do you figure out why you’re not getting it right? You try something different. When you have money like we have and a foundation like we have, that should be the risk capital of philanthropy.

Sequoia plans to roll out the first $100 million of Buffett’s $500 million commitment later this year.